Photographs keep a subject alive and at the same time mark its passing. The friction between a photograph’s perpetual now and its memorial then can saturate an image with poignancy -- the reprieve of preservation tempering a wrenching sense of loss.
This dynamic plays out powerfully in Michael Eastman‘s photographs of “Vanishing America.” DNJ Gallery’s selection of 16 large color prints from an extensive series shot over 3 1/2 years across 40 states makes for a moving, piquant and beautiful show. It reads as a tender ode to a bygone social and architectural landscape, an environment consisting of the idiosyncratic, particular and human-scaled.
Eastman’s pictures of small-town main streets, old movie theaters, motels and restaurants invite nostalgic retrospection, maybe even a little romanticized idealizing. Those brick facades and hand-painted signs seem to describe a landscape built of earnestness, especially compared with the big-box stores and strip malls we patronize now.
Obsolescence has a seductive patina, and Eastman exploits it well. He shoots many of his subjects under stormy skies, as if to amplify the threat the sites face. He also pictures streets emptied of pedestrians and businesses devoid of customers, reinforcing the mood of abandonment. Mainly, though, he composes images with gorgeous precision, an acute sense of color and deep affection.
“Guadalupe” is an impeccable example. Eastman photographs the brick side of a building on a commercial street. On the left half of the wall is painted a map of California with a hand pointing to the town’s location on the central coast. The state is rendered in flat white and the Pacific vivid turquoise, rhyming with the equally vibrant blue cover on a car parked in the scrappy lot beside the wall. To the right of the map, the brick wall is unpainted but for a fading ad for Gold Medal Flour that further engages with the layering of time. “Eventually,” the ad reads, “Gold Medal Flour. Why Not Now.” Beneath the sign stands the lot’s only other car, a rust-colored van that echoes the tones of the exposed brick.
Eastman credits Rothko with teaching him about color, and the lessons were well learned. Beyond their documentary value, the photographs have an independent energy derived solely from their chromatic relationships. Golden fall leaves dust the ground around the little “Le Happy” cafe, painted mustard with black trim. Metal outdoor chairs painted in combinations of pumpkin and forest green set off jazzy syncopation standing against a coral house trimmed in teal.
Eastman is equally attentive to clean, architectonic structure, carefully orchestrating balance and rhythm. In a picture of a boarded-up old theater, for instance, he includes the street’s double yellow lines within the frame, not just to offset the building’s dingy white facade, murky teal boards and crisp aqua sky but to underline the scene, doubly and in highlighter, signaling significance and urgency.
Walker Evans’ legacy is evident throughout Eastman’s work: a love of the vernacular, a consistent, frontal approach, and fondness for signage -- hand-lettered, misspelled, dotted with errors caused by time and neglect. Above the sign for the mint-green, still-in-business Club Che-Ches hovers another, embossed in the original architecture, whispering “FANTASY.” A rundown facade on Commercial Avenue in Cairo, Ill., announces its own lost currency with a sign reading, “If it new DOTTY has it! (sic)”
Eastman, who lives in St. Louis and has also shot the faded splendors of Cuba, has a close contemporary in Jeff Brouws, a fellow photographer of the overlooked and obsolete. Eastman’s subjects are vanishing, and he has diligently raced to record their shabby charm. His project sings plaintively of loss but itself is an act of progress and affirmation.
DNJ Gallery, 154 1/2 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 931-1311, through July 19. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.dnjgallery.net
Reflections on doom, instability
Susan Logoreci‘s new cityscape drawings at Cirrus are more self-assured than ever, yet far less reassuring. The formal buoyancy and elastic perspective that have given the work an unshackled charm now make it feel portentous. Not all of the drawings are psychically daunting, but the best of them are profoundly so.
Consider the most gripping work, the 4-foot-by-10-foot “Central Park (Ye Know Not the Day Nor the Hour).” Logoreci’s view is elevated and slightly skewed. Dense, chunky buildings drawn in colored pencil as solid planes punctuated by irregular grids of windows frame the park in a Manhattan palette of concrete gray, brick, black, pale stone and mustard. The density is uninterrupted, which makes the park’s absence all the more stunning. The city’s central core of green, its breathing space, its organic antidote to human ambition is gone. Erased. A stark white blank. A formidable silence. That the shape of the park resembles the shadow of a tower is unlikely coincidental.
Pairing the L.A. artist’s drawings with a short film by her San Francisco-based brother, Thomas Logoreci, reinforces the theme of sudden doom. The film, “9/10,” an account of the events of the evening before waking up “on the other side of history,” is a poignant, unpolished meditation on tragedy, estrangement and serendipity.
A sense of tenuousness pervades both the film and the drawings. Only one of the drawings captures a scene of actual destruction, buildings imploding and fragments flying, but all trade on the experience of destabilization, from the carnivalesque to the cataclysmic.
Cirrus, 542 S. Alameda St., (213) 680-3473, through June 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.cirrusgallery.com
Commentary on female works
Carrie Yury pays twisted homage to two generations of female performance artists in a group of 35 drawings at Sam Lee. They serve as iconic flashcards of notable art historical moments -- when Eleanor Antin staged and documented her own weight loss as a sculptural act of carving, for instance, and when mud-covered Carolee Schneeman read a long paper scroll as she extracted it from her vagina. Images of these milestones from the 1970s are accompanied by others referencing performances by Hannah Wilke, Ana Mendieta and Adrian Piper on up to Laura Aguilar, Andrea Fraser and Catherine Opie.
Yury represents each performance in a gracefully delineated pencil drawing, accented in watercolor and casually pinned to the wall. Many ignite a spark of recognition, but Yury, a recent master of fine arts graduate from UC Irvine with performance credits of her own, also injects cryptic commentary by covering each nude woman’s face with an animal mask.
A few of the masks correspond to the acts portrayed (a woman lying in a fetal position in a puddle of honey wears a bee mask), but most of the pairings seem arbitrary.
Given that much of women’s performance art has had to do with exposure and concealment, victimhood and exploitation, animal nature and culturally imposed role, masks that further complicate the wearer’s identity might prove provocative. Yury’s additions, however, feel extraneous, crude or simply silly.
Sam Lee Gallery, 990 N. Hill St. No. 190, (323) 227-0275, through July 12. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays. www.samleegallery.com
Not an ordinary craft project
“Let it be known,” China Adams begins a printed proclamation in her charming if slight show at Steve Turner, “as a result of insolvency, fatigue, and unrealized aspirations during much of 2006, China Adams felt defeated by malaise.”
The solution to her lethargy? Flights of fancy, imaginary journeys to exotic locales. For each nontrip, she created a new travel outfit out of stuff lying around the house: old bath towels, paper grocery bags, back issues of the New Yorker. She dyed the fabric for a patchwork dress using the ink from discarded ballpoint pens. She fashioned a camisole out of the pages of her junior high school yearbook. And for another top, she pinned together clusters of receipts, business cards and the kind of stray items found in the bottom of a desk drawer.
Adams’ do-it-yourself resourcefulness is impressive. The clothes are cleverly crafted and surprisingly viable. Each outfit (displayed on a dress form) is accompanied by a notarized certificate describing the artist’s good-humored desperation and a doctored photograph of her modeling her wares in cheesy poses lifted from outdated travel brochures and fashion spreads.
Strewn about on the gallery floor are “Winter Garbage Chunks,” plaster boulders embedded with a week’s worth of the artist’s garbage. Like the garments, the rocks are environmentally conscious one-liners. They turn trash into something else -- not quite treasure but not landfill either.
Adams performs these crafty attempts at alchemy with appealing irreverence and a whiplash aesthetic, crowning bits of debris with official documentation, and putting a happy face on distress. The work is amusing and tinged with deeper purpose but never quite transforms the mundane into the truly meaningful.
Steve Turner Contemporary, 6026 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 931-3721, through June 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.steveturnercontemporary.com