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Picture a World With No Limits

Susan Rankaitis stretches the concept of photography with her artistic hybrids.

May 28, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

In an art world organized by categories and "isms," Susan Rankaitis would appear to be a hopeless misfit. Propelled by an inquiring mind, a wandering spirit and a profound disrespect for traditional boundaries, she reads voraciously, grapples with scientific theories and produces artistic hybrids that merge photography, painting and sculpture.

About 30 examples of her work from the late 1980s and '90s will go on view in "Susan Rankaitis: Drawn From Science," opening next Sunday at the Museum of Photographic Art in San Diego. The first work visitors will see--suspended in the atrium of the recently expanded museum--is "Great Salt Lake Piece," a 14-by-14-foot spiral construction composed of enormous transparencies depicting the lake in Utah.

"The atrium is flooded with natural light, so the transparency and lightness of the work will be seen at its best," said Diana Gaston, who organized the show but left her curatorial position at the museum last fall. She now lives in the Bay Area, where she writes and manages art acquisitions for nextmonet.com, an online gallery at http://www.nextmonet.com.

"Susan's work is so far beyond what we normally think of when we think of photographs, that just presenting it presents certain challenges," Gaston said. "The museum's new space is perfectly suited to the scale of the work, but we had to wait for the opportunity. We couldn't do it justice in the former quarters."

Rankaitis, who turned 50 in September, has used photographic materials and techniques for more than 20 years--but with the sensibility of a painter who isn't afraid to wander into the territory of sculpture. Using multiple printings and negatives, she typically bleaches, tints and brushes photographic chemicals on huge sheets of light-sensitive paper to create unique, metallic-toned works that fill entire walls or hang from ceilings. Although her art reads as lyrical abstraction, it's inspired by her fascination with subjects ranging from Chinese painting and the Great Salt Lake to aerospace, genetic codes and chaos theory.

"Her greatest contribution is not only expanding the physical notion of a photograph but also expanding the conceptual notion of what a photograph might be," Gaston said. "She has pushed the scale and the surface of a photograph to a new place. I came to her work primarily because I was interested in her experimental approach and how she was creating these incredibly gorgeous, luminous surfaces, but I didn't realize the depth of her research and inquiry until I started to delve into the material myself."

Gaston views Rankaitis' work as "a collage of contemporary culture. She is assembling random bits and essential components of our culture, and just putting it all out there for us to explore and piece together." While the experience can be baffling, viewers can unravel it gradually, the curator said. "I don't think it's necessary to have read about chaos theory in depth, although Susan has, or to understand how our genetic structure works, although she has certainly spent a lot of time with it.

"She is taking a sampling of very complex issues and theories that affect us and presenting them in a visual way," Gaston said. "We might not completely understand the Human Genome Project or understand how DNA is structured or what it might mean, but the notion of genetic mutation and engineering is on our minds. We've been wondering how it might impact our world. And the same with technology. She taps into this broad cultural consciousness and gives shape to some of these ideas."

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With all these forces at play in her work, it's no wonder that Rankaitis confronted resistance in her early years. "I remember when I had my first solo show, in 1981, at Light Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard," she said during an interview at the studio she shares with her husband, photographer Robbert Flick, in an industrial zone of downtown Los Angeles. "Garry Winogrand and some of his friends tried to talk [gallery director] Renato Danese out of showing my work, saying I was going to ruin photography," she said, recalling encounters with the prominent photographer who documented the social landscape with a witty if jaundiced eye and died in 1982.

"I liked Garry on a human level; we just simply totally disagreed on art," Rankaitis said. "My sensibility was foreign to a lot of male photographers in the '60s and '70s. They thought that working on a large scale, abstractly, making all these references to things like Chinese painting, was the worst thing that could possibly happen. I was contaminating photography. But now it's nothing. My students look at what I do and probably think, 'What's the big deal?' "

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