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Back to Reviews 97


report from los angeles

by Giovanni Intra  

Diana's Crash,
by Reuters

Harold Edgerton
Milk Drops

Harold Edgerton
Bullet Cutting Card
ca. 1964

John Divola
Los Angeles International Airport,
Noise Abatement Zone,
Forced Entry

Charles Gaines
Disaster Machine:
Airplane Crash Clock

Hinterland Site #34 -
Mojava Airport Scrap
© Center for Land Use
Interpretation, L.A.

Hinterland Site #28 -
George AFB
copywright CLUI, L.A.

Elizabeth Bryant
Garden Spot

Elizabeth Bryant
Summit Vista/Garden at Karlsruhe

Elizabeth Bryant
Autumn Grove/
Vatican Belvedere

Cynthia Phillips
Controlling Weeds

Pam Strugar
Installation view

Jeff Wall
The Destroyed Room
   Princess Diana's "untimely death" is certainly a major event in the history of photography, as the "most photographed woman in the world" is suddenly lost as a photographic subject. What's more, photography -- or rather, the euphoniously named paparazzi -- stand accused of murder. But it's not photography's fault! Photography is behaving just like it has always behaved.

Edgerton at LACMA
Evidence of this is everywhere. The perverse curiosity of a medium that dares to show what could never, or should never, meet the eye is clearly on view, for example, in Harold Edgerton's brilliant stroboscopic photographs. One of his more famous images even shows a playing card, the Jack of Hearts I think, with a bullet splitting it perfectly through the center -- an allegorical regicide. A scientist and a dandy, Edgerton invaded the privacy of high-speed movement much in the same way as the paparazzi invaded Diana's private life, allegedly driving her into a curb faster than a speeding bullet.

Edgerton's photographs, 28 of them, are subject of a remarkable show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The works include the perplexing Milk Drop Coronet, and the perhaps more sensational Cranberry Juice into Milk, and are now in the permanent collection of the museum thanks to a bequest of the Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation.

Whatever these images were intended to be, they say everything about photography's brilliant virulence. Breaking the laws of vision, Edgerton's pictures are diabolical. He photographed bullets going through soft objects: an apple, bananas, soap bubbles. But why the bullet? Simply because of its speed, a terminal velocity which the camera's shutter has to match? Or is it because the innocent objects on which it wreaks havoc are symbols of absolute defenselessness? (Or, in the case of the playing card, absolute power?)

Like a policeman, Edgerton assumed that movement itself was suspicious -- he investigated it. His inquiry had a mechanical, inhuman, scientific persistence. And along with that real police photographer, Weegee, Edgerton sought the immortal in a peculiar way. That is to say, dead things, which, for whatever reasons, look great. It's boring to once again equate photography and death, but it is fair to say that death, without photography, would be almost no fun at all.

"Scene of the Crime"
Exhibitions in Los Angeles: how can they avoid being about such things? One could say that there is a sort of crime wave in L.A. art at the moment and that playing into these morbid circumstances most shamelessly is critic and curator Ralph Rugoff's "Scene of the Crime," a major exhibition at UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum. "Scene of the Crime" is a show which, from an intellectual and art historical platform, affirms the celebrity status of the death-drive, Diana's accident being only the most recent and topical example of its hysterical scope.

Featuring 30 Californian artists ranging from Ed Ruscha to Vincent Fecteau, "Scene of the Crime" introduces a new term into the lexicon of art history -- the silly-sounding "forensic esthetic." A catalogue with contributions by Rugoff, Peter Wollen and Anthony Vidler has been co-published by UCLA, MIT Press and the Fellows of Contemporary Art.

Rugoff's "forensic esthetic" and "Scene of the Crime's" argument might be summarized as follows:

1) There is the art of Jackson Pollock, whose paintings may be likened to a crime scene, at least in the sense that every paint mark is frozen into an evidence-like stasis. Rugoff writes: "Like blood splatters at a crime scene, "Jack the Dripper"'s paintings recall a history of aggressive movements and to see them as a bloody spillage...does not seem unreasonable."

2) The dematerialization of the object, in particular those works existing only in photo-documentary form, casts the art event as a kind of unseen action, like a crime, known through its traces and results. This is true especially of art that adopts pseudo-scientific procedures, in particular those self-consciously mimicking police evidence-collection by Chris Burden and Bruce Conner, among others.

3) Probably most significant, as context, is the dramatization of crime (and crime-solving) across the whole of mediated space. The public fixation on the criminal obviously predates the art that exploits it, and, needless to say, continues to provide a substantial appetite for late-capitalist "entertainment." This extremely healthy vein is far from collapsing, so to speak.

