Tuesday, May 24, 2011

John Divola, Trees for the Forest @Wallspace

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 black and white and color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung in the main gallery space, the smaller back room, and the office area. The show contains work from 1971 to 2008. (Installation shots at right.)

The following series and projects are represented in the exhibit, with numbers of images and details in parentheses:

San Fernando Valley (6 images, vintage gelatin silver prints, each 6x9, 1971-1973)
Vandalism (5 images, vintage gelatin silver prints, each 7x7, 1974)
Zuma (5 images, archival pigment prints on rag paper, each 21x26, in editions of 10, 1977/2006)
As Far As I Could Get, Running (3 images, archival pigment prints on rag paper, each 60x40, in editions of 3, 1996)
Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert (1 set of 4 images, gelatin silver prints, each 16x23, in editions of 3, 1996-2001)
Abandoned Painting (1 image, archival pigment print on rag paper, 40x50, edition of 3, 2007)
Dark Star (2 images, archival pigment prints on rag paper, each 40x50, in editions of 3, 2008)

Comments/Context: This strong show gathers together a sampling of work by John Divola covering nearly forty years, mixing some of his well known projects from the 1970s with several more recent efforts. Surprisingly, this exhibit isn't a mini-retrospective exactly; instead it explores a pair of important conceptual forms, with high quality, back and forth examples from across Divola's long career.

The first framework is a classic from the world of California conceptual photography: the quirky, unexpected series. Spin back to the early 1970s and you'll see Divola's black and white deadpan documentary images of women watering their lawns with hoses, complete with a splash of irony and oddity simmering underneath the surface. Fast forward a few decades, and the series form has now become now a grid of threatening black blurs, which turn out to be dogs chasing Divola's car as he travels across the desert. Even better are the images taken with a time delayed shutter, where Divola runs directly away from the camera until his ten second head start expires. The settings vary from woodland paths to deserted roads, but the centered framing and arrow-straight vanishing point remain the same. These works are at once warm and slightly ridiculous, with a strong, thought-provoking questioning of how time operates in photography. This body of work was also assembled into an intimate hand sized artist's book which I came across a year or two ago; it's a spectacular little gem worth looking out for.

The second framework explores the idea of manipulated environments, where the artist has deliberately intervened and altered the particular site, adding a layer of performance and sculpture to photography. Back in the 1970s, Divola used patterns of spray paint and piles of construction debris to modify and stage abandoned houses, creating chaotic scenes almost like installations. His Vandalism series explored these spaces in crisp black and white tonalities, while his now-famous Zuma series captured them in vibrant, saturated color. Even today, both have a sense of energy and riskiness (almost latent horror) that keeps them fresh. Divola has reprised this approach with his contemporary Dark Star series, where he has painted glossy black circles in empty houses, photographing them from different distances and in different light conditions, the blackness becoming alternately absorbent and reflective. These works play with geometries, but also have a symbolic sense of ominous foreboding.

Together, these various projects show Divola to have been remarkably consistent over the years, even when using disparate methods and visual vocabularies. Every series on display has strong conceptual underpinnings, each idea embodied in striking and memorable images. While Divola's work may not be underrated, I do think that it surely deserves more attention than it generally gets. As such, this show should be a potent reminder for those New Yorkers who may have overlooked or forgotten his many talents.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows, based on the series or project:

San Fernando Valley: $10200 each or NFS 
Vandalism: $8200 each
Zuma: $4400 each
As Far As I Could Get, Running: $10200 each
Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert: set of 4 $10000
Abandoned Painting: $10000
Dark Star: $9000 each

Divola's work has only been intermittently available at auction in recent years. Prices have generally ranged between $1000 and $10000, but these few data points may not be particularly representative of the market for his work.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Review: NY Times (here), LA Times, 2009 (here)
John Divola, Trees for the Forest
Through June 18th

619 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10011

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