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Art review: Zaki at Steve Turner Contemporary

December 10, 2009 |  4:20 pm
400.pc.04-1535 Steve Turner Contemporary inaugurates the program it's calling "Artists Select" with the show "Nothing New: Amir Zaki Selects Vintage Photographs of Southern California, 1870-1950." The series will draw from local private collections, with contemporary artists doing the choosing — a nice variant on familiar curatorial practices but one that would be even better accompanied by a statement from the artist in charge.

Zaki, a photographer of the built environment, has chosen nearly 80 small (mostly postcard-size) photographs from an unnamed collection. The images, many of them anonymous, all of them black and white, are organized into categories according to their subject: banks, piers, train depots, hotels and inns, structures damaged by natural disasters, and so on.

The pictures are at once humble little objects and precious artifacts. They detail the texture of both moment and place. A photograph from the 1920s of the U.S. Customs house on the border at Tijuana illustrates with striking clarity how much difference a century makes. The tiny wooden structure, with a single chair on its porch, sits beside an otherwise unguarded, unceremonious dirt road linking one nation to the other.

This collection celebrates the vernacular, the idiosyncrasies of signage and architecture that are central to the New Topographics photographs of the 1970s now hanging across the street at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Both the LACMA pictures and these expose the built environment as a manifestation of societal dreams and blunt realities, as a reflection of the aesthetic bounty or poverty (depending on your interpretation) of a particular time and place.

The kind of photographs on view at Steve Turner served as a foundation for those at LACMA, but mostly after they had already been filtered through the sensibility of Walker Evans, whose work was profoundly influenced by the plain-spoken art of picture postcards, which he collected by the thousands. (The private collection this show is drawn from is accessible in its entirety online in the gallery.) A statement from Zaki outlining his interest in this type of photography and its possible influence on his own work would have connected the dots into the present and more thoughtfully contributed to the dialogue the pictures invite about where art and artifact converge.

– Leah Ollman

Steve Turner Contemporary, 6026 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 931-3721, through Dec. 19. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.

Image: Big Rock Beach Cafe, Malibu Beach, California, c. 1949. Real Photo Postcard. Credit: Bob Plunkett, courtesy of Steve Turner Contemporary.