In the end, Rugoff's "forensic esthetic" is more curious than menacing in its marriage of murder and the dematerialization of the art object. Despite its more theoretical pretensions, Scene of the Crime is a popular-cultist probe into L.A. after Rodney King, Ricky Ramirez and Paul Schimmel's Helter Skelter -- a metaphorical autopsy on post-object art in the Golden State which aims to expose something morbid at its core.

Scene of the Crime was initiated and sponsored by the Fellows of Contemporary Art, an independent, nonprofit organization that has helped fund 24 major exhibitions in California since 1976. In keeping with FCA policy, all works in this exhibition were by Californian artists. A restriction or a limitation? As Rugoff states in his catalogue introduction, there was no shortage of local work to enrich his thesis, as the many great pieces in the exhibition prove: Richard Hawkins, Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose, Vija Celmins, Bruce Nauman, Anthony Hernandez, Sharon Lockhart, Richard Misrach, Nayland Blake, Sam Durant, Monica Majoli. If anything there was a surplus of interesting art.

Spread through the galleries were works with their subjects etched and beaten out of them, copious toppled furniture, blood-spatter patterns, fake crimes, intoxicated stabs at the masters. There is a weird interdiction: the audience is asked to be cops, scanning works for clues, searching for culprits. But if this aspect of the show was didactic, its more fascinating aspect -- an occult correspondence between images -- was not. Barry Le Va's Scattershatter (Within the series of layered / Pattern Acts) (1968-71) and John Divola's Los Angeles International Airport, Noise Abatement Zone, Forced Entry (76FES29i) (1976), for example, became a visual equation which transfused "formalism," at its base level, into an ritualistic exercise in desperate envy of violence, a provocation which transcended the visual pun entirely.

Ultimately, the question of the criminal and his or her actions was asphyxiated by the "esthetic" goals pursued by this exhibition. Evidence itself, it seems, is more worthy of attention than evil. In other words, "Scene of the Crime" was a paparazzi-inspired exhibition which allowed us to indulge in a pithy, magnificently superficial sensationalism. The exhibition's subject was not crime at all, even its real-life scenes, but the frenzied, terrified gaze of the public who linger at maximum distance from the accident, nibbling at the gore which the paparazzi hold out on sticks for them.

"Scene of the Crime" celebrates mediation whilst assuming that crime is something extrinsic to media: the media, including art, responds to and absorbs crime. But what if mediation is the root of all evil? (During a public discussion featuring Rugoff, Wollen and artist Alexis Smith, an audience member hilariously suggested that the greatest crime was that the status of "art" had been conferred upon the worthless objects in the upstairs gallery.) "Scene of the Crime" chooses not to concentrate on these allegations, preferring instead to focus upon a carnal branch of crime, one which involves severed limbs and absent bodies, the kind of crime which, if nothing else, is available for exhibition.

Charles Gaines at Heller
An artist whose previous work juxtaposes police mug shots of criminals with celestial portraits corresponding to the dates on which their alleged crimes took place, Charles Gaines exhibits a work entitled Disaster Machine: Airplane Crash Clock at Richard Heller Gallery. Gaines' work is criminal in the sense that it makes no argument. It is indifferent. For Gaines, there is no human murderer. Disaster runs by its own engine. It proves to be very entertaining, he finds, and the larger scale on which the disaster occurs, the better.

Disaster machine: Airplane Crash Clock features a model airplane that "crashes" every 7.5 minutes, only to repeat the gesture over again. Into a wooden, New York City-like metropolis it punctually plunges, an accident in perpetuity, which, like Edgerton's stroboscopic pictures, ridicules indeterminacy, real-time and the safety of vegetables.

Gaines' work has nothing to do with critical production and everything to do with undiluted black humor. Mockingly wrought as a toy, Gaines' airplane sculpture is an automaton which grinds on at its own rhythm. All that's presented is scholastic terrorism, popular mechanics and bad luck. Gaines isn't raising humanist issues here; he's just some kind of detached and abject proselyte, an ambassador of machines who has no sympathy for the families of the TWA 800 crash.

Hinterland at LACE
California itself, for better or worse, is one great theme park, or that is the way that the Center for Land Use Interpretation might see it. "Hinterland: A Voyage into Exurban California," an exhibition presented by this multidisciplinary collective, bunks the common notion that the Southern Californian desert, which covers much of the lower half of the state, is a nothingness. They prove that it is a nothingness punctuated by wonder.

