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
But cinema is a subtly pervasive leitmotif throughout the work, beginning with the all-illuminating California sunshine that first drew the industry West, and which rakes through This Side of Paradise like a searchlight in a gala premiere or helicopter pursuit. Which isn’t to say that the expressionist conventions of noir are neglected — L.A. was the first American city with electric streetlights and neon signs, and the dark night of the locust is explored in grainy detail.
Lighting effects are only the most obvious indicator of the profound impact motion pictures have had on our visual-comprehension skills. While they may not have originated in the medium, a slew of complex visual strategies — implied out-of-frame action, split-screen simultaneity, the nonlinear juxtaposition of montage, etc. — were programmed into our perceptual software by the movies.
Sekula’s installation — a sequence of discontinuous documentary images beginning with the surprisingly elegant symbolism of the pigeon-spike studded Hollywood Greyhound bus sign and ending with a diptych depicting the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel (with pit stops for Chuck E. Cheese and decomposed-possum retrieval) — is patently cinematic, unfolding in the Huntington’s hyper-real landscape like an interventionist documentary, gently but efficiently inverting the categories of the real and imaginary.
It’s a telling reversal that points up the disorienting virtuality of much of the other work. A 126-year-old view of Commercial Street inevitably reads like the set of a Western. And while the exhibit is deliberately arranged nonchronologically, you can sense the gradual and fundamental shift in the human subjects’ understanding of their identity as a sort of latent screen image, just waiting for that close-up.
While this may not be so good for our species’ psychological makeup, it makes for some damn fine art. And even the most didactic and documentary photos have clearly been chosen and installed with a strong formalist eye. It’s remarkable enough that the curators have managed to assemble such a satisfying selection of individual works, but even more surprising is the success of their grand conceit.
Even the peculiar-but-functional forests of industrial-display struts designed by Daly Genik echo freeway infrastructure, and the fact that you have to haul your ass halfway across (billboard-studded) creation to see the whole show is annoyingly appropriate. But it is the curators’ porous approach to the categorical arrangement of this enormous spectrum of overlapping semiotic nuggets that will seem most eerily familiar to anyone who has ever tried to make sense out of Los Angeles. Or the contemporary visual continuum. Like Rauschenberg.
While the New York School painters were essentially extrapolating a refined hermetic language from 19th-century European roots — discriminating between and dismissing entire fields of visual information — Rauschenberg was groping for a position of total inclusiveness. In short, Rauschenberg — not Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists — was the first truly American painter, and his vision was inextricably connected with a way of looking at the world that emerged from Hollywood. On the spot where he wandered in to check out the cactus garden and wound up realizing “you could be an artist,” Rauschenberg’s synergistic, synesthetic, anarchistic worldview has come home to roost.
THIS SIDE OF PARADISE: BODY AND LANDSCAPE IN LOS ANGELES PHOTOGRAPHS | Boone Gallery & Library West Hall | The Huntington Library | 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino | Through Sept. 15 | (626) 405-2100