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ART : The Wasteland : The world of photographer Lewis Baltz lies just beyond the city, where he records bleak images of the American West

March 29, 1992|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis is a staff writer at the Orange County edition of The Times.

Photographer Lewis Baltz, known for his pitiless scrutiny of bleak landscapes on the outskirts of cities, cuts a dark figure on a balmy Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica. Swathed in a black turtleneck, he sits with shoulders hunched, cradling a steady stream of cigarettes, as if his sunny seat by a hotel pool had metamorphosed into a table at a Paris cafe. The 46-year-old California artist--better known in Europe than in the United States these days--speaks in a quiet rush of words that the drone of passing airplanes nearly drowns out.

"I was trying to find a vocabulary to mediate my sense of unspeakable horror at being born when and where I was," he says, laughing ruefully as he describes the origins of his early series of stark black-and-white photographs. Baltz Country is the edgy space beyond the city that we don't think about much, the scrubby places near the freeway where debris collects and cheap, homely buildings sprout.

"Coming from Orange County, I watched the ghastly transformation of this place--the first wave of bulimic capitalism sweeping across the land, next door to me," he says. "I sensed that there was something horribly amiss and awry about my own personal environment."

"Rule Without Exception," a retrospective of Baltz's work (organized by the Des Moines Art Center) currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, traces the development of Baltz's chilly vision, from the bland anonymity of his black-and-white series of the late '60s to the gorgeous sterility of his recent Cibachrome transparencies.

One of the earliest series, "The Tract Houses" (1969-71), zeros in on the banal details of a housing site under construction: flat expanses of concrete wall, paint-stained sliding aluminum windows; louvered exhaust ducts; doorways that open onto dirt yards.

"The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California" (1974-75) offers a further refinement of this outlook, with 51 fragmentary views of boxy factory buildings built on a featureless land under a bleached-out sky. The blank facades offer no hints of the type of work that might actually go on inside.

The catalogue for the current exhibit quotes a comment Baltz once made about the factory views: "Look at that," he said. "You don't know whether they're manufacturing pantyhose or megadeath."

Baltz prefers the series format as a buffer against viewing any one image as more significant or truthful than another. The 102 black-and-white photographs in "Park City" (1978-80) poke around the exteriors and interiors of a ski resort in Utah, a crass outcropping of vacation homes on the rich land of the High Plains.

The 58 images in "San Quentin Point" (1981-83) constitute a meticulous and oddly elegant survey of a wasteland of discards--tires, newspapers, old cans and bottles--next door to an affluent California suburb.

"Continuous Fire Polar Circle" (1985) offers a filmstrip-like view, in seven photographs, of a miniature apocalypse: a huge incinerator burning rubble at the top of the world.

The American West is prime Baltz territory because, as he says, "the dialectic between the natural and the man-made" is particularly stark. In 1986, nine years after completing a series called "Nevada," he returned to the state to shoot "Near Reno."

Although no people make an appearance in these images--the human figure is exceedingly rare in Baltz's work--their presence is depressingly visible. Photographs show a beer can exploded into lacy metal shards by countless bullet holes, the blasted rear end of a washing machine, the metal frame of a ghostly TV set, flies alighting on a dead sheep.

"The place had really turned mean in funny ways," Baltz says. "Reno is really a blue-collar town, with . . . exactly the people who were most devastated economically during that decade. . . . To live a life where the best thing you could find to do is to drag some discarded object in the middle of the desert and blow the hell out of it--it seems like a major recreational activity in Northern Nevada during the late '80s."

Baltz, who grew up in Newport Beach, has been taking pictures in an obsessive way since he was 11 or 12. ("I was a repulsively serious kid, and I was really serious about (my photographs) being art.")

A product of the San Francisco Art Institute and Claremont Graduate School, he says he "never had any desire to make anything in any other medium," yet he also never had much interest in art photography. His early influences worked in other media--contemporary artists such as Robert Irwin, Robert Smithson, Richard Serra and Carl Andre. Baltz also was hooked by painter Ed Ruscha's books of photographs from the '60s ("26 Gasoline Stations," "Some Los Angeles Apartments," "34 Parking Lots"). Ruscha's work of that era "had none of the pretensions of the art photography that was going around," Baltz says. "It was witty, it was ironic, it was full of information. It was really accurate documentation."

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