ART REVIEW : Lewis Baltz Photos: The Landscape as Scapegoat

TIMES ART CRITIC

An exhibition of Lewis Baltz's photographs just opened at the County Museum of Art. Called "Rule Without Exception," it acts as a sharp reminder of present truth. Humankind has befouled its planetary nest. We've so cruelly besmirched land, sky and water with the effluvium of our waste that we may well have poisoned the well of life beyond redemption.

Sure. Right. We know this so well that journalistic repetition has become its own kind of pollution. Endless duplication reduces crisis to banality making it seem that the way to purify the environment is to just shut up about it. This, of course, is but a reflection of our helpless frustration at being unable to solve the problem. Feeling that, some viewers may deflect guilt to Baltz, resenting him as an ecological nag.

Taking a banal photograph is as easy as pointing the camera and going click. Baltz proves this in a 1967 picture of a motel room. But we already know motel rooms are impersonal, so what's the point? The point is that photographs can deepen meaninglessness, turning ordinary ennui into boredom so suffocating you might blow up and do something about it. Baltz's photographs might be seen as invoking painful boredom to provoke thought, then action.

A 1968 picture records a front page of the San Francisco Chronicle announcing "The Berkeley Crisis." That sounds both exciting and crucial but it doesn't play that way. A photograph of a newspaper inclines one to see the commonplace artifact, not the content. This picture suggests we have to pay attention to both appearance and substance.

Baltz, 46, was born in Newport Beach. By now he's an artist of international note considered worthy of a survey that will travel to Europe and Japan. It was organized by the Des Moines Art Center and is accompanied by a catalogue containing a number of smart, literate essays. The show was handsomely installed here by LACMA curator of photography Robert Sobieszek.

Baltz's career has centered on series of documentary-style photographs of building sites, landfills and corporate environments. The 13 sets on view include some 100 individual images arranged into visual narratives. Among the earliest is the 1974 "New Industrial Park Near Irvine, California." Baltz does not attack frontally like Hans Haacke, but his dead-pan approach leaves little doubt that this is suburban landscape as social and political criticism pointed at the decadent phase of American Expansionism.

He documents the galvanically boring environment created by developers to minimize costs and maximize profit. One image neatly reveals the point by parking a Mercedes-Benz in a dingbat structure. Perusing the low, blank-faced buildings, Baltz said, "Look at that . . . you don't know whether they're manufacturing pantyhose or megadeath."

Point taken. Impersonality, an essential characteristic of the stereotypical corporate mind, is a necessary element of rapacity. Only the bottom line counts.

A slick architectural photographer could make this Alphaville look good. Baltz reveals its soul-crushing blandness by using visual devices drawn from the then-triumphant style of Minimalism. The rigorous reductivism of Donald Judd, Richard Serra and Carl Andre is used to tell us of mind-numbing visual coercion. Viewed one way this could be photography as art criticism. Instead, Baltz cuts to the sociological quick. This use of the land is not evil because it is merely venal, but because it is rational.

The German journalist hero of Wim Wenders' film, "Alice in the Cities," travels the United States in a jalopy taking endless Polaroids of the roadside landscape. It all looks alike to him. Baltz's attitude is uniformly sour and censorious but his themes vary on close inspection. Not all of his oblique, Naderesque denunciations work.

"Park City" (1980) looks at the building of a tract of condominiums at the famous Utah ski resort. It shows us lavalike puddles of leftover concrete, carelessly strewn lightbulb sleeves, the plastic wrapping left on rustic stone fireplaces, the defiled intimacy of unfinished bathrooms. It looks awful but anybody who ever worked construction knows you make a mess when you do manual labor. It gets cleaned up. There's a prissy, fastidious lack of fairness to reality in Baltz's pictures.

Exterior shots make the condos look like a tasteless imposition on the land. But even good buildings go through a phase of appearing too stark before they're softened by landscaping.

Baltz may be right about Park City, but, in the exercise of reformist zeal, he seems to have bushwhacked the project.

He succeeds in elemental revelations like "Near Reno." Here, the awesome desert landscape seems at first to be merely pocked by human litter, tin cans, defunct TVs, bachelor fridges that gave up the ghost. Then there's this shot of a dead sheep and we look twice. All the detritus is riddled with bullet holes. It witnesses to a suppressed rage against stultifying consumer culture.

Baltz makes us see the cancer of culture spreading to destroy nature, fanning out across both oceans: in Norway, a landfill dump that burns constantly like purgatory; in Japan, corporate offices are so antiseptic, workers have to wear clean-room uniforms. How can anybody be human in places like this? In Milan, a parking lot casts a mantle of anonymity over a great historic city, nullifying its rich patina of character. You might as well be in L.A.

Here, the museum commissioned Baltz to do a piece. The artist finally found the generic, off-the-shelf L.A. intersection on Foothill Boulevard next to a crack park. His picture has none of the affection of Ed Ruscha's apartments.

It lacks the Frankenstein thrills of Bernd and Hilla Becher's factory shots. It's just a kind of urban void in which nothing good can thrive.

Baltz refuses to distract us by being overly arty. He prosecutes his case deadpan like some city attorney from "Dragnet." Yet this work holds our attention in a way that straight documentary photography does not. It is carefully done to mask the sources of its seductiveness. Without wanting to, it confesses art is amoral. No artist can truly reject anything that beguiles the eye.

There are many shots here that grapple with color, formal composition and groupings. Decay and disaster exercise their own dark fascination, as in the images of a tin can blasted to lace, or a mountain of plastic sheeting that looks like a Baroque fountain from the Villa D'Este .

At bottom, the rule without exception is art itself.

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., to May 31. Closed Mondays. (213) 857-6000.

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