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Review: Provocative parallels between pictures at Ambach & Rice

December 27, 2012|By Leah Ollman
  • Vivian Maier self-portrait flanked by two anonymous photographs at Ambach & Rice's show "Lost & Found: Anonymous Photography in Reflection."
Vivian Maier self-portrait flanked by two anonymous photographs at Ambach… (Ambach & Rice )

For a gripping exercise in visual perception and interpretation, a primer in the slippery fundamentals of photographic veracity and authorship, head over to Ambach & Rice for "Lost & Found: Anonymous Photography in Reflection."

Take your first spin through the show without picking up a title sheet. Use your eyes only and note how acutely they function when given something to decode without the benefit of external information.

Note also how futile it is, this attempt to see in a pure and unencumbered way. We don't see with our eyes alone, but with our minds and memories, our expectations and assumptions. The optic nerve, as it were, passes through our personal archive of knowledge and experience before delivering an image we can comprehend.

"Lost & Found" consists of two sets of photographs: small, anonymous snapshots (selected by polymath Benjamin Thelonious Fels from the collection of Robert E. Jackson); and works by dozens of artists (among them John Divola, Walker Evans, Catherine Opie and Edmund Teske), chosen by independent curator Bob Nickas to resonate with the anonymously made pictures. Images from both groups are interspersed, installed in a loose weave of rhyming motifs, subjects and pictorial strategies. 

In a canny/uncanny self-portrait facing a window, for instance, Vivian Maier is reflected twice -- in faithful detail in a partially concealed mirror and as shadowy silhouette, the first image nested within the second. The picture, itself a play of pattern, repetition and spatial discontinuity (as well as a ready allusion to Maier's disparate public and private identities), is flanked by two anonymous photographs with a similar, if less sophisticated sense of aesthetic wit. One shows a round table mirror containing the reflection of a man's head, utterly detached from the rest of him. In the other, a man posing in a field holds a balloon that perfectly obscures his head and becomes a comical surrogate for it, a blank orb between collar and hat.

Photography, by virtue of imposing borders on a continuous landscape and paring reality's three dimensions down to two, yields disjunctions of this sort as a matter of course. The truncation of forms, the flattening of space -- these are staples of photographic vision that produce odd and happy accidents in many an amateur's photograph and are manipulated, with variable intent, in every artist's.

The show's consortium of the schooled and presumably unschooled, the so-called high and low, reveals anew how porous the boundaries between tiers can be, how much cross-pollination occurs.

Artists adopt the snapshot idiom (Judy Linn's shot of a tattooed arm jutting diagonally across the frame is a prime example) and snapshot-takers absorb, mimic or otherwise echo what happens in art: A curious print here of a man falling through space is cousin to Aaron Siskind's well-known images of divers; another looking straight up into the geometrical struts of an electrical tower buzzes with the verve of a Bauhaus-era abstraction.  

By joining these two collections of photographs, "Lost & Found" changes the context provocatively for both, destabilizing meaning. How gratifying that disorientation can be. What wonders can be found when feeling lost.

Ambach & Rice, 6148 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 965-5500, through Jan. 12. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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