After all these years and artistic advancements, photography may still be considered a wayward child of the art world. Often relegated to the specialty margin, it has to fight for its right to be shown.
But the medium has gained a strong foothold in the Ventura County art scene, thanks in large part to the partisan interests of Santa Paulan John Nichols. Nichols' gallery in downtown Santa Paula has become a haven for the photographic cause. As chairman of a selection committee for the Ventura Museum of History and Art, Nichols was also responsible for bringing to the museum "Campaneras de Mexico: Women Photograph Women," a highly commendable selection of works by six women photographers from Mexico.
Meanwhile, back at Nichols' gallery, the striking Cibachrome works of Ventura-based photographer Mark Matthews opened simultaneously with the museum show. Suddenly, there are two photography shows--covering a broad spectrum of the medium's possibilities--that should be considered high on the list of things to see in the area.
Art photography is primarily a male-dominated field, and the prospects of exposure for female artists in far-flung corners of the world (far from Western art centers, that is) are, to say the least, slim. Originally curated by Amy Conger at UC Riverside, the Campaneras de Mexico exhibit aims at evening-up the score on both the gender and ethnic fronts, while focusing specifically on the matter of women's self-image.
A perfect entre into the show, Lola Alvarez Bravo's 1940 portraits of the late Frida Kahlo paint a general picture of the artist that is both intimate and mystical--like Kahlo's paintings. There was an emotional and historical link between Bravo, wife of renowned Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Kahlo, wife of muralist Diego Rivera. As women artists with famous spouses, they struggled for self-expression and a forum.
Lourdes Grobet immerses herself in the relatively new world of female wrestling in Mexico, going behind the scenes and into the ring, where the women writhe themselves into a blur.
Nudes in this show are anything but erotic. Eugenia Vargas' bizarre self-portraits--the most left-of-center work in the show--find her nude body caked with mud to the point of unrecognizability. In one startling image, she calmly urinates on the dusty ground, a primitive being at one with a forbidding landscape. Graciella Iturbide captures a mother nursing, with no self-consciousness about her exposed breast (which might not have been the case had the photographer been a male).
Like Iturbide, Mariana Yampolsky digs into the heart of rural Mexico and creates noble images of peasants, mostly of Indian heritage. Her keen sensitivity to light and composition elevates her work beyond the level of just documentary photography.
My personal favorite here, Laura Cohen, deftly captures a sense of alienation (some shots look like stills from Antonioni films), twisted symbolism and experimentation with form. Often, she deals with the tension of contrasts within a composition--realities versus facades, or visual elements setting up clashing rhythms.
Neatly dressed women clap politely at a bullfight, belying the essential violence of the spectacle. Cut-out photos of women's faces hang in a beauty shop storefront--female role models--next to a young boy's blurred face smashed against the fogged window.
Another image may, in some way, sum up the exhibit's essence. A large nude female statue in a public fountain holds vessels, out of which water flows. This heavy-handed symbol of woman's nurturing role contrasts with the reality of a woman sitting at the base of the fountain, fiddling with her young son's roller skate.
If this show is largely about subjective takes on the reality of Mexican life, Matthews works in a completely different world--one of his own crafty devising. His generally exciting show at John Nichols is dripping with color, and also buzzing with inherent questions about the "how do you do" between art and reality.
This is a show unembarrassed by its celebration of color, densely represented by the Cibachrome process (in which slides are processed directly to positive prints). This is also a show with a schizoid personality.
The artist's main thrust has been to depict floral subjects in highly stylized bound-copper wiring or on obviously artificial painted backdrops. Thus, lovely visions of lilies or other flowers are set into a weird relief. "Red Parrot Tulip" is so florid, you can almost smell it. Fictional scenarios, like the man-in-a-cell tableau of "Blue Man," are reminiscent of the fantastical photographic trend led by Sandy Skoglund.
Matthews' newer work, though, has turned more provocative and politically charged. A hellish aura swirls around "Artifact," an anti-war triptych full of penises and artillery--the toolbox of power. A condom covers a toy commando in "New World Order," thumbing its nose at George Bush's double-edged concept. "Ground Zero" deals with the theme of nuclear dread with a comparatively elegant image, a red orb surrounded by asphalt-covered faces, but boasts a corrugated metal frame that evokes a military presence.
The newer pieces amount to a kind of artistic guerrilla warfare, as if Matthews has traded in the beautiful, hermetic floral realm for hard-edged commentary on war and censorship. He wants to hold up a mirror to global reality rather than dodge its sting by creating an indoor, in-studio alternate reality.
That's all fine and good. Not to take anything away from pressing causes, though, what's so funny about peace, love and well-rendered flowers?
* WHERE AND WHEN
* "Campaneras de Mexico: Women Photograph Women," the work of six Mexican photographers, through June 30 at Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura.
* "Burning Issue: War, Censorship, Flowers," photography by Mark Matthews through June at the John Nichols Gallery, 910 E. Main St., Santa Paula.