In this era of the monster C-print, with photography dominated by landscapes, portraits and cinematic tableaux, the small, basically traditional Polaroid still-lifes in Miranda Lichtenstein's modest exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum are an illuminating novelty.
The sweeping scale of contemporary photography can be thrilling, and Lichtenstein is no stranger to the oversized print. In narrowing the scope to a small space and a few familiar elements, however, an exercise like this zeros in on photography's first and most profound function -- the basic act of looking -- and reminds one of the sheer pleasure this can entail.
Each of the 48 Polaroids on display involves some combination of plant life, produce and rustic domestic objects, such as ceramic vases and bowls, all photographed at close range in a tight, seemingly airless frame. A few of the prints are a crisp black and white, with the objects (usually the dry and brittle stalks of dead plants) set against a glowing white window curtain. The rest have a rich, moody palette, often involving unnaturally tinted light. Most are dramatically saturated with shadow.
Although lush, the works aren't especially precious. Lichtenstein could make a fine greeting card if she wanted to, and one senses there's a part of her that wants to: to soften the lenses a little, weed out a few of the rattier blossoms and play up the bucolic sentiment. CalArts grad that she is, however, she cultivates an edge. The flowers are crooked, often rather scrawny and sometimes half dead. Jagged shadows loom on the flat screens behind them, emphasizing the shallow, artificial quality of the space, and the focus is sharp throughout, leaving all the images feeling a little thin.
In his essay for the brochure that accompanies the exhibition, Malik Gaines makes much of Lichtenstein's self-conscious relationship to painting, interpreting the work's interplay of objectivity and moodiness as an example of her bringing "photography to painting's edge." This dialogue, however, is hardly unique to Lichtenstein. It has been going on for 150 years, with photographers regularly adopting the subjective stance of painting, and painters emulating the naturalism of photography. Nor is it the most interesting aspect of her work.
There's no doubt that Lichtenstein is looking to art history, drawing on the works of the 17th and 18th century Dutch painters who institutionalized still-life as a genre, on the 18th century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, on Cezanne and Manet. Equally present, however, are the influences of photographers such as Karl Blossfeldt, Baron Adolf de Meyer, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Steichen. It's the integrity and intelligence of Lichtenstein's engagement with the genre, however -- which means her engagement with the history of both media as well as with the objects -- that really distinguish the work.
Among the most appealing characteristics of Lichtenstein's past work has been a flirtation with the fantastical. Like Julia Margaret Cameron and her ilk in the late 19th century, Lichtenstein gravitates to that delicate line between the natural, observable world and the world of the imagination.
Past exhibitions at Mary Goldman Gallery (and its former incarnation, Goldman Tevis) have included photographs of naturalistic dioramas evoking legends of feral children and actual landscapes (a mountaintop shrine in northern Thailand, for instance) rendered dream-like by misty atmospherics. A show there now, running concurrently with the Hammer show, features Lichtenstein's portraits of individuals situated on that line, approaching the edge of -- or at least courting -- higher states of consciousness: a woman floating in an isolation tank, another on a Pilates machine, a man in a soundproof chamber of the sort that supposedly inspired John Cage to create his silent score "4:33."
In the best of Lichtenstein's works, these two worlds -- the real and the imaginary, the objective and subjective -- begin to mesh. One has the sense of looking at something real through the lens of imagination.
The works in this exhibition are more literal than those others, insofar as what they depict is unambiguous. But there are touches of the fantastical. The shadows, for instance, don't always match up to the flowers from which they have ostensibly been cast. The light is often eerie.
The really fantastical elements, however, are the objects themselves. An apple, a melon, a grapevine, a lily, a hollyhock -- most are so familiar that we rarely look at them closely. In this context, however, isolated from the visual clutter of the everyday world, they take on a wondrous character. The magic of the work lies, then, in the conventions of the genre as much as in Lichtenstein's seductive presentation: in the opportunity it affords simply to look, to contemplate the physical aspect of the world in its most basic forms. It is Lichtenstein's un-ironic embrace of the genre, her skillful participation in this worthy if not necessarily sexy tradition, that is the work's real strength.
Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays
Ends: April 30
Price: $3 to $5
Contact: (310) 443-7000; www.hammer.ucla.edu