Curated by Carol Ann Klonarides, Che Mondo (What A World) at the LA Municipal Art Gallery asks, “If, in the age of omnipresent digital photography, everyone can be, and in fact is, a photographer, how does one remain a ‘Photographer’”? This exhibition points to answers by presenting artists whose photographs rely on specific material execution to claim a physical presence and inscribe conceptual meaning. The result is a truly inquisitive and captivating exhibition.
One alluring body of work comes from Julie Schafer whose large pinhole camera photos document landscapes marking the borders of 19th century mining zones. These works reflect one of the most basic ways of making a photograph; light passing through a tiny aperture imprints on chemically treated paper. Printed in the negative (with light areas appearing dark and vice versa), the impressively tall photographs succeed in alienating viewers from familiar bucolic scenes like piney hilltops and desert landscapes. The work is mysterious, but perhaps too much so. Schafer’s project, which interrogates the legacies of mineral extraction and removal of indigenous peoples, could use more wall text to relay the artist’s intention. Without this the work risks coming off solely as a sign of photographic virtuosity, an updated Ansel Adams shtick.
Christopher Russell’s work convincingly merges photography and drawing to create one-of-a-kind objects. He uses an Xacto blade to scratch into the surface of a set of identical photographs, each bearing an “oops” image of a thumb on the lens. One image contains a sinking ship, another a stream of disjunctive text, and in another, frenetic lines resemble veins or brain synapses. This mark-making violates the clean surface photographers traditionally hold sacrosanct. Through this process Russell calls attention to the way we interpret photos from subjective points of view while commenting on the frailty and latent violence that comes with fixed meaning. Russell’s installation also includes a massive but conspicuously non-photographic hand-drawn artist book containing his most recent novel. However, I wish it were easier for visitors to page through the fascinating and enormous tome, which is kept safe by a Do Not Touch sign.
The most powerful work in the exhibition is Susan Silton’s Color Theory, which consists of a chair facing a projector screen, which presents a never-ending loop of images emanating from an old school projector. Sitting in a single chair, one watches a slow pan of stamps taken from the artist’s grandfather’s collection from the Third Reich, each bearing the image of Adolph Hitler. This philatelist archive invites questions about collecting the past as a way to view the present. Here Hitler’s image speaks to photography’s use in propaganda, while the stamps sign to the record of a country’s official history as well as a the currency of communication. Finally the slide projector, itself all but obsolete, engenders a didactic experience. Yet what we “learn” from this set up remains elusive. The work’s cool detachment allows for self-reflection and perhaps a bit of indictment, a moment of serious rumination on the passage of time from one fascist institution to the next.