Degrees aren't granted in creativity, Mark Johnstone's subject of choice, so he opted for photography. It wasn't a whimsical decision. Johnstone was already an experienced photographer and teacher in 1977 when he packed all his belongings in a U-Haul trailer and left Colorado for California. Nor was photography a constricting choice. While working on a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography at USC and since graduation, he has looked beyond the camera and its products to discover how people create.
The latest evidence of his exploration is "Frames of Time and Context," an exhibition of photographs by contemporary artists that he organized for Security Pacific National Bank's downtown Gallery at the Plaza. The show (through March 29) features black-and-white and color prints, photomontages, photo-collages, serial compositions and works combining photos with such materials as Astroturf and wood. Stephen Berens, Eileen Cowin, Joe Deal, Susan Felter, Robbert Flick, Tamarra Kaida, Susan Rankaitis and Jeff Weiss are each represented by about a dozen works.
"I've always had a fascination with the nature of creativity--in science, writing and other fields as well as art," Johnstone said during an interview at the gallery. "For this show I approached Tressa Miller (Security Pacific's gallery director, vice president and director of cultural affairs) with the thought of looking at how an artist's ideas develop and change over time. Originally, I wanted to do this as a historical survey, but I quickly realized that was too ambitious."
Instead, he settled on contemporary work, seeking "diverse approaches" by people who are relatively "young in the medium" but have developed "mature sensibilities."
As he narrowed the field of artists, he also looked for what he perceived as gaps in public knowledge, hoping to demonstrate how the photographers arrived at their best known work. As it turned out, Tamarra Kaida of Mesa, Ariz., is the only non-Southern Californian in "Frames."
"The last thing I intended was for this to become an L.A. show," Johnstone said. Locally created art just seemed to suit his premise best, and it interested him more than what he found elsewhere, he said.
The standard practice of showing "what's new" doesn't always serve the public--or artists--well, in Johnstone's opinion. "My personal feeling is that to fully understand a photographer's work, it needs to be put in context. It's not like a Calvin Klein ad in a magazine, where you read the label and know exactly what's going on."
He selected examples from three or more bodies of work for each artist. A five-year span of Kaida's casual portraits, for example, includes pieces from her "Fairy Tales" and "Growing Up" series as well as more recent "Stories" with text.
His goal was not to present "the best pick hits" but pictures that would help viewers track the origin and progress of ideas: the growth of Rankaitis' small abstractions into large, painterly images of planes and architecture; the development of Weiss' double-exposed video images into "icons" that comment on man's place in a troubled world; Felter's fascination with romantic myths, tracked from exotic circus close-ups to computer-generated images of Space-Age cowboys; Cowin's theatrical stagings of domestic dramas that eased into more subtle, introspective themes.
Did the process lead to a sweeping conclusion on the nature of creativity in photographic art? "It can't be reduced to a formula. I didn't find parallels that tie all the artists together. Different changes occur in each that are often unexplainable," Johnstone said.
While the exhibition tends to connect one artist to the next, some similarities are more apparent than real. Though people might think Weiss' big, colorful framed pieces and Stephen Berens' cutouts have something in common, the connection is only one of irregular form, he said.
Flick and Deal, on the other hand, begin at a similar point--sharing a sort of reportorial attitude about Southern California landscape--but they immediately separate. Flick's pairing of two images eventually led him to construct vast gridded installations that combine dozens of aspects of sea and land. While altering subject matter from one series to the next, Deal continues to take meticulously considered single images of subdivisions and other bleak aspects of Southern California life, viewed from a high vantage point.
A photographer himself, as well as a curator and critic, Johnstone has recently expanded his forum to television. Having finished a series for KOCE (in Huntington Beach) called "The Photographic Vision," which included the last interviews with Max Yavno, Garry Winogrand and Ansel Adams, he is now working on "In Our Image." The projected series, planned to celebrate the 150th birthday of photography in two years, will concentrate on pivotal points in the history of the medium, he said.
Johnstone has lots of projects in mind but little hope for getting to the bottom of creativity. "The questions are never going to be answered," he said.