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Art review: 'Photography into Sculpture' at Cherry and Martin

September 15, 2011 |  4:45 pm

Richard Jackson, "Negative Numbers"
“Photography Into Sculpture” was a groundbreaking show when it appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, and it is significant still, in its reprised version at Cherry and Martin. On its first go-round, the show introduced to New York and the other cities on its two-year tour a new, expansive mode of photographic art that originated on the West Coast. This time, as a fine exemplar of the Getty-driven Pacific Standard Time initiative, “Photography Into Sculpture” reintroduces L.A. to a momentous chapter of its own history.

MoMA curator Peter Bunnell organized the 1970 show, spurred by his encounter with the work of Robert Heinecken (then teaching at UCLA) and crystallized by an exploratory visit to Los Angeles. Of the 23 artists in the show, most were from the West Coast and nine came from L.A. Cherry and Martin has rustled up most of the original pieces that Bunnell selected, works that dissolved the photographic image’s age-old marriage to paper, freeing it to swing with plastic, wood, glass, fabric and more.

Bunnell later recounted a revelatory visit to Richard Jackson’s Pasadena studio, where the artist showed him a set of negatives produced by a shutterless, handmade camera. Bunnell asked Jackson if he had printed the images and remembers the artist answering, “Am I supposed to? Must I?” The conventional, causal route from negative to print was no longer a given — in California, at least — but instead simply one option among many.

In Jackson’s “Negative Numbers,” two large film negatives are taped to plexiglass panels and propped up in front of bare light bulbs on a wooden table. In each image, Jackson’s ghostly figure appears behind a row of numbers — his Social Security number and draft number — that he wrote in the air with a flashlight during the exposure. That the government-assigned numbers are darker and more prominent than Jackson’s own faint bodily form gives this record of private performance a subtle political edge.

Robert Heinecken, "Multiple Solution Puzzle"
 Other artists in the show infused their work with a Pop sensibility, conceptual twists and visual puns. Michael de Courcy’s cardboard cartons printed with images of birds, the sea and sky reads like a lyrical riposte to Warhol’s Brillo boxes of just a few years earlier. Jerry McMillan’s paper bag fashioned out of a photograph of a wrinkled paper bag delightfully fuses image and object, and is one of many lighthearted tweaks on the referential function of photography.

Some of the works in the show are goofy, dated and clumsy — Lynton Wells’ lifesize stuffed photo-doll, for one — but the takeaway lesson overrides such weaknesses. Such is the folly of a single linear historical narrative: Just when a cohort of artists in the late ’60s were dematerializing art, asserting its importance as idea more than thing, others, gathered in this show, were busy materializing it in new ways. They reveled in photography’s tactile possibilities and shifted the medium’s operative verb from "taking" pictures to "making" them.

-- Leah Ollman

Cherry and Martin, 2712 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 559-0100, through Oct. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.cherryandmartin.com

Images, from top:  Richard Jackson's "Negative Numbers"; Robert Heinecken's "Multiple Solution Puzzle." Credits: Robert Wedemeyer / From Cherry and Martin.

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