rebels with a lens

“Liberty Head, Illinois,” 1978
Ruth Thorne-Thomsen

In our current YouTube and Photoshop-enhanced media landscape where all photographs are suspect, it’s refreshing to see photographers celebrate the old-school ingenuity of darkroom alchemy instead of relying on computers to bring their visions to fruition. This is one of the charms running throughout the Museum of Photographic Arts’ recent exhibition, “Rebels & Revelers: Experimental Decades 1970s-1980s, Gifts from the Joyce & Ted Strauss Collection,” which closed on May 6. However, the modestly sized show’s selection of 112 pieces predates the introduction of such ubiquitous tools as Photoshop and digital cameras in general, so it’s impossible to say if these artists would follow such a modus operandi in today’s cultural climate. Relying on their own intuition and hands-on abilities to craft their imagery, these nontraditional photographers created works that often shine with the unique quality of one-of-a-kind art objects instead of the sort of images that could be mass-produced on demand.

Regardless of the medium, the best artists with a truly experimental sensibility are eager to push the envelope of their talents, thus nurturing their own artistic growth. More often than not, committed artists embrace the process itself as its own reward. And MoPA, in San Diego, continues to set forth shows that champion artists who understand this fundamental fact. It’s no surprise that most of the show’s selected artists-Jo Ann Callis, Ruth Thorne-Thompson, Thomas Barrow, Leland Rice, Barbara Kasten, Arthur Taussig, Barbara DeGenevieve and John Pfahl, among others-have gravitated to photography from painting, sculpture, and film. You can see their eclectic backgrounds informing their respective approaches to the medium.

All of the works reflect artists who are keenly aware of art history and the innovators who came before them. After all, you can’t break new ground and hope to have anything original to say without being cognizant of the past. For instance, several of the pieces reference the work of earlier photographers like Man Ray, whose influence is easy to read in Barbara Houghton’s 1976 works, Women’s Flimsy Things/ Sheer Nylons and Women’s Flimsy Things/ Bed Jacket. The visual echo of Man Ray’s photograms resonates in Houghton’s Cyanotypes. Placing women’s garments on light-sensitive paper, before exposing them to light, created her ethereal images. The result transforms ordinary household items into luminous shapes juxtaposed against dark-blue backgrounds.

Likewise, Thorne-Thompson’s imagery is generated through the low-tech means of a pinhole camera where her subjects appear as dream-like apparitions stranded in surreal dreamscapes. With a seemingly infinite depth of field, her 1978 piece Silver Shoe, Mexico centers around a man’s shoe dominating the stark composition. Meanwhile, an anonymous male figure holds his ground in Liberty Head, Illinois, also from 1978. A similar spectral presence is felt in Thorne-Thompson’s 1979 piece Glider, Illinois with its image of a paper airplane careening across the sky while a cityscape is glimpsed in the distance. In each case, Thorne-Thompson’s images pull the rug out from under the viewer with the eerie sense of dislocation. Originally trained as a painter and printmaker, this New York-born artist’s painterly visions evoke the memory of such surrealists as René Magritte with her off-kilter juxtapositions and subtle flair for subversive visual wit. The element of homage to art from previous eras also crops up in Kasten’s 1981 large-scale Polaroid prints, which have abstract tableaux reminiscent of the modernist design associated with Bauhaus and Constructivist art movements of the early 20th century. Only, instead of working with black-and-white images, Kasten plays with a minimalist color palette that holds the eye. Thorne-Thompson isn’t alone in invoking a deadpan humorous streak underscoring artfully crafted imagery. DeGenevieve‘s 1979 mixed-media piece, True Life Novelette #3; The Romantic Slob, explores gender issues via the female body with a dry sense of humor that is often lacking in politically charged work. Printed on photo linen, the artist’s self-portrait depicts her own body as a series of fragments. Her eyes are closed as if enthralled by a vivid daydream as her limbs dart in various directions. To complete the piece, DeGenevieve’s hand-written text states, “Even though she tried to ignore it she knew deep inside she would always be a romantic slob.” Although the text is incorporated into the pictorial plane, the words function almost as an extended caption commenting on the imagery.

Of course, no survey of 70s and 80s photo-based art-however small or large-would be complete without one of William Wegman’s signature pieces with his canine companion Man Ray. The show included Wegman’s 1980 piece Elks Club where his much-loved dog and the frequent subject of his art strikes an anthropomorphic pose in a chair adorned with an elk’s head. As with many of Wegman’s other dog-inspired images, Man Ray is photographed against a neutral background in order keep the viewer’s gaze firmly fixed on his canine collaborator’s body language and stoic stare locked with the camera’s lens. In sharp contrast, Jo Ann Callis’ 1976 piece Man in Tie, and 1977 piece Man at a Table, use human subjects with simple props to convey a moody ambience where an implied narrative is suggested without being too specific. For example, the viewer wonders about the stained tablecloth dominating the foreground in Man at a Table as if the picture was taken just after some unknown action had occurred.

A loosely tied narrative could also be inferred from the montage of images competing for our attention in Rick Hock’s 1988 work Codex (Big Frank). Hock’s piece is composed of appropriated images ranging from Richard Avedon’s famous portrait of Andy Warhol’s torso to film stills from director James Whale’s 1931 classic film “Frankenstein.” The metaphor of resurrecting older images and creating a new context in order for them to rise phoenix-like isn’t lost on the viewer. The Polaroid transfer-driven piece was created by re-photographing pop-cultural images and transferring them to printmaking paper while the Polaroid’s negative was still wet. The effect gleaned from this at-times labor-intensive process is a grid made up of ghostly images radiating across the picture plane with blurred and ambiguous details. More cinematic and art savvy viewers, however, are able to recognize the sources of Hock’s imagery, as the piece offers a commentary on our media-saturated culture that has only grown more relevant over time.

The exhibition derives from the collection of Joyce and Ted Strauss, who since the 1960s have amassed an impressive trove of pre-Columbian art, early American glass, and sculpture. During the ’70s, the couple expanded their collection by adding contemporary artworks to the mix. Over the years, they have donated numerous photographs to MoPA. But their generosity with museums stretches back to the couple’s donations to such arts institutions as the Denver Art Museum when they lived in Denver, prior to relocating to Solana Beach. In 2005, the Strausses made their largest donation to MoPA with a gift of 112 photo-based art pieces with an emphasis on work with an experimental intent. This gift yielded the work that MoPA organized into this small show, which ably documents a lesser-known chapter of American photographic history.

Organized by Carol McCusker, “Rebels & Revelers: Experimental Decades, 1970s-1980s, Gifts from the Joyce & Ted Strauss Collection” not only reflected the taste of these local art collectors, it provided a small-yet-revealing look at photography’s 70s and 80s American avant-garde, when it was still fueled by a hands-on touch. Today, these artworks are also artifacts from a time before the medium was thrust into the digital age and transformed into a constantly morphing enigma with the ongoing technological leaps
of the 21st century.