at the Vincent Price Art Museum, Los Angeles (through 5 February 2022)
Reviewed by Johanna Drucker
What is the difference between a wall label and a work of art? The unrelenting didacticism that prevails in current gallery and museum exhibits of contemporary art makes it seem that many curators and artists cannot answer that question. Works serve as mere illustrations of some finger-wagging statement that is itself a recycled thought-form extracted from some current revisionist seminar-speak for the nth time.
But two stunning installations at the Vincent Price Art Museum, at the East Los Angeles Community College, make strong arguments for the way visual art offers illuminating awareness of the multifaceted complexity of current cultural issues. Liquid Light and Golden Hour, quite distinct in their approaches and materials, are each visually smart exhibitions that show ways to understand and interrogate identity, geography, and ecology without reducing them to didactic messaging.
After viewing, one leaves the museum blinking into the daylight with a whole new set of reference frames for looking at the California landscape. Street scenes in front of the building come into focus. The majestic but familiar mountains to the East suddenly connect to large-ecosystems and agri-business. The whole mixed bag of commercial real estate and traffic zones on Avenida Cesar Chavez appears shot through with human drama. The vital effect of aesthetic work is that it offers associations against which experience can be gauged and understood. Everyday scenes are up for re-viewing and rethinking.
The idea that art should be generative, provoke possibility, produce experience and deliver a message was a position that two crucial philosophers, John Dewey and Theodor Adorno, espoused nearly a century ago. But this piece is not about philosophy. It is a critical celebration of two extraordinary exhibits, each of which is visually rich, a quality too often denigrated in these times. But they are also intellectually substantive and topical.
Javier Tapia and Camilo Ontiveros, in collaboration with Nicolas Garcia, Ruben Díaz and Steve Rioux: Liquid Light, Installation View.
Courtesy of the Vincent Price Art Museum. Photo by Monica Orozco
The first is a multi-screen video installation created by Javier Tapia and Camilo Ontiveros, in collaboration with Nicolas Garcia, Ruben Díaz, and Steve Rioux. Liquid Light is at once a meditation on and a highly researched study of the movement of water through North America to Mexico. A slow, hypnotizing video installation, it is dense with atmospheric mood and information about the travel of water across vast distances. Drone images show a landscape shaped and carved by a river’s path eroding the territory through the endlessly varied forms of natural processes. Curled and fringed with residues and patterns, the course of the water sculpts each bit of its path in filigree detail. The edges of an evaporation zone shimmer with the hard granularity of salts left behind, rings of chemical deposits, dried by the thirsty atmosphere. A lake shimmers in silent stillness, its horizon a line of silver blue so pellucid it seems to disappear at the edge of perception even as the long expanse of surface that draws the eye towards its vanishing point absorbs and reflects the deep colors of the sky. Dramatic shifts of scale and view blend one sequence to the next, but the compelling feeling of continuity prevails. We are moving through space, up close and incredibly distant. We see ants busy with their purposeful collective movement, tunneling through sand and gravel, red bodies shining, their carapaces bright against the duller grains of earth and dried grass. Their movements are disorganized but coordinated and the close-up view puts the collective-individual activity into sharp focus. You cannot take your eyes from the images. They grab your attention and hold it, as you are absorbed by the unfolding revelations on the screen. The earth is changing, wrung dry, parched, flooded, wet, shining, and constantly transformed from image to image.
Javier Tapia and Camilo Ontiveros created this collaborative work by scripting and researching the relationship between water and land, thinking about the territories through which it moves. They drafted a script and then created a work plan mapped onto locations and sites across a vast stretch of the Western hemisphere. The crew is assembled, with a regular HD camera and a drone mounted one, using an array of lenses to allow for the incredible depth of field of long shot and slow exposures and the detailed intensity of close ups. The resolution of the images almost defies optical perception, and so the sense of space they create allows for complete absorption. The images cannot be exhausted; they keep offering more to the eye and mind as the slow drift of the camera, smooth flight of the drone, or patient attention to a finely focused image sustains attention.