Held at Los Angeles Contemporary its Exhibitions (LACE), "Hinterland" was an ostensibly straight show that consisted of 100 color photos hung and framed in the most traditional manner. The prints themselves were disappointingly average in their execution. "Hinterland's" gesture, however, was to go and see what's out there.

What is out there? "This mostly desert terrain," pronounced the catalogue, "is a place that accommodates extremes: proving grounds, heavy industry, waste sites and recreational zones. It tolerates a kind of freedom that expands the margins of society, and is a refuge for radical visionaries and rebels, who at times create inspirational monuments to individual endeavor." Also depicted in the photographs are correction facilities, car proving plants, shrines constructed for outlandish Gods, a museum of burlesque and exotic dancers, and, of course, weapons testing sites, a deep space tracking center, aircraft scrap yards and military bases of all kinds.

It is fascinating to note that many of these sites gain significance by a shared aversion to earthly existence -- whether military facilities, the deep space tracking stations or the home-baked religions.

Looking at these pictures, and considering their subjects, one is filled with a sick wonder. The most beautiful sites often have extremely destructive potential, such as the TRW Capistrano Test Site which was built to support "Star-Wars" space-based weapons systems. Either that, or they're cosmic wastes of money which once promised to deliver new forms of energy but which now just fry in the sun.

The Center for Land Use Interpretation presents these architectures dryly, feigning impartiality. The stuff is there, in the desert. Period. As Robert Smithson, who in may ways is a mentor for this project, said, "It's kind of interesting to bring the fringes into centrality and the centrality out to the fringes."

Utopia at LASCA
Other artists have taken a different tack: they build small utopias, oases in the art desert. Exhibitions at Los Angeles Seoul Contemporary Art (LASCA) by Cynthia Phillips and Elizabeth Bryant pursue this unlikely grail. Both artists are concerned with beauty, but it's a kind of beauty that has to be discovered after nature has been withdrawn from view and has returned, hammered into kitsch.

Bryant and Phillips both have a taste for nature, but homemade or from the 99¢ store. Plastic replicas of nature -- synthetic fruit, postcards of fir trees, extruded cornucopias of plastic. But their works demonstrate that nature born in a printing factory still can have a fresh buzz to it.

Bryant is like a floral arranger of such esthetic vegetation. She has harvested the most splendidly epic scenes from what must have been an especially fertile 1950s photo-bank and, with photographic process, has laid these vistas onto canvas. But we can still breathe the fresh air coming out of them. Bryant's works look like place mats for a perfect Disneyland that were too beautiful to eat off of and so migrated to the wall of their own accord.

But in a shocking move, Bryant sucks the air back out again, letting the irony gasses pollute, when she commits a strange act upon her scenes: incised right through their picture planes are gaping holes which, we are informed, are diagrams of the ground plans of historical European gardens. An incision which spoils the view? No. Luckily, the effect is doubly pictorial; not some kind of commentary on man's intervention into the natural world. The discussion seems to be about patterns and hybrid pictures, pictures built in photographic and conceptual hot-houses. Bryant's pictures are joyful.

Cynthia Phillips makes sculptures which are similarly indebted to the irony of second and third natures. Phillips makes very sincere sculptures about fake plants. Her Controlling Weeds (1997), which were vaguely threatening their over-life-size aspect, were nonetheless domestic herbs which didn't need watering and liked very much to be looked at. A paper vine with kinetic potential, Controlling Weeds was at once a Richard Artschwager "splatter" sculpture and a home-cured Nancy Graves that motioned to its audience as the Venus Fly Trap motions to a fly.

Controlling Weeds would look quite at home in Huntington Gardens along with the other exotic plants of the world which have been collected there in the name of pontification. A rare plant, it would certainly qualify as a collectible one. Hardly, though, does it seem a pest, as the word "weed" in its title implies. But as its nature happily winds over the gallery wall, one wonders just what these weeds are trying to control, or indeed what they're controlled by. Perhaps they are restrained in the name of decoration, like a aristocrat dressed in extremely uncomfortable couture. Or perhaps they're about to lash out in some spectacular display, hibernating, waiting patiently for the Day of the Triffids.

Pam Strugar at Art Center, Pasadena
At Art Center, Pasadena, Pam Strugar's exhibition, which released her from the school's MFA program with distinction, also occupied space like an out-of-control vine, winding and billowing through the gallery in a display of multi-colored delight. It was like a grand experiment to test the limits of acrylic paint and biomorphic form (a contradiction between media and form?), Strugar granting to them both unlikely contortions, unruly scales and characteristics.

