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Collaborative exhibition represents photographer's first career-spanning presentation
As Far As I Could Get (R02F09), 10 seconds, 1996-7. Pigment print, 60 x 40 in. ©John Divola.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- With a career comprising four decades, John Divola is as distinctive for his commitment to the photographic community as for his thought-provoking work. Divola’s influence within the field of photography is widely recognized by curators, critics, scholars and photographers throughout the country; yet, his work has remained largely uncelebrated. Many of his former students have achieved illustrious careers and far more recognition, even as Divola continues to mentor and inspire both undergraduate and graduate students in contemporary art practice.

As Far As I Could Get is the first over-arching presentation of Divola’s work and is a collaborative project led by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, shown simultaneously at SBMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Pomona College Museum of Art in the fall of 2013. Though Divola’s photographic series are diverse in subject matter, this approach as one exhibition among three Southern California venues emphasizes the consistent conceptual and performative threads that run through Divola’s entire body of work.

Divola was born in Los Angeles in 1949. After graduating with a BA from California State University, Northridge, he entered the MFA program at the University of California Los Angeles. There, under the tutelage of Robert Heineken, the artist began to develop his own unique photographic practice, one that merges photography, painting, and conceptual art. In addition to his own studio practice, he teaches contemporary art in the underserved California inland empire and writes on current photographic practice for a national audience.

John Divola’s photographs range widely but the intellectual rigor from which they spring is unvarying. Whether testing the visual limits of photography by vandalizing abandoned houses, interrogating the iconography of the divine through paint, flour, and film, or emphasizing the distance between image and reality through the blurred figure of a running dog, Divola’s work is simultaneously fun and philosophical, visually appealing as well as intellectually stimulating.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art
On view: Six series of John Divola’s work representing more than 80 individual photographs

The story of John Divola’s photography starts with his series Vandalism in 1974 while he was still a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Without a studio of his own, the young photographer sought out spaces throughout Los Angeles in which to work. Treating these abandoned houses like a studio, Divola embraced the holes in the walls, the graffiti scrawled on surfaces, and the debris scattered on the floors as evidence of an unseen number of actors who had similarly utilized the empty space.

For Divola, these remnants were akin to the photographic process. Like the graffiti in the house, negatives are the result of light marking an empty emulsion. Furthermore, photography, like vandalism, implies both a maker (“the photographer”) and an action (“to photograph”), and yet the photograph itself is merely a vestige of that causal relationship. Armed with this analogy, Divola began to make his own spontaneous marks in the space and to explore the results photographically. The resulting images challenge basic assumptions about photographic imagery.

Divola continued to take interest in spaces that were seemingly uninhabitable as he began to photograph the empty neighborhoods in the mid-1970s after the Los Angeles’s Department of Airports acquired and removed more than 2,800 homes directly impacted by aircraft noise. The action resulted in the re-location of more than 7,000 residents, and their homes, although now vacant, were not completely dormant. Broken windows and doors hanging on their hinges were the result of interested interlopers. These Forced Entries (1975) attracted Divola as he presented groupings of two to six photos, with images that pivot around a point of entry, moving in sequence from the exterior to the interior. Like the houses themselves, the images are permeable; the force of Divola’s presentation makes it easy to enter these images and to experience the emptiness of these spaces.

In 1990, Divola turned his attention to more metaphysical environments and mystical forces. His Untitled series captures the moments when handfuls of white flour are thrown against a freshly painting backdrop, transforming ordinary elements into mystical shapes and highlighting the distance between reality and representation.

A more recent body of work was captured (almost by accident) as Divola was driving through the desert of the Morongo Valley in Southern California, during his work on the series Isolated Houses (beginning in 1998). During the drive, the photographer frequently encountered dogs that would chase after his truck. A dog owner from his earliest years, Divola felt an affinity for these animals that were swept up in the joy of the chase and was inspired to capture them in the midst of their pursuit.

Also on view at SBMA is Divola’s Dark Star and Theodore Street series, his newest body of work. In these series, Divola continues his explorations of photographic reality, utilizing both the reduced form of a dark circle (in the Dark Star series) and the remnants of a vandalized desert home (in Theodore Street). Although the theme and analytical approach harkens back to his earlier work, Divola’s process has radically shifted. To create these large-scale, highly detailed prints, the artist utilizes an image capture system in which hundreds of photos are stitched together into one amazing gigapixel image.

On view: Four series of John Divola’s work in the Ahmanson Building, 2nd Floor

The series 20x24 Polaroids is Divola’s earliest work exhibited at LACMA, shot between 1987 and 1989. Hastily fabricated sculptures created out of impermanent materials attempt, on one level, to approximate actual physical objects in the world―branches, a rabbit, the moon, etc. At the same time, the roughly-hewn surfaces and ticky-tacky backdrops insist on the artificiality of what is depicted. These works express Divola’s ambivalence to the idea of photography as a descriptive medium with a one-to-one relationship to the real. Photography, in this case, is not employed in the service of documentary truth, but instead is held up as a crucial interlocutor in a creative exercise.

Artificial Nature (2002) offers a clear example of Divola’s interrogation of the human impulse to master the natural world. The work is a collection of 36 continuity stills from films made between the 1930s and the 1960s. These photographs, taken on film sets to establish consistency across multiple cuts (to ensure that the placement of objects remains constant from take to take), document fabricated landscapes contained within the artificial space of the film studio. Representing the diversity of natural topographies and weather patterns, the images also include accessories such as signage and clapperboards, highlighting the distance between ourselves and the natural world―a distance that is only accentuated by cinematic representation.

Seven Songbirds and a Rabbit (1995) is a series of details from the Keystone Mast collection of stereographic negatives housed at the California Museum of Photography, University of California Riverside. Stereoscopy, a three-dimensional imaging technology popular from the mid 19th to the early 20th century, exemplifies photography at its most deceptively naturalistic. When Divola began to examine the original glass-plate negatives in the Keystone collection, he found a wealth of detail, such as the birds and rabbit nestled amidst the foliage that gave the series its title.

The series As Far As I Could Get (1996–2010), five works of which are included in the LACMA exhibition, has Divola once again engaging with the natural environment, but this time in a more performative vein. Divola positioned his camera on a tripod, set the timer for ten seconds, and then ran straight into the established frame. At one level, this was a completely dispassionate endeavor. On another level, because the resulting pictures depict a man in a landscape, not in a controlled experimental setting, the viewer cannot suppress a frisson of physical and emotional tension. The works engage the viewer with the natural landscape―a landscape altered by human presence and staged to serve as a theater for creative activity.

Pomona College Museum of Art
On view: Selections from the Zuma series, representing 15 works

In the early mornings and late evenings throughout 1977 and 1978, John Divola repeatedly photographed the gradual destruction of an abandoned house on Zuma beach in Malibu, California. Exposed to the sun and wind, the property was also altered by human intervention, including fire-fighting practice, graffiti of local vandals, and Divola’s own improvised mark-making. In the aptly-named Zuma series, the photographer framed this transformