In our media-saturated culture -- and with the soaring auction prices for contemporary photography -- it should come as little surprise that photos are increasingly comfortable within the halls of our art museums. The range of material currently on view in Los Angeles institutions provides a convincing illustration of the trend.
August Sander at the Getty
"August Sander: German Portraits, 1918-1933," at the Getty Museum from Mar. 6-June 24, 2001, presents the photographer's physiognomic portraits of Germany's social strata during the artistically fervent and politically turbulent Weimar Period, immediately prior to the rise of the Third Reich.
For this exhibition, the Getty focuses primarily on Sander's controversial portrait of Germany, "Citizens of the 20th Century," a project in which the artist envisioned an ultimate portfolio of 500 photographs in 45 portfolios divided into seven hierarchical divisions based on class and occupation or trade.
Sander never completed the typological project, as it was met with Nazi resistance. Still, the exhibition features more than 125 of Sander's photographs, which are drawn from the Getty's collection of more than 1,200 images (second in size only to the artist's official archive in Cologne).
Also on view is a lesser-known body of Sander's work in which he rigorously documented each room at his home and studio in Cologne before its fated destruction during the Allied bombings.
Stan Douglas at MOCA, LA
Like Sander's, the Vancouver-based Canadian filmmaker Stan Douglas' work often involves the convergence of regional history and place. A retrospective of Douglas's work organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery recently finished its two-year, five-city tour at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Dec. 10, 2000-April 1, 2001). The Los Angeles installment featured three of the artist's innovative films and video projections, Der Sandmann (1995), Nu•tka• (1996), and Win, Place or Show (1998), as well as over 40 color documentary photographs by Douglas of the sets he builds for his projects as well as the actual locations that inspired them.
Interestingly, Douglas' photographic series, Potsdamer Schrebergärten, which documents the state-subsidized mini gardens once ubiquitous in Germany and accompanies the 16mm black and white double film projection, Der Sandmann, provides thematic links to the to the period in which Sander worked. For example, Douglas' series focuses in part on the disappearance of the gardens (once a defining aspect of social welfare systems in 19th- and early 20th-century Germany) due to the increasing number of commercial developments such as luxury housing settlements and hotels.
Places as Sets
At the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), a nonprofit collective that compiles and disperses information concerning human interaction with the contemporary American landscape, a exhibition entitled, "On Locations: Places as Sets in the Landscape of Los Angeles," provides an extensive survey of the motion picture industry's most frequently used filming locations. The show, which opened on Apr. 7 and continues through May 27, 2001, consists of color photographs, writings, and an informative, interactive computer display featuring interviews with location scouts and directors.
The CLUI has organized the popular shooting sites of the "most-filmed city" according to such categories as the classic movie theater, city diner, "Main Street," train station, mansion, prison, bank, airport, desert gas station/cafe/motel a.k.a. "the last chance," and industrial site.
Apparently, thanks to the prevalence of action epics, industrial locations are frequently blown up and rebuilt, only to be blown up and rebuilt again. As it happens, most of the sites are often abandoned and unused, although many are architectural landmarks. It is commonplace that film crews make significant changes to the places thus strangely altering their historical integrity.
After continual treatment of this sort, it soon becomes difficult to tell the authentic from the artificial. Frequently, in cases such as the desert roadside locations, elaborate structures are built from scratch for a single movie project; drivers-by might stop in for some road food only to discover that the location is merely a set. One of the CLUI's many projects, "On Locations..." demonstrates how the film industry's tinkering with historic place and cinematic space helps shape the boggled identity of Los Angeles.
"Phigment" in Irvine
Drive 45 minutes south of Los Angeles on the Golden State Freeway, past the endless tree-lined tract home developments and signs which read "Home Finding Centers," and you come to a lovely artificial pond where ducks swim alongside cement-covered banks. Next to the pond rests the Irvine Arts Center, a community arts complex where a recent group photography show (Mar. 10-Apr. 14, 2001) investigated a theme which continues to preoccupy contemporary photographers, that of the artificial and the staged.
The exhibition entitled, "Phigment," featured works by two German sensations, Oliver Boberg and Eva Leitolf; three Los Angeles based photographers, Miles Coolidge (whose brother is one of the CLUI's co-founders Matthew Coolidge), David DiMichele and Allan deSouza; as well as the pioneering tableau artist, New Yorker David Levinthal. Most noticeably absent from the show, however, were the high profile artist-photographers like James Casebere, Gregory Crewdson, Thomas Demand and Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Boberg's and deSouza's modestly sized pictures feature vistas that are completely fabricated by the respective artists. Boberg's banal if remarkably detailed roadside views (works, 2000) are in fact miniatures made from architectural modeling materials, while deSouza's mysterious desert "Terrain" photographs (2000) consist of fragments of the human body. Indeed, in deSouza's landscapes, the artist has convincingly substituted human eyelashes for blades of desert grass; and perfect, rounded conglomerations of earwax for rocks in his grainy desert setting.