Strugar is an artist who is clearly interested in how painting can trigger the sensation known as beauty. Hers is a gentle beauty as opposed to a sublime one. In Strugar's art, nonrepresentation might just as well be a form of cartoon realism which transforms cell by cell. Her sculptural paintings seem to grow in and out of their skins, flopping, standing, bending, transforming themselves. The history of art is used to personal ends. Paintings, she seems to suggest, can have personalities of their own. To her, making an exhibition must be like inventing new people.

Jeff Wall at MOCA
Downtown L.A.'s MoCA, a museum that is currently planning shows by Christopher Wool and Cindy Sherman and that has just premiered an enormous Robert Gober installation, currently hosts the Jeff Wall retrospective curated by Kerry Brougher. Many of Wall's incredible pictures are here -- from Stereo (1980), right through to the late, grotesque works such as The Vampire's Picnic (1991) and Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol Near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) (1992). The retrospective is a great success in that it presents such a good number of his works, many of which I find totally enamoring.

Wall's reputation as a major artist is secured; it's deserved. He's so unusual. Wall is not dependent on the radical platforms of the historical avant-garde. Wall's pictorial universe resembles a photographic version of 19th-century salon painting -- both art history and everyday life can accommodated by the powerful unity of the picture, quite a traditional notion of a picture at that.

Wall often cites Baudelaire's la peinture de la vie moderne as a foundation of his practice. Pictures of modern life can show the generic or the extraordinary, natural phenomena or the manmade -- they can show everything, especially the preeminence of the pictorial itself. But how did such an old-fashioned method steal into the canon of advanced contemporary art?

Like Edgerton, Wall uses photography to show what is not available to the unaided eye. Wall's pictures are about the photographic paradox of arresting movement. For Wall, the street is the same thing as Edgerton's laboratory. The"social" -- whatever it may be -- is like a liquid, kinetic, indeterminable, totally imperceptible. To depict it doing what it never does -- standing still -- amounts to something akin to Edgerton's superscientific irony.

Wall's "street" photographs reveal the alien character of representation. The locations in his pictures are places to which no one can return. Wall's streets, like Atget's, are not always on maps. And his subjects don't have names. Wall would never make a portrait of a famous person. His venues are imaginary, test-tube cities, many of which are built in studios or machined in Photoshop, and nearly all of them utilize actors.

The totality of this obsessively constructed universe takes us beyond a "critique" of the documentary tradition in photography which, as we all know, examines the links between reality and the photographic image. Wall has gone further into a parallel universe, accessible only to the camera. His pictures are a images that resemble so-called everyday life, but which cannot be used to understand everyday life.

Is this a crime? Virtual reality is more virulent than an impersonation, more menacing than a fiction. Wall's picture Outburst (1989), which shows an enraged sweat-shop czar blowing his top at a (lowly paid) female employee, is a tableaux showing a sign so detached from its signifier that a sensation of vertigo and nausea is unleashed. Wall's pictures float above what they apparently depict -- the only way that they can be satisfactorily understood is as "picture." Nobody talks about the sociological content of Wall's works -- it's impossible to do so.

In contrast to the paparazzi, Wall doesn't invade anyone's privacy. His works have the manners of a President and the good looks of a First Lady. They are on the side of "the family" but not only because they resemble a perfectly rendered fundamentalist church art in which scenes of repentance, respect, love, compassion, work and wholesome recreational activities are depicted. They also are strongly retrospective, believing in historical consistencies, not violent breaks between cultural models. Thus, they have a progressive, cathartic function, operating much like an art-historical conscience, recycling and renewing pictorial tropes, translating and updating generations worth of culture. Unlike the paparazzi, they seem to do the job of a commissioned portraitist.

However it's also the paparazzi's job to photograph "the social." The paparazzi scrape images off the street and the celebrity boudoir, hoping to sell them for vast amounts of money, regardless of the ethical consequences. There are certainly (legal) lines drawn between what can be and what should not be shown; the paparazzi cross them. Their images are irresponsible and have no cohesion: they occupy an unreasonable position in relation to the public's needs.

Like the avant-garde, the paparazzi make images which are despised but also deeply required. Up with the pace, possibly faster than it, they're perfect providers. The paparazzi, although scandalous in the traditional photographic sense, are true painters of modern life. Jeff Wall may be today's most important photographer, but he could never depict an event the magnitude of Diana's car crash, let alone provoke it.

GIOVANNI INTRA is a graduate candidate in criticism and theory at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena.