A sealed box of mementoes that brings up a host of troubling thoughts when opened—that's the darkness lurking behind the white walls and considered the through-line of curator David Michael Lee's “Photo + Plus” at Coastline Community College Art Gallery. At face value, the exhibition focuses on artists “working outside of conventional photography,” but don't believe Lee's rascally misdirection. Days later, the pristine façade of the exhibition dissipates, as connections far deeper and more subversive than ones seen at first glance begin to emerge, and then . . . BOOM: The images own you.
Late artist Janice Lowry's cabinet cards—stiff, 19th-century cardboard-backed photographs—are found objects that have been reconstituted into miniature paintings, collaged with tiny images, often with masks on faces or hand-drawn window frames tightly reining in the individuals in the photo. With just a few deft brushstrokes, Lowry obliterates history, leaving just enough of the sepia past bleeding through into the present to suggest that we never escape our past, even when painting a new face on it. That idea is reinforced in Gina Genis' voyeuristic Things We Leave Behind. (Full disclosure: I donated the introduction to Genis' superb recent book documenting the Great Recession, Economy Portraits, and consider her a friend.) Given access to the home of a recently deceased hoarder, Genis photographed the accumulated garbage, as the house was being prepped for a radical cleaning. She rescued piles of insect-damaged books, boxes of obsessively itemized objects, handwritten notes and furniture destined for the trash heap, including a telephone so filthy it would keep a mysophobe awake at night. Laid out on display, the installation borders on the edge of the exploitative, but Genis' preservation of the man's ephemeral legacy—however fucked-up—is treated with a tenderness that seems sadly to have been missing from her subject's life while he was still breathing.
Obliteration of another history—this one ecological—is the theme of Laurie Brown's Convergence series: Appropriated stereoscopic photos from the beginning of the 20th century (touched up and rephotographed by the artist) are contrasted with large photos taken during the 1980s and '90s. While the images are not of the same geographical areas, putting shots of lush vegetation, lakes and waterfalls opposite a fortress of bland tract homes and dried-out wetlands makes a conservation point with black-and-white elegance. Extinction is also the driving force behind the late Jerry Burchfield's Primal Images series, with lumen prints documenting the flora and fauna of a rapidly disappearing Amazon. The tactile aspect of Burchfield's work—taking photo paper, carefully composing a picture by placing an object directly on it, covering it with glass, then letting available sunlight “develop” it—literally got the artist/activist's hands dirty as he attempted to rescue the present from the future.
Without irony, Clifton Meador's handmade Grove books hang nearby, gently crafted tomes unfolding several feet to reveal photographed sequoia trees. Less a rebuke to ebooks than a high five to a disappearing art form, it's a tender memorial to hardcover books as well as the ancient trees, both still standing, despite the odds against them. Framed on either side by Meador's tree books is architect Jeffrey Crussell's Column 101, a tall, red, monolithic light box with 144 randomly selected 35mm slides glued to it. The arbitrariness of the images lets you derive your own meaning: Is it a skyscraper of ideas, or some phallic totem forcing its way into Meador's forest.
Photographer Robert Heinecken (who died in 2006) is also enamored of illumination. In his Recto Verso series from the '80s, he chose pages from women's fashion magazines, blasted light through them until faces from both sides showed, and then took sharp Cibachrome pictures of the results. Two weeks later, I can't say I “get” what he was intending; I sincerely can't tell if he's making some misogynistic statement about “two-faced” women, fetishizing the anorexic fashion atrocities of the time period, laying bare the media fusillade aimed at the feminine, or just experimenting without commentary. All four make sense to some degree or other, but I'd have to see more of his work than what was represented here to solidify that perception.
Hanging nearby is Douglas McCulloh's slyly dazzling Taking Photographs, a huge display of framed photos lifted from model homes. McCulloh would enter the buildings during an open house and, when the opportunity arose, steal an image that caught his eye, such as photographic ads ripped from magazines that some decorator thought would suffice as “family” photos. The polished images look nothing like any family photo I've ever seen, of course, unless that family lives on Madison Avenue.
Wry commentaries about that kind of intellectual disconnect, the mass production of art and the insinuation of corporate aesthetics into our lives brings us right back to the beginning. The show is a vicious circle, but a brilliant one.
This review appeared in print as “Pictures More Than 1,000 Words: 'Photo + Plus' at Coastline Community College presents a brilliant, vicious circle.”
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.