Levinthal made a name for himself several decades ago by constructing his own scenes as subjects for his photographs. On view in Irvine were three of his 24 by 20-inch Polaroids from the "Western Series" (1990), in which miniature cowboy and horse figurines are blurred and silhouetted against thematic landscapes based on Western cinema and television.
Alternatively, neither Coolidge nor Leitolf construct tableaux, rather they each document artificial spaces that exist in the real world. Coolidge's "Safetyville" series offer deadpan views of faux building facades where school children learn safety lessons. Six photographs from Leitolf's "Naturstüecke"(1997-2000) depict close-ups of nocturnal forest dioramas from a natural history museum. The oddly lit scenes go further than simply trying to pass off the artificial as real.
In Leitolf's work, unlike most of the other work in "Phigment," the artificiality of the scene is overtly apparent due in part to the visible, flat, painted backgrounds behind the dioramas on which ominous shadows are evident. By photographing such an atmosphere, Leitolf reveals a remarkable self-reflexivity concerning her role as photographer and the medium itself.
Francesca Gabbiani at the Hammer
The Los Angeles-based, Swiss-Canadian artist, Francesca Gabbiani's recent exhibition of collages depicts hybrid spaces, both real and imagined. Gabbiani's works, made of colored paper cutouts and glue, were shown at the UCLA Hammer Museum (Feb. 4-Apr. 15, 2001) as part of the ongoing "Hammer Projects", a series which focuses on emerging artists. Gabbiani's working materials might be likened to those used by children, however the resulting pictures are precisely detailed and compositionally resolved despite the ultra-graphic, concentrated blocks of color that dominate the pictures.
Hung in one continuous row, Gabbiani's 17 studies of insects are so superbly detailed that dragonfly's wings resemble the most intricate lace and the narrow antennae of another bug is rendered in as many as three tones in approximately 1/16 inch of space.
The highlight of the installation, however, was a mural-sized, site-specific work, entitled Wallpaper (2001), depicting a dense forest. The piece, which measures more than six feet in height and over 25 feet in length, was hung along the convex wall at the end of the Hammer's Vault Gallery resembling a diorama or panorama. The vivid construction is at once spatially convincing in terms of its three-dimensionality and weight yet absurdly artificial.
The Velaslavasay Panorama
The Velaslavasay Panorama, located on Hollywood Boulevard in the thick of tinsel town, revives a form of entertainment prevalent in 19th century Europe. The panorama's proprietor, the 24-year-old painter Sara Velas, discovered the dilapidated Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda, which was modeled after a South Pacific roundhouse and used for decades successively as an ice cream shop, pizza parlor, and a Chinese restaurant.
Velas spent a year restoring the infrastructure of the site, revitalizing its lush palm gardens, and painting the main attraction, a seamless 360° canvas measuring over 70 feet in circumference and almost five feet tall. The painting, entitled The Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes (2001) is a fascinating depiction of the Los Angeles Basin as it might have existed during the heyday of the panorama craze 200 years ago.
The artist based her quasi-historical composite on photographs and illustrations depicting the region 150-200 years ago. Using grisaille with few subtle earth tones, Velas successfully rouses the past. She plans to create a new panorama each year and intends to construct dioramas as well over the course of the long-term project. The Velaslavasay Panorama is part tourist attraction and part pop-cultural project; part restoration project and part painting exhibit. It is open on weekends from noon to five.
Valie Export at Santa Monica
Finally, a 35-year survey of the work of Austrian, pioneering feminist and media artist Valie Export entitled "Ob/De+Con(Struction)," is currently on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in Bergamot Station, Mar. 9-May 6, 2001. The exhibition includes numerous examples of the artist's avant-garde performance pieces, photographs, films, videos and installation works.
Two seminal performances by Export that established her as the feminist antithesis to a rowdy group of conceptual performance artists known as the Viennese Actionists are among the most alarming and memorable works in the exhibition. In Touch and Tap Cinema (1968), Export appeared outside a movie cinema wearing a veiled box strapped on her chest, and along with her "pimp" invited passersby to reach inside and feel her breasts. In Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), Export cut the crotch out of her jeans and moved through the rows of a risqué cinema house while taunting the predominately male audience to look at the "real thing."
In both, Export established her body as an important aspect of the work, in fact as the subject matter itself and as a means as which to subvert society's objectification of the female body. This theme continues in Body Configurations (1972-76) a series of black and white photographs in which Export depicts her body as an extension of architecture throughout the urban landscape by contorting her body to mimic architectural features such as columns, street curbs and staircases.
STEPHEN HILGER is an artist and writer currently living in Los Angeles.