By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Lewis Baltz's late-1970s and early '80s photo projects, brought to astringent perfection in the pristine, gelatin-silver prints of the black-and-white trilogy The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California (1974), Park City(1981) and San Quentin Point (1986), made him a hero to a generation of landscape photographers searching for a way to capture the rapid post-World War II suburbanization of the land. "I don't think it's possible to pick up a camera and shoot a landscape without thinking of Lewis Baltz," says L.A.-based photographer Steven Callis. "He doesn't just look at landscapes," adds Mitchell Coolidge of L.A.'s Center for Land Use Interpretation. "He's not an environmental photographer. He has a global economic palette. He's sort of a geo-systems photographer."
Baltz's "New Topographics" described a banal, treeless, marginal world. Baltz took pictures of industrial buildings, raw real estate, cheaply built resort homes, bleak mud flats under bleached skies. Few people ever penetrated Baltz's frame; piles of rock, shattered fluorescent tubes were his subjects. Everything in his pictures looks incomplete, under construction, provisional. Marvin Heiferman, former director of Castelli Graphics and long Baltz's dealer, has written of his photographs, "The sky is blank, and the sun comes up bright, nasty, and blinding."
The only child of an alcoholic mortician and his wife in Newport Beach, Baltz was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute when Ed Ruscha was photographing Every Building on the Sunset Strip. He was finishing his MFA at Claremont the spring Chris Burden locked himself into a locker 2 feet high, 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep at UC Irvine. All Baltz's American work shared that ineffable streak of Southern California noir, a menacing ambiguity, as if he were photographing a crime scene. Austere, drained of overt meaning, Baltz's images still were able to evoke powerful emotions. His empty motel rooms and unfinished tract houses betrayed not only an outsider's loathing, but an outsider's broken heart. I also detect a magical intent - an attempt to ward off demons, to neutralize the sources of his own paranoia.
Baltz was deeply influenced by Joseph Beuys, the great German shaman/teacher/artist/politico who helped found the Green Party, and his work has always bristled with social critique. In his Park Cityphotos, for instance, an unfinished resort-home subdivision rising from the tailings of an abandoned mine looks like nothing so much as garbage spilling across an indifferent land.
At the same time, Baltz shared with his great contemporary Robert Smithson an aesthetics of entropy, a sense that, as Smithson once wrote, "geology laughs at ecology." As Smithson wrote in his 1968 essay A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects"One's mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion: mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason."
In the mid-'80s, Baltz began, he says, to experience a sense that the world had ended, or that it had at least withdrawn from his apprehension. In 1986 he moved to Paris, where he still lives. For the first time in his life, he began shooting in color because color film, he felt, gave him the distanced quality that his earlier, "artier" black-and-white photos were starting to lose. "Although the world is in color," he wrote, "it is not in those colors." He also made a CD-ROM, which became a graphically illustrated book, used a digital camera and made videos. Increasingly, his work focused on issues of surveillance and high technology. "With the increased technical possibilities of surveillance, and even more important, the use of information-processing technologies to collate and distribute information," Baltz wrote, "the state and its subjects/citizens could become one to a degree only dreamed of by past totalitarian societies."
Now Baltz is back at MOCA through July 19 with a trilogy of large, rectangular photo-murals never before seen in the U.S. It's his first major L.A. museum show since his 1992 retrospective "Rule Without Exception" at the Los Angeles County Museum Art. The "New Topography" has become the "New Technologies."
Produced between 1992 and 1995, The Politics of Bacteria, Docile Bodies and Ronde de Nuit are concerned primarily with power in the form of surveillance, and the relationship of technology to the body. The montages employ a range of photographic techniques, including video stills, images appropriated from endoscopic surgery, and film. The technical virtuosity that informed so much of Baltz's earlier work has disappeared. The two dozen Cibachromes that make up each montage are glued, unframed, on thin plastic piping. Nothing about the work, looming over the viewer in the narrow galleries, invites contemplation. Some images are close-up. Others look far away. Some of the panels are high-definition. Others are low-definition. Everything is bathed in video blue.
Ronde de Nuit, or Night Patrol, is composed of 12 panels, mostly taken with a video camera in Roubaix, a depressed industrial suburb of Lille, the "South Bronx" of France. The city allowed Baltz to take charge of its police surveillance system as part of a municipal art project. Most of The Politics of Bacteria (the title is taken from Thomas Pynchon) was made in the new French Ministry of Finance building in Bercy, Paris' largest office building. Many depict men in attitudes of power: feet apart, knees locked, at parade rest. The images of Docile Bodies (title from Foucault) were mostly made in French hospitals, often with endoscopic surveillance technology. As you study the pictures, you begin to notice that surveillance cameras in the gallery - in every gallery - record your every move. The pictures, too, seem to want to drive you from the room, filled with a sense of dread.