Liquid Light Trailer
Though the artists create a detailed plan for their work, they also allow themselves to respond to the circumstances they encounter. This immediacy of response also registers in the images, which feel exploratory and searching. One senses that someone is looking, responding, seeing the world just encountered, not merely recording visual information. Somehow that difference is evident in these images, and felt by the viewer. Even with the aerial views taken from a drone-mounted camera, which are spectacular in all sense of that word, the images do not feel like mere recordings. Still, an interesting tension comes through the work as it becomes clear that the distant views and shots from on high are taken by an automated process. An uncanny sensation is produced by the sense that the eye regarding the terrain of the earth is operating independently. And then the other images in the work also come up for question. Who has seen these sites and to what do the recordings bear witness? A post-human point of view? Or a human one? Is there a reciprocity between looker and looked-at that is missing in these photographs?
A dark horse standing in a field of golden grain, a small cluster of deer surprised into bolting, birds landing and taking off are all part of the natural world. But the presence of human interventions is equally vivid. An enormous aqueduct structure, at a scale whose engineering boggles the mind, makes a deep intervention into a water system, directing its flow. Who conceived of this and made it happen, and how? The natural forces that shape the earth have their own force and momentum, but the dialogue of earth and humanity is terrifyingly present across this work. Edited and combined from the massive footage collected in the initial phase of the process, the overall narrative produces a coherent argument even as it eschews any single authorial point of view or simple message. Something eerie attaches to the images, almost as though they are evidence after the fact, a record of something that has been but may not continue any longer. The experience of looking, which takes us from a frozen forest of the north to the Gulf, is forged as a set of connections rather than a linear course. Similarly, the associations evoked are not subsumed into a reductive statement. We are left with the dilemma of the many moral ambiguities involved in survival across species and systems.
Accompanying the video installation, with its central and flanking screens, is a display of artifacts placed on industrial shelving next to piles of sand and/or salt on the floor. Other physical manifestations of the territory through which the recording has occurred are assembled like objects in a museum storehouse. Tourist brochures and packaging, bits of detritus, empty plastic water bottles, remnants of various journeys through the landscape are all present. While these add their own dimension to the images, anchoring them in lived connections to the land, they are a little difficult to read in the dark room, and feel less compelling than the on-screen images. That said, they are human artifacts at human scale, and their very banality and small size makes another argument. The earth, however ravaged, will endure even if the species that is the source of these artifacts disappears. The moving quality of this installation borders on the sublime, that condition of intense aesthetic pleasure and terror that stirs deep emotional response.
By contrast to the attention to the physical world, Golden Hour is alive with the vivid details and views of California social life and cultural history. It resonates well with Liquid Light through the visual power of the installation and the fully satisfying experience afforded by its wide-ranging imagery. Golden Hour was curated by Eve Schillo and consists of photographs from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s collection. The artful selection poses various questions about the identities that constitute what we casually refer to as “California.” More importantly, it refuses any single resolution of any of these identities.
The expertly chosen works in this installation are presented in carefully thought-out juxtapositions and groupings. The images illuminate each other through their visual contrasts and formal connections as well as their topical associations. Almost every image in this exhibit is a stunner — from Brett Weston’s drop dead gorgeous 1955 Mono Lake and Shinsaku Izumi’s 1931, Tunnel of Night, both gelatin silver prints, to Owen Kydd’s Yucca Color Shift single channel video from 2012.
