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ON PHOTOGRAPHY

Embracing The Issues

April 07, 1985|MATT DAMSKER

SAN DIEGO — "My intention is not so much to address issues as play with issues--I don't think of myself as having a message about society," Victor Landweber said. "Although I do think about the quality of, say, merchandise, or about the substitution of a media image for something tangible as being very charged and potent. But my art is as much an embrace as it is a critique."

The Los Angeles-based photographer was discussing his current exhibition, on display through April 21 at Balboa Park's Museum of Photographic Arts. The show pairs Landweber's work with that of San Francisco's Max Almy, whose video art has won much acclaim in the last five years. Seen together, their art makes for a post-modern kaleidoscope of technique.

Landweber's display is a retrospective of his work from 1967 to 1984--black-and-whites, Polaroids, Cibachromes, Ektaflex and bleached, solarized prints that might seem the output of five different photographers were they not unified by a point of view. Notes museum director Arthur Ollman in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue: "(Landweber's work) rises as a chorus to chide us for our materialism, our mass-market consciousness, our love of media. Yet, while his pictures often mock the dubious taste of our plasticized society, they manage to do so while delighting us. . . ."

There are, for example, shots of a nude model strategically concealing herself with colored panels, frontal beauty shots of '50s-era American box cameras, and strips of paint samples flatly photographed and given such titles as "The Four Seasons" or "Flower Garden." Then there are the Polaroid accountings of the "tiny time pills" in Contac cold capsules, Polaroid grids of V-8 cocktail juice and Polaroid diptychs of dime store candies.

At his most reductive, Landweber mounts a series of all-white (exposed) or all-black (unexposed) Polaroid prints. And so on, from black-and-white triptychs of arid Southwestern landscapes to portraits of urban anomalies. Exhibition curator James R. Hugunin observes in his catalogue essay how Landweber offers images of images--photos of photos, of video imagery, of painting or statuary--thus blending real and represented subject matter into something else.

"Herein lies Landweber's persistent obsession: the blending of representation and re-representation within the hyper-reality of the photograph," writes Hugunin, noting the artist's "infinite mirroring of small differences among small differences. . . . It is his consistent battle with how we represent things, as objectified through a diverse body of work, that I find so remarkable. . . ."

"The works in the show that I like the most are the paint sample photos," Landweber said. "There's a certain purity that they have, their flirtations with the borderline of what one might think of as a photograph--because they are photos made from paint, and that's the inverse of painters painting from photographs."

As for Max Almy, five of her video works are featured on a continuous tape in a makeshift-but-comfortable screening room that sits like a dark nucleus amidst Landweber's photography.

Artweek critic Anthony Reveaux calls Almy's video "precisionist . . . because she rarely loses the tempo of rhythmic economy associated with broadcast television, yet forgoes none of the artistic content that is the point of it all." Almy's work mixes narrative satire with pulsing synthesized music and such multilayered video effects as Dubner animation, digital feedback, and posterization.

In "Deadline," for example, a man is seen frontally, jogging in a squeeze-zoom frame, backdropped by futurist architecture while a female voice-over coldly drones, "You can make it. C'mon. You have to make it." San Francisco video critic Steve Seid calls the work "A crystalline gem about the pressures of contemporary society."

Then there's "I Love You," one of Almy's earliest efforts (1976). In it, the sequential image of female lips are seen and heard intoning the cliches of a modern love affair that runs the familiar gamut from selfless passion to selfish parting. The full-screen mouth is one of Almy's leitmotifs-- what Reveaux calls video's "talking eye."

Almy describes "Perfect Leader" as the "first of a series of social satire pieces. In it, an omnipotent computer creates the perfect candidate and in the process, we take a pointedly satirical look at political image making and the marketing of a candidate." And in her 11-minute "Leaving the 20th Century," Almy addresses "the fact that we are approaching a point of departure in history. We are preparing to enter a new millennium.

"The exciting concepts and technologies which will define the future are already emerging. But at the same time, we are clinging to social, psychological, economic and political ideologies that could in the worst case prevent the continuation of life into the 21st Century."

In a graduate-student thesis on the aesthetics of video, Almy noted that "things appear gut-level, visceral. There is a real quality to the moment." She perceives her technique of minimal camera movement as reinforcing the realness of the video effect, since real life doesn't pan right or tilt downward, though our vision may. "Everything is flat, no expansive space. A video palette," she observed in a recent interview.

"Currently my emphasis is broadcast, conceptualizing and designing intelligent works for an audience that seems more than ready for change. Next step--video albums, interactive discs, who knows? I'm ready."

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