A forensic quality marks a suite of perplexing color photographs made by Jo Ann Callis in the late 1970s but not printed until the last few years.
Rather than evidence uncovered, however, as one might expect from an analysis of illicit activity, her pictures at Rose Gallery are clearly staged. This is manufactured evidence, forensics engineered. Evocative pictorial stories have been “fabricated to be photographed,” to use the now-established camera term the artist helped to pioneer, in order to dig up truths.
Among the more bracing of nearly 20 works in the front gallery is an image focused on a man’s hands grasping the ankles of a woman standing on a chair. Her expensive high-heel shoes are festooned with tiny gold chains.
Callis has lighted the darkened scene with a soft spotlight, which creates the aura of a theatrical performance. Coupled with the chains, the man’s firm grasp and the woman’s stylishness suggest an unexpectedly dynamic interplay between them.
Is he stopping her from doing something ominous? Is he being ominous himself? Is she thwarted in an attempted escape? Is this a benign view of one person helping another to be steady as she reaches for something on a high shelf?
Are the feminine shoes a stylized representation of acquiescence to bondage with heterosexual male desire?
The ambiguities of interpersonal relationships, especially between men and women, play out frequently in the exhibition. A nude woman lies face down, her blond wig neatly parted down the back of her head as if in some fetish ritual. Elsewhere, a rectangular lump formed in tousled bedsheets sports two pinkish dots, like nipples on a torso.
A man dressed in white sprawls on his side across an unmade bed, his shirt pulled up over his head. Another man, glimpsed only as a pair of crossed legs wearing gray slacks and a black shoe, is seated next to a table on which a feminine garment is laid out. Callis has carefully cropped these scenes like Hitchcock with a still camera – “Rear Window” without the mounting panic, but with all the queasiness intact.
None is more disorienting than “Black Cloth in Water,” a close-up torso of a young, unidentifiable child seated at the edge of a bed, the titular items in a glass bowl held precariously on his or her lap. Peer in closely to make out that wet black cloth, and you realize suddenly that, even in the complete absence of prurience, you are intruding where you shouldn’t.
At her best, Callis masterfully manipulates her fabricated scenes. She leads a viewer to the edge of what could be a violation of social norms – or what could just as easily be nothing remotely untoward. Details of form, composition and color are explicit, but the possible narrative outcomes never are. A viewer is left standing at the brink, which is a very good place to be.
Rose Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-8440, through Nov. 24. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.rosegallery.net