But the works are not presented simply as formal works or exemplary individual pictures. The artful aspect of this exhibit is the way they are put into play with each other. Kydd’s subtle video, a living painting made by a stationery camera, records the dramatic color changes of a yucca plant across the day. A highly conceptual work, it is aesthetically rich, turning the sculptural forms of the long spear-like leaves into a graphical tone poem. The video is one of three works that share a wall, and its specific properties are pulled into focus by the neighboring image, a platinum print by William Henry Jackson made in 1900, Oak Grove Near Pasadena, California. Small in scale and delicate in its range, the Jackson image feels like what it is, an historical image that also reveals the historicity of vision and of photographic technology. We see that clearly in the juxtaposition with Kydd on the right and the equally intriguing Klea McKenna Born in 1824, a gelatin silver print from 2016, on its left. McKenna’s work not only references historicity by noting the age of the tree whose rings are recorded in this image, but also by the intriguing quality of the print. A stark, high-contrast image captures features of tree rings in raked light, but the whole is patched from several parts, collaged, and the pieces seem to have been re-photographed as an assembly. A certain mystery attached to the making of this work, whose process was not fully legible. Born in 1824 stretched the photographic method into the wider range of what it means to use light — William Henry Talbot’s famous “pencil of nature” — to produce each of the images in this exhibit.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the artist, © Ed Drew, digital image © Museum Associates/LACMA
One could read Golden Hour for what it shows us about photography, as well as for its witty and complex investigations of California’s history and present. The photographs range in date and technical type from the 19th century technology of tintypes, recently revived, to digital prints, with many innovations and methods. But Schillo, though attentive to technical features and the materiality of media, is not focused on that topic. So, though she places Ed Drew’s 2013 tintype of Monica and Tachina in a center of an arrangement of portraits of women, the shadows and reflections by which it reveals its image are integral to the portrait itself, not its subject. Positioned close to the always improbably melodramatic, Anne W. Brigman, Soul of the Blasted Pine (1908), the tintype asserts a sober rebuke to the romantic gesture of the work from a century earlier, as if to show the futility of such pan-animism and dreams of spiritual release from the bonds of embodied existence. But materiality does matter, and Schillo’s careful attention to size, scale, framing, and the contrast of color, black and white, and continuous tone images is evident from her selection of works like Hung Liu’s 1994 Women Off Color, a screen print of three Asian women, each in one of the cyan, magenta, and yellow inks isolated from the four-color process.
The sweeping range of topics she covers gives Schillo room for humor and wit as well as poignant commentary. Anthony Hernandez’s Women Sunbathing, Whittier Ca, from 1978, showing a group of women from afar, scattered on a concrete pad or patch of cement in a somewhat nowhere, unappealing, landscape, makes an unlikely contrast with another image of scattered figures, the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s South Belridge Oil Field, Kern County, California Landscan (2009), a single channel video of derricks pumping vigilantly. These images rhyme with those of other things that cluster, like Jamie Stillings’s 2012 inkjet print of Heliostats Near Project Boundary of Unit 1 or Metabolic Studio’s One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct from 2013. Everywhere in this exhibit, these formal and conceptual associations are forged so that we see each image vividly in relation to others. Each of the groupings as well as the individual works could sustain critical description.
Several images feel emblematic of this layered and interwoven approach. One is just outside in the corridor leading to the gallery, Rodrigo García’s profound 2010 video, 7th and Alvarado. Using slow motion images in the layered pastiche, it depicts a band of armed Mexican horsemen crossing through the daily traffic of the contemporary street corner in downtown Los Angeles. The individuals on the street are passersby, real people, walking through the street in the business of their lives even as the history of that place, invisible to them. This palimpsestic, double exposure, approach to history infiltrates Golden Hour, as it explores the layered complexity and contradictions of history as made in and recorded by images.
California’s image-driven, multi-faceted identity provides ample material for such explorations. The catalogue/brochure identifies five separate themes — Creating, Losing, Reimagining, Representing, and Remembering California. But the installation is not constrained by these structures. It is up to the visitor to process the variety of photographs and groups, to perceive the transformations of landscape in its pristine beauty as well as its industrialized domains, to note the decay of something as banal as a surfboard in Topanga, or the startling beauty of a sunrise. We get glimpses of business, the funny droll Susan Ressler, System Development Corporation, 1980, with its décor of super graphic hyperbolic curves in a self-consciously modern office — all conspicuous signs of cutting-edge modern business. Movie screens and gaps between sets and backdrops, the stuff of fantasy, Disney palace, and Jennifer Bolande’s Visible Distance showing a billboard pasted with an image of the landscape in which it is located. Celebrities and aspirants to celebrity status are also abundant, with some famous people caught in offhand moments. A backstage, dressing room portrait of an actor, Siri Kaur’s 2014 Christopher, in costume. Joan Didion with her Stingray in 1968, leaning casually near its rear tire. Or, in a dramatic moment — Amy Semple McPherson waving from the improbable height of an un-lit electric cross.
