Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
Pacific Standard Time has included medium-specific exhibitions devoted to film, ceramics, music, and printmaking, so it’s only fitting that photography—nearly ubiquitous in contemporary art—should have its turn in the spotlight. Two exhibitions, “In Focus: Los Angeles, 1945-1980” at the Getty Center, and “Sight Specific: LACPS and the Politics of Community” at the University of Southern California’s Fisher Museum of Art paint somewhat different portraits of the medium’s role in the region. While the former is a small, tightly focused sampling of images created in L.A., the latter is a sprawling chronicle of an organization, the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, which operated from 1974 to 1985.
Although the Getty is the flagship institution for Pacific Standard Time, its own PST exhibitions have been relatively modest. This holds especially true for “In Focus,” which includes just 31 images, all drawn from the Getty’s permanent collection. Organized into four rather conventional categories—experimental images, street photography, architecture, and the entertainment industry—they are pretty much the pictures you expect to see of Los Angeles: Judy Fiskin’s tiny, cameo-like portraits of stucco houses, miles of tract housing documented from the air by William A. Garnett, and a fabulous image by Garry Winogrand of two women, dressed to the nines, walking towards the swooping lines of the Encounter restaurant at LAX. The images are exceptional, but the show is a bit flat-footed.
There are a few pleasant surprises, however. Jo Ann Callis’ poetic, 1974 nudes, lying in the water like Ophelia, are partially obscured by mysterious layers of reflections—smoke, floral patterns, and other indeterminate shapes—making it hard to tell whether they’re “straight” photographs or composite images. And Robert Cumming’s 1977 photos of the awkward, behind-the-scenes spaces of Hollywood stage sets are simple but cogent exposés of the mechanics behind the illusion.
Anthony Friedkin, represented in both exhibitions, presents a similar, albeit more humorous image in “Sight Specific.” It’s a shot of a man who looks like he’s being swallowed as he works on the mechanical shark from “Jaws.” The image was featured in “L.A. Issue,” an exhibition organized by LACPS in 1979, one of its many wide-ranging shows.
“Sight Specific” presents groups of selected works from these exhibitions, which encompassed not only thematic shows of contemporary work, but historical ones featuring such luminaries as Edward Weston, James Van Der Zee, and Paul Outerbridge, Jr. Perhaps the most certifiably “L.A.” endeavor in this regard was 1981’s “Photoflexion: Photographs about Body Building,” It included images of the shiny, muscled bodies the world has come to associate with Southern California, as well as some curious older works, such as a turn of the century image by George Steckel that depicts a somewhat less emphatically muscled man sporting roman sandals and a pert fig leaf.
LACPS’s exhibitions of contemporary work were organized according to the artistic concerns of the day, only some of which were strictly photographic. There were shows on multiculturalism, theatricality, the relationship between word and image, expressions of time and duration, and “constructed” images, or scenes set up expressly to be photographed. In other words, LACPS artists were engaged with the same broad issues as their peers in other media.
As a consequence, “Sight Specific” feels a great deal more freewheeling than the buttoned up “In Focus.” As it turns out, post-war photography in L.A. was a much messier business than can be summed up with a handful of cool, black and whites.
“Sight Specific” does feature some stunning “straight” images, like Mark Klett’s dramatic shot from inside a snow tunnel—a vertigo-inducing swirl of textured light and shadow. But LACPS members, at least as sampled here, tended toward experimental and conceptual approaches, many of which did not necessarily involve traditional photographic skills. Bea Nettles used a pinhole camera to try to see everyday objects from the wonderous perspective of her small children. Bruce Yonemoto’s “Suspected Japanese Houses” from 1976 looks like a photocopy (it’s actually a diazo print, like a blueprint). With its whited-out ornamental shrubbery (many Japanese Americans worked as gardeners), it’s a subtle, darkly funny comment on stereotypes and racial profiling. And in “Construct XV” from 1982, Barbara Kasten photographed an arrangement of mirrors and colored plastic to create a geometric abstraction more commonly associated with painting.
To its credit, LACPS seems to have had no aesthetic agenda beyond the love and promotion of photography, in whatever form it appeared. And it filled a void in local support for such adventurous work between the demise of the forward-thinking Pasadena Art Museum in 1974, and the creation of a photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the mid 1980s. In this regard, its greatest impact may have been in fostering a sense of community.
Indeed, the first thing one sees upon entering “Sight Specific” is a wall papered with images of smiling people posing for pictures at art openings. In 1978, artist Daryl Curran began his series “L.A. Art Openings: 1978-79,” which evolved into “A Moment in Photo History,” in which he documented not just openings, but the lectures, parties and other events around which the L.A. photographic community coalesced. In each image he had someone hold a clipboard, like a Hollywood film clapper, detailing the name of the event, the location and the date. Sprinkled throughout the exhibition, these photos are a quiet undercurrent in this boisterous show, but in photographing the people behind the cameras, Curran was perhaps acknowledging LACPS’s greatest work of art.
Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., (310) 440-7330, through May 6. Closed Mondays. www.getty.edu
Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California, 823 Exposition Blvd., (213) 740-4561, through April 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.fisher.usc.edu
Photos, from top: Darryl Curran, "Untitled," 1980, from the "Moment in Photo History" series. Credit: Collection of the artist.
Garry Winogrand, "Los Angeles International Airport," 1964. Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © 1984 The Estate of Garry Winogrand.
Bea Nettles, "Pack up your Troubles," 1981. Credit: Courtesy of the artist.