Review: LACMA and Hauser & Wirth double down on problematic photography shows

Thomas Joshua Cooper, "Along the Frozen Rimtop of Horseshoe Falls — the Niagara Falls Basin and the Niagara River, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada," 2015, selenium-toned chlorobromide gelatin silver print
Thomas Joshua Cooper, “Along the Frozen Rimtop of Horseshoe Fallsthe Niagara Falls Basin and the Niagara River, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada,” 2015, selenium-toned chlorobromide gelatin silver print

Large-format landscape and seascape photographs by Thomas Joshua Cooper are luxuriously printed in velvety black and white. The artist, 72, uses a complex tonal printing process that lends richness and depth to the photographic grays and blacks.

Visually, however, the imagery is dull. If not exactly interchangeable — a frothy swirl of churning foam around a rocky outcropping in the Strait of Magellan here, a frosty rim of the Niagara Falls Basin there — the photographs exhibit a repetitive sameness. In 140 examples (75 small studies and 65 as large as 40 by 54 inches) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a viewer’s eyes glaze over pretty fast.

Cooper has been an American expat working in Scotland since 1982. The LACMA show, organized by Director Michael Govan and curator Rebecca Morse, is his first significant museum survey. Its centerpiece is a selection from his “Atlas,” some 700 photographs that, according to the museum, together “charts the Atlantic basin from its most extreme northern, southern, eastern and western land points.”

Over three decades, in other words, Cooper traveled the Western Hemisphere and photographed the Atlantic Ocean’s edges. The idea might be compelling, but the art isn’t. This is one of those Conceptual projects in which the concept far outstrips the visual result, the often-rollicking tales of their perilous making supplanting any interest generated by largely humdrum images.

Thomas Joshua Cooper, "Fleeing From a Force Eight Gale — Looking West at the South Pacific Ocean From the Strait of Magellan, Observation Island, Looking Toward Cabo Pilar and Isla Desolación, the Southwest-Most Point of All South America," 2006, selenium- and gold-toned chlorobromide gelatin silver print

LACMA organized a show of newly commissioned photographs for Hauser & Wirth gallery.
(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

The work is something of a cross between the critically admired, nearly abstract black-and-white photographs of the world’s oceans that Hiroshi Sugimoto began around 1980 and Ansel Adams’ hugely popular, sometimes grandiose pictures of the American West from the 1940s and after. Cooper is a true eccentric, as a recent New Yorker profile attests, but his pictures couldn’t be more conventional.

In an eyebrow-raising addendum, LACMA’s director also commissioned a group of 19 photographs of the California coast (Cooper was born in San Francisco) and organized a concurrent exhibition of them at Hauser & Wirth gallery, where the work is for sale. The expedition to produce the suite of coastal pictures was funded by the Lannan Foundation and Ann Tenenbaum & Thomas H. Lee. They are also major donors to artist James Turrell’s “Roden Crater” project in an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert, where Govan is president of the Skystone Foundation that oversees the project and raises funds for it.

Artistically, the photographs in “The Capes of California” are just more of the same shallow tedium. A commercial exhibition conceived and assembled by a nonprofit museum director who is the head of a county department subsidized by taxpayers, on the other hand, creates an ethical swamp of considerable depth. Neither LACMA’s board of trustees nor the L.A. County Board of Supervisors should stand for it.

Thomas Joshua Cooper

‘The World’s Edge’
Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.
When: Through Jan. 26; closed Wednesdays
Cost: $10-$25 (see website for free periods)
Info: (323) 857-6000,

‘The Capes of California’
Where: Hauser & Wirth, 901 E. 3rd St.
When: Through Jan. 19; closed Mondays
Cost: Free
Info: (213) 943-1620,