One particularly chilling work by Joseph Rodriguez, Carson, Los Angeles, Ca, from 1992, shows an officer leaning towards a young man who is waving out of the driver’s side window of a car. We see only the lower half of the policeman’s body from behind, but his service revolver is out, held in his hand, leaned along the back of his thigh. The threat to the young men registers viscerally. Racism, injustice, and inequity are all palpably present. No label-with-a-lesson is needed. The image communicates with a shocking power far more effectively than a text. More to the point, it shows what is going on and raises its own questions — who took this picture and how, given the tension of the moment? The framing and cropping direct our attention, the mass of the officer’s body makes a physical contrast with the vulnerability of the young man who appears delicate by contrast.
Another image that feels emblematic of the exhibit occupies the first panel, on entry. Sam Comen’s Jose Saldaña On Chapulín in Lost Hills, CA, March 28, 2009. Beautifully staged, its studio lighting produces a vivid nearly-technicolor quality. The result is a touching combination of actuality and artifice. The subject performs his identity, dressed in beautifully embroidered clothes, mounted on a beautiful horse, both confined to the small space of a yard with a chain link fence. The details in this image all contribute to the reality of its location — yard, house, car, lights, vegetation in a text-book semiotic inventory. Every detail in this image serves as sign, an indicator of class, ethnicity, historical moment and location, even as it records an individual in a proud moment of his life.
That single image [above], if subjected to the same in-depth analysis that Michel Foucault gave to Las Meninas, could be refracted into a study of the ways we construct and understand image-identities. Powerfully moving and compelling, Comen’s composition and thematics are interwoven in an aesthetic tension between resolution — here, this is what this is — and questions about what it means to be, for a moment, that person, that individual vital man with his aspirations and promise. What happens to such hope? The image does not foretell tragedy any more than it predicts happiness. The image that flickers in the space of potential, its possibilities visibly present, from which the scenario of a future lived life will emerge. What determinants will limit or open that life? Taken from Comen’s Lost Hills series, the photograph is part of a larger project of documenting this community of farm workers and laborers. This single image resonates within an exhibit filled with such investigations.
Each image in this exhibit provides a record of a moment in the richly varied history of the state — natural, cultural, social, and industrial domains. But each is also a fundamentally visual work and leaves us wondering how so many images can be so striking in so many different ways. Even now, for instance, in an era where all forms of heroic modernism might be denigrated, the sheer force of Ansel Adams’s images remains inexhaustible. For very different reasons, so does the John Divola photograph of a running dog who was one of several who followed his car in the desert, or the almost impossible to look at Katy Grannan, Anonymous, portrait of a woman in San Francisco in 2012. Golden Hour leaves us with questions about how, given what we know within the many complex and contradictory aspects of California, will we advance in a future grounded in these pasts?
The emphasis on aesthetics in both of these exhibits calls attention to the fact that works of art cannot be reduced to being about something — but engage us because of how they are about something. How illuminating to see these exhibits, with their powerful visual force, their moral convictions, and their ethical provocations about how we position ourselves in the world. If we cease to be shown how to look, we may cease to be able to see, and that blindness will make it impossible for us to recognize what it is to which we need to attend.
Attributions to linked photos:
William Henry Jackson, Oak Grove Near Pasadena, California, c. 1900. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ralph M. Parsons Fund, digital image © Museum Associates/LACMA
Klea McKenna, Born in 1824 (4) from the series Automatic Earth, 2016. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Klea McKenna, digital image © Museum Associates/LACMA
Susan Ressler, System Development Corporation from the series Los Angeles Documentary Project, 1980. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Susan Ressler, digital image courtesy of the artist and Joseph Bellows Gallery, La Jolla, California
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Johanna Drucker is Contributing Editor on National Affairs at Riot Material. Ms. Drucker is an artist, writer, and critic known for her creative work in experimental writing, typography, and artist’s books; she is equally revered for her scholarly work on aesthetics, digital humanities, and the visual forms of knowledge production. Ms. Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA.