These days, Americans tend to blame their troubles on ineffective government and social erosion. In other words, we try to make each other culpable for our ills. It's a nasty business that creates a need to back off and take a larger look at the human condition. An occasion is offered by an exhibition of some 40 photographs at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum.
Titled "Selective Evidence," it was drawn from a gift of about 260 photographs recently donated to the museum by Irvine residents and CSULB alumni Thomas and Barbara Peckenpaugh. There is something very warming and personal about such a gesture, qualities that also show in the images.
Numerous noted contemporary photographers are included, such as Sebastiao Salgado, Paul Caponigro and Laurie Brown. But, with the exception of a single shot by Marion Post Wolcott, there are no icons. Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange are absent although their spirit is present. This points to a certain independence of taste on the part of the collectors.
There is nothing intentionally polemical about the show. Graduate student Marina Freeman organized it with museum director Constance W. Glenn, who planned the installation. She concentrates on juxtapositions of formal elements like composition, space, reflection, shadow and texture. Yet in finding similarities between images of landscape and those of people the exhibition induces a kind of philosophical reverie on the relationship between humans and nature.
The show begins and ends with landscapes showing roads--the human path--winding into the deep distance. In another exhibition they could be forbidding or war-ravaged but they are not. Vern Clevenger's "American West, Astin," looks like a pastoral spring dawn with its delicate tints. Ronald Wohlauer's "Autumn Storm" is a gentle, nurturing rain.
It's a benign vision but not a sappy one. Neither is Reesa Tansey's "Planting the Crop." It shows two strong attractive girls doing stoop labor in a field. In another context it could be about the exploitation of migrant labor, children and women. In this non-sociological ambience, it's just about the need to work for survival. The girls are planting the earth, but they also seem to be growing out of it.
Urban people, almost completely surrounded by man-made things, can fall into the fantasy that everything can be controlled. Caponigro's "New Mexico Landscape" is hardly apocalyptic but its roiling clouds are an ominous reminder. All Atlas has to do is shrug or sneeze and the mightiest of human accomplishments are pulverized.
Nothing personal, just nature being its surpassingly beautiful, magnanimously indifferent self. Edward Ranney shows us the eroded rock monoliths of Bandelier, N.M. Next to it hangs Salgado's "Sandaled Feet, Brasil." It captures three peasant's feet, so crusty and eroded they seem to have fossilized. Then come Ken Light's two shots of laborer's hands so deformed they look like roots. In this context they are not about human injustice; they are about human's need to struggle as part of nature.
The exhibition moves on through images of various apertures, portals, gates and doors showing what's behind them. Variously there is human despair, the hope of religion and an anonymous grave in the middle of nowhere. There is no argument about this, just facts of nature. Finally, the tour settles on Eric Blau's "Farmers, Kilkee." It shows two leathery old guys. The fences and structures they built around them seem to be turning back into trees and fences. They look like they've been friends all their lives. They look a tiny bit smug like they know something city folks don't. They seem to say, "We know we need each other because nature doesn't need us. We have to stick together."
* Cal State Long Beach University Art Museum, 250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, to Oct. 1, closed Mondays, (310) 985-5761.