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In search of the big picture

Robbert Flick's 'Trajectories' dissect time and space, stringing moments into paths through the modern maze.

September 26, 2004|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Robbert Flick is what you get when you harness the intellectual horsepower of an academic to the irrepressible curiosity of a child who takes apart a bicycle to figure out the relationship between a heap of metal parts and the weightless glide of the ride. For more than 30 years, the photographer has been taking apart continuous visual experience, breaking it down into discrete images and putting them back together again into works that variably look like a mosaic, feel like a film and operate like a map.

At 64, Flick has an elegant bearing: tall, sturdy, crisply groomed. Conversation about his work -- in the galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where his first large-scale retrospective opened Sept. 12 -- quickly becomes dense and complex but stays accessible, much like the work itself. The phrase "in a sense" peppers Flick's speech. It's a standard conversational filler that he's reinvested with intent: Every interpretation is just one of many possibilities; each work is open-ended, a "nexus point" generating multiple readings.

"Trajectories: The Photographic Work of Robbert Flick" covers more than 30 years of ground. The installation progresses fairly logically, says curator Tim Wride. "One project really did lead clearly to the next, by virtue of the fact that Robbert really intellectualizes his work. He's thinking about what it means to take pictures and what that practice implies."

The earliest photographs date from the late '60s, when Flick moved to L.A. from Vancouver, Canada, to attend graduate school. (He was born in Holland and raised there and in the West Indies.) From the start, his work focused on the landscape, both rural and urban, and on the condensation of visual experience.

For "L.A. Diary," Flick shot dozens of rolls of film over and over again, making multiple exposures in the camera. "All of that is rooted in a way of photographing that comes out of the '60s and has to do with chance, chance operations -- [John] Cage and all of that stuff," he explains.

In the surprisingly lucid, tight montages, traffic signals, shadows, signs and clocks interlock. "They're not pictures of something, they're objects about something. The way I photographed there was not to frame something but just to acknowledge it. So it was a gesture, and the gesture was a completion of something. These gestures of completion would layer themselves on the film, because I would multiple expose them three to seven times."

After completing his master of fine arts degree at UCLA in 1971, Flick took a teaching position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The "Midwest Diary" he shot over the next five years is, according to Wride, "a very urban take on a rural landscape." Some of the images of cornfields verge on lushly sensuous, but more typical are detached views of isolated structures -- fences, homes, gravestones. The centralizing gaze of Walker Evans can be felt here, as can the insistent neutrality of New Topographics photographers such as Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams.

Flick returned to L.A. in 1976 to begin teaching at USC, where he remains on the faculty. The same year, he married artist Susan Rankaitis, currently chair of the art department at Scripps College in Claremont, where they live. He began pairing images ("L.A. Doubles") and investigating the forms and shifting light in a parking garage behind his studio. The "Arena Series" pictures range from Malevich-simple compositions in tones of gray to Kafka-esque set pieces with claustrophobically low ceilings and views that dead-end in concrete-block walls or dank corners.

Profundity in numbers

In 1979, he began the "Sequential Views," making pictures along a certain geographic trajectory and editing the results into a grid montage, a format that he's adhered to, with variations, for the past 20 years. He developed the strategy after being invited to participate in "L.A. 200," a documentary project funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Survey Grant.

"It became very clear to me that single pictures would not make any sense trying to represent Los Angeles, so there was a need for a methodology," Flick says, his trace of an accent sanding down each "th" sound to a cushioned "d."

Within the city, he began to walk predetermined routes and make exposures at prescribed intervals. He would shoot a frame at each intersection, for instance, looking north. The finished pieces might organize a hundred separate images into a neat grid. Spatial and temporal continuity are suggested in the progression from left to right and top to bottom, but Flick's orderly system breathes organically on the page. There is no single correct way to read these works. They have the rhythm and texture of fugues, tapestries of forms that repeat, pattern, circle around, layer and echo.

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