'Photo Environment': Ecologically Sound

In my less-than-humble opinion, there is no such thing as too much art.

There is, however, such a thing as too much bad art, and any gallery overstuffed with work is bound to have its share. A good curator knows that less bad art on the gallery walls means more room for the good stuff. As example: Step into Orange Coast College’s Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion for the first time (as I did last week) and walk through the captivating “Photo Environment” exhibition; it’s so carefully laid out on the gallery’s white walls, one or two pieces even inhabiting floor space, and there is nary an iota of junk art to be seen. Once you realize the Pavilion’s curator is Andrea Harris-McGee, one of SoCal’s hippest, most-progressive programmers, it all makes sense.

In the larger gallery, she has put together 100 images by 18 photographers from three of the Big Cs: California (several artists are OCC faculty), Canada and China.

First up is recent Weekly-profile subject/sculptor Laurie Hassold with her photo Remembering the Way.The caterpillar/thing subject, assembled from tiny pieces of plastic dime-store junk, is photographed in a way that makes it look like a dragon—albeit one seeping seminal fluid. My friend Stephen swore he saw faces in Zhou Ning’s psychedelic photos of water. I didn’t, but there’s no denying the stare-at-the-clouds-and-see-figures aspect to the Rorschach images. H2O and O2 work together as hundreds and hundreds of pictures of the sky are cut and pieced together to form a waterfall of blue in George Blakely’s lovely The Sky Is Falling, with its images of clouds like foam.

I’m a bitch for decay and desolation, so Damian Tsutsumida’s photo of what looks like an abandoned theater—MCAS El Toro—with its walls missing, movie screen torn and hanging, seats removed and a tumbleweed poking up from the concrete, had me the second I saw it. Decay of a different sort is revealed in Barbara Higgins’ Femmes a l’Opera Garnier, Paris, the opera house reflected in the plate glass of a store window full of headless mannequins modeling skimpy bathing suits. Last week’s Art Whore subject George Katzenberger has four of his infrared cell-phone tower photographs on display, with his Santa Ana River, High Water an iridescent black-and-white dreamscape of concrete; asphalt; smooth, rushing water; and billowing cloud. Richard Gilles’ eight photos of billboards in (mostly) desert conditions—especially Clear Channel—bring to mind author John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and his thesis that it’s lifestyle, not products, we’re sold by the advertising agencies; the empty framing of the board is a symbolic skeleton of what’s left after we’ve consumed.

Seeing Suzy Lake’s triptych Peonies and the Lido #5 doesn’t automatically bring to mind Thomas Mann’s brilliant novel Death In Venice or Michael Jackson’s plastic-surgery-ravaged face, but I’m grateful her notes reference them. The image of the photographer putting lipstick on her pale white face, surrounded on both sides by voluptuous, dipping flowers, has social comment, autobiography, literature, eroticism and pop culture slammed together into one picture—and they all work together seamlessly.

One entire wall is devoted to James Hill’s mixed-media collage The Long Cold Summer Project. As much about creativity as anything else, if looked at from left to right, the amassed pictures, paintings and subtitles clipped from films are a world of inspiration leading to a series of 18 silver photographs. If looked at from right to left, those same images bring on a tumultuous flurry of associations . . . just like any good art.

Quebec-based artist Diane Landry has all to herself the second, smaller gallery to the immediate right of the entrance. Feminist in their sensibilities, her three installations are melancholic in tone and wildly original in execution. The Lost Shield is composed of still shots the artist took of herself shifting and tossing on a couch. The static nature of the stills is overcome by putting the images into a slideshow and overlapping them; the cumulative effect is the artist’s actions blurring slowly, the images bending in despair, as if her body is melting into the furniture. Her brilliant ode to housework, Madonnas, has two washing machines with pictures of two women and a revolving mirror attached to the spinners. Motion detectors cause the spinners to twirl and the women to bow their heads as if in prayer as you approach. To this man, the subservient image of women bowing to me as they prepare to wash my dirty underwear, as if their thankless gig were something sacred, was particularly disconcerting.

Based on Kierkegaard’s discussion of the knight of faith vs. the knight of infinite resignation is Landry’s video of herself standing in solitude in a kitchen, gazing out a window over the course of two hours while night and day drift past her. While Juggling suggests there may be something sublime to resigning yourself to your fate, the housewife imagery—the sink filling and emptying with dishes—is especially dispiriting. All that is missing is John Lennon’s “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” playing in the background to further hammer the message home.

“Photo Environment” at the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa; occartpavilion.blogspot.com. See website for hours. Through Oct. 20. Free.


This review appeared in print as “Ecologically Sound: The uncluttered ‘Photo Environment’ at Orange Coast College gives some stunning images their due.”


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