ONCE UPON A TIME, WHEN THEY WERE AN INTEGRAL part of people's lives, horses were a mainstay of visual art — but they've been absent from art for decades. Other than Alfred Stieglitz's landmark photograph of 1923, Spiritual America, and the paintings of Susan Rothenberg, one is hard-pressed to think of a single pony that figures prominently in 20th-century art. So the territory was ripe for artist John Lofaso.
The subject of an exhibition opening next week at Craig Krull Gallery, Lofaso has spent the last four years making photographic portraits of horses. It would be wrong, however, to describe the 38-year-old artist as a nature photographer, because his pictures are too enchantingly strange for that. With roots in surrealism, they have more in common with the hyperreality depicted in the films of David Lynch than with the bombastic interpretation of nature put forth by Ansel Adams and his ilk.
Given a cursory glance, Lofaso's images evoke comparisons to William Wegman's ongoing photo essay on his pet Weimaraners. Lofaso's portraits have a similar artificiality — a human presence is clearly apparent in both artists' work — but Lofaso's photos are less overtly manipulative and decidedly less cute. Lofaso leans more toward an idealized view, and his subjects seem to hover in a kind of horse heaven where the sky is always blue and every fence is low enough to jump. Depicted in cropped close-ups that focus on the head and neck, Lofaso's horses have the monumental presence of Easter Island figures, and look so inscrutable and wise you expect them to start speaking Latin.
Lofaso's methodology involves shooting a Polaroid, photographing the snapshot, then blowing up the resulting negative. This reprocessing creates a soft image with the old-fashioned quality of a hand-tinted post card. While a nice effect, Lofaso points out that it's not intentional: “I've developed this way of working simply because it allows me to print the images big,” he says. Lofaso is wise to go that extra mile in pursuit of scale, because the size of his prints is key to their impact.
One of the things that draws you into the pictures is that it's impossible to discern Lofaso's position on his material. What is he trying to tell us about horses? Is his work ironic? Nostalgic? Is he an environmentalist? A neo-Romantic? In speaking with him, one deduces he's a bit of all those things.
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the youngest in a family of three children, Lofaso had what sounds like an idyllic childhood. “Lake Charles is a small town out in the country, so I was able to run wild,” he says, speaking by phone from his new home outside Bisbee, Arizona, where he moved last month. “I had a menagerie of dogs, chickens and horses, and I began taking pictures of them when I was really young. Looking back, I can see I was making quirky nature pictures even then.”
When he turned 18, Lofaso enlisted in the Navy. “I hadn't been the most well-behaved kid, and I'd stopped going to high school when I was 14, so I decided I needed to do something. The Navy was great, too. I traveled the world, finished high school and took college-prep classes, then when I got out I enrolled at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, planning to become a commercial photographer.”
Graduating from Brooks in 1988, Lofaso moved to L.A. for an internship with commercial photographer Aaron Rappaport. L.A.'s size and population density weren't to his liking, however, so the day after he completed his internship he left for Europe. “I was lucky enough to fall in with a bunch of people who were studying at a small classical-art studio in Florence,” says Lofaso. “I lived with them for three months and sat in on their classes just soaking everything up, and by the time I got back to Santa Barbara I'd decided to go to graduate school and become an artist.”
Lofaso spent two years in the graduate program at UCSB, where his professors included artist Ann Hamilton. “She completely blew my mind. Her work is so expansive, and as a teacher she gave us permission to do anything. I made a lawnmower for her that grew grass,” he recalls with a laugh, “and sculpted a life-size deer out of wire and pine needles. I took it to heart when Ann said you could make art out of anything.”
Following his graduation, Lofaso worked as a lab technician at UCSB, then in 1995 he landed the job that launched his work on its present course. “I was hired to work on grass studies for the Bureau of Land Management, which is the federal agency that oversees all public land that isn't part of a national park,” he explains. “There are lots of wild horses on that land, and the BLM is responsible for rounding them up and having them adopted. There was a huge corral where I was living in Ridgecrest, and sometimes there were as many as 100 horses there.
“The horses belong to the public, but people aren't allowed to adopt them until they've been through what's called a 'gentling process,' so they're not wild anymore,” says Lofaso. This makes them easier “photo models” to work with. “Some horses are more cooperative than others. Some are way too friendly, and if you try to step away from them to take a picture they follow you. Still, if you work with them a while you get a sense of their personality and you can anticipate what they'll do.”
THE TITLE OF LOFASO'S SHOW, “MORE HORSES, A Cow and Some Trees,” raises an obvious question: What about the cow and the trees? “Two years ago I made a sculpture that went to the top of a 60-foot pine tree in the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara, then I invited people to an opening there,” explains Lofaso, who's including a photograph of the piece in his current show. “At the same time, a gallery in Santa Barbara had a telescope pointed at the tree, so the image of the tree was in the gallery, too. You could see the piece in the gallery, or you could take a hike and actually see the real thing.” As for the cow, Lofaso says it was part of a body of work he made in 1991. “I'm showing it here because it just seems to belong with the horses.”
Of his new life in Bisbee, Lofaso says, “It's cheap to live here, and my girlfriend and I are renting a place on an 800-acre ranch, so we plan to get some horses. I don't know how this environment will affect my work, because we just got here and there's still too much to see, but I know I'm not finished photographing horses.”
JOHN LOFASO | “More Horses, a Cow and Some Trees”
At Craig Krull Gallery | Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave.,
Building B-3, Santa Monica | May 29July 3 | (310) 828-6410
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