Saturday, January 19, 2008

photoLA -- The Big Look

11 January 2008

Before I’m driven back (kicking and screaming) to the LACMA/BCAM/BAF fiasco, allow me to start off on a slightly happier note. (Hey it happens – even in my life.) Although photography has been inescapable in the fine arts practically from the advent of the daguerrotype, and an indispensable tool and medium in contemporary art, it’s never exerted quite the same pull on my curiosity and aesthetic palate as painting and three-dimensional media, or even motion pictures. But, as Lao-Tsu might have said, the longest narrative (or non-narrative for that matter) movie begins with a single frame. And – well you can ask Carole Caroompas (as I have blogged not too long ago) – or Gerhard Richter – or Andy Warhol (well maybe not Andy), or another million or so artists: some of those frames are as indelibly printed on our consciousness as anything in the natural or human-made world. So you want to know what’s new in photography? I’m not sure I can tell you anything you don’t already know, but there was something to draw in the eye almost everywhere you turned Thursday evening at the photoLA opening.

The advance publicity out of the photoLA was already promising – sixty-some galleries on board, in addition to various art/photo publishing outlets; Jeff Burton, John Divola and Connie Samaras featured in programmed “conversations”; the opening night kick-off with Julius Shulman; and galleries everywhere from Brooklyn to Prague I had no acquaintance with. What was interesting was that it was some of the ‘tried, true’ places that engaged and delighted at least as much as the edgy and new. (Although I have to wonder if such distinctions mean anything at all. The ‘tried and true’ stay that way by showing the freshest and strongest of the ‘new’. And as for the ‘new’….well, so little really is; the ‘edge’ dropping into the void but taking us nowhere we’ve haven’t been before. For (outstanding) example – setting aside the over-the-top Schoeller body-builders, the ACE Gallery booth was almost a beacon for the show. Stepping inside, you felt immersed in the luminosity pouring, strobing off the walls. One wall held lightboxes, against which hung a 3-layer ‘Dura-transparency’ of what looked like a clip of a grainy black-and-white film or animation – a sequence of (the same) 18th century soldier(s) running, jumping and brandishing his weapon. A chorus line of cadets, circa 1789. Except it was closer to 1776: I thought they were French; they were in fact American revolutionary soldiers. The effect of implied movement was paradoxically bolstered by the seemingly rhythmic insertion of the identical soldier image that began the sequence – A-B-A-C-A-D. To its left, another revolutionary soldier, emerging from the shadows, adjusting his tricorne, this one in luminous color and backlit by a burst of light washing over the soldier’s inclined figure. Turning to a table of printed matter, I flipped through a book of photographs by Melanie Pullen – apparently a follow-up to her original High Fashion Crime Victim series which made quite a splash when she showed them here in Los Angeles only a few years ago – not without a bit of disappointment, even exasperation. The first series were suffused with a particular aura both haunted and opulent – incongruous luxury set off vibrantly against settings variously gritty, pristine (except for the evidence of crime or violence), or simply magical – settings not merely fortuitously treacherous, but ripe for a karmic double-cross. Most of this more recently published series seemed bereft of that peculiar electricity. Only then, as I turned away to face another wall, was I informed that the transparencies were also the work of Melanie Pullen – her latest series on soldiers, which continues to be augmented – perhaps as soon as next week, as Pullen was later to inform me herself. A studio shoot is in the works – assuming a set for a bombed-out Berlin, circa 1945, can be successfully constructed on a studio soundstage. It was great to see her moving in a fresh, and trenchant, new direction (and great to see her, too).

On another wall, Jay Mark Johnson, showed equally luminous work, made with a special (and apparently costly) scanning camera, that answered Pullen’s kinescopic soldiers with sunlit slices of landscapes (and aquascapes) against which figures and incident moved laterally in choreographic precision across the elongated horizontal bands of the scanned landscape. Here, too, the element of the repeated figure (person, horse, gesture or movement), or the figure’s movement – as with the poolscape where the swimmer’s legs flutter sinuously in intersecting sine waves – imbued these minimalist, almost conceptual mappings with a kind of lyricism.

More lyrical still were Dennis Hopper’s large color C-prints of collected litter, debris and random cast-offs culled from various urban “walks” – New York, Venice, etc. – ‘inventory’ photographs, if you will; also, perhaps, non-linear storyboard Rich with color, incident and densely textured, they drew me in repeatedly, almost against my will, searching for the clue, the tell-tale artifact, the story.

But ACE was hardly the only gallery with something arresting, powerful, luminous, dark. A.M. Richard showed amazing work by Stephen Mallon, Andrew Garn and Jillian McDonald, among others. Andrew Garn in particular has an amazing range: street vignettes from Times Square from the 1970s and early 1980s (one stark, black-and-white – the absurd juxtapositions of 42nd Street of a certain vintage, emphasized by the ironic juxtapositions in texture and scale; a seemingly ‘painted’ study of a drag queen-prostitute, simultaneously forlorn and self-possessed – a monument in motion; finally imagery of industrial sites, alternately cool, distanced, then almost overwhelming in their intensity. (E.g., the coolness of a Bethlehem Steel site in disuse; and finally the dark, dust-choked late industrial inferno of Magnitogorsk, a complex of steel factories in Siberia – amazing images all that demand to be seen.)

The Magnum photo agency was also here – hardly at a loss for compelling images. Among the most interesting was Trent Parke, whose brilliant color photography has something of the street/social context, texture, and contrast of Garry Winogrand, but with an entirely different energy – displaced by a few degrees, dislocated. He plays with the light sources, setting off individual figures and elements just so, creating a kind of tension and suspense. [I failed to mention the photography of Bruce Gilden when I posted this -- a bizarre omission given the power of these images. Since I seem to be using quasi-iconic photographers as a very rough index or reference point here (see above), let me just say that these portraits and pairings and street scenes -- taken mostly from contemporary Japan -- have something of the brazen energy and off-hand intimacy of William Klein, but with something jostling and fresh, syncopated and disjunctive in the visual rhythm and balance, and -- dare I say it? -- Japanese (or maybe not). But let me come back to Gilden in my next post. (Yeeeesssss -- it's coming.)]

You can’t go wrong showing Stephen Divola and Stephen Cohen had Divola in both color and black-and-white. I also loved Zachary Drucker’s and Brian Finke’s color photography (Drucker, who was there for the opening, is himself completely charming). Also Nick Brandt’s haunting, monumental images out of Africa. And Lori Nix’s surreal, richly evocative slice of urban decay (e.g., her chromogenic print of a disused proscenium stage theatre interior, “Majestic” (2006).

I’m simply breezing over this work, I’m well aware; but – well, there was a LOT to see (and I’ll be back). The Czech Center for Photography (Prague) was bursting with brilliant black-and-white photography from as far back as the 1920s to the present (much of it astonishingly affordable – e.g., a vintage print dance study by Julius Andres was only US$500). Circus scenes, landscape grotesqueries, bucolic landscapes – the range and the quality of almost everything on view were extraordinary. (In stunning contrast to at least one local dealer, who will go unnamed, asking the most outrageous prices for his ‘found’ and ‘vintage’ generic recyclings.)

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