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A Photographic Style in Development

For years, John Divola manipulated his work. But, as a new series of desert images shows, he now plays it straight.

July 26, 1998|Hunter Drohojowska-Philp | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In photograph after photograph, the desolate desert horizon is illuminated by incomparable pink and celestial blue light and dotted with small, cubic houses. For the past three years, artist John Divola has been devoting his weekends to driving around the east end of the Marongo Valley Basin, Wonder Valley and the area around Twentynine Palms to document unassuming buildings set against the grandeur of nature.

Currently on view at the Patricia Faure Gallery in Santa Monica, his work also will be shown later this summer, along with film director Wim Wenders' photographs of the Australian Outback, in an exhibition at the Museo de Arte Carillo Gil in Mexico City.

Divola's current work seems a return to a series he did in 1977-78, titled "Zuma," which first signaled the artist's promise. And Divola, 49, admits, "In one sense, it's a return because it's straight photography."

"For the longest time, I manipulated what I photographed, and now I'm not," he says. "I mean, you're talking about 20 years, so it's a protracted description of how one gets from one set of photographs to another. I feel like it's a relatively comfortable evolution from one point to another."

Divola hesitates before discussing the current work. "It's not a social commentary like, 'Gee, isn't the desert marvelous. We should save it.' I'm interested in a kind of desire. You drive 100 miles and never leave the city until you reach this edge of raw desert. People are at that edge for a variety of reasons. For financial reasons, since it's the cheapest place in the L.A. megalopolis. Or they can't cope. Or they just want to get away. All these things have driven people to this edge. People want to be beyond the culture in some way. I'm interested inemblems of that kind of desire. My driving interest is more metaphysical than social.

I'm interested visually in these little cubes on this infinite plane of the desert, this amazing light and the houses painted in Home Depot colors, looking incongruous in isolation. But what brought me to it was the idea of man in nature."

In his "Zuma" series, Divola made color photographs of the Pacific Ocean as seen from inside abandoned houses in Malibu. Glittering water was seen through windows and gaps in walls he had spray-painted with patterns. These pictures followed his 1974 black-and-white series "Vandalism," for which he spray-painted and then photographed the insides of condemned buildings. Artweek critic Mark Johnstone observed, "As Divola interacted with the house it became the fabricated image (a created metaphor) while the outside remains a 'real' image."

Divola says, "I didn't see any original paintings or sculpture until I was in my 20s. I saw magazines or books with photographs of paintings or sculpture. My reception of art was through representation, which led me into spray-painting the insides of abandoned houses and photographing that as a way of working that would integrate painting, sculpture and performance, where it was all original."

"That was a really interesting time, where the document was all that was meant to be received by the public," he explains. "Someone might go out to the desert and dig a hole in the ground, but all you would see would be the photograph of the hole. Or a performance, where most people would see it through photographs and text.

"I was thinking that the real arena of discourse in the visual arts wasn't as some sort of authentic transaction between an individual and an object made by an artist," he adds. "The substantial arena of discourse was a secondary kind of experience of criticism, text, or second-generation images that had gotten disseminated into this other representational form. It was more significant than the original in some kind of way.

"I used to be fairly arrogant about it and tell painters that they were fabricating things to be photographed," he says. "Their painting was significant only to the degree that it was photographed and disseminated."

The "Zuma" series dovetailed into a movement of photographers called "Fabricated to Be Photographed." "It got a lot of attention," admits Divola. Throughout the '80s, Divola devoted his attention to fabrication and manipulation, throwing colored light on objects and figures in diptychs; building generic Modernist sculptures out of cardboard and photographing them in saturated hues, examining the power of cliche through coded subject matter like cyclones and wolves. Meanwhile, he taught full time for a decade at California Institute of the Arts and found his work was increasingly influenced by the exposure to "continental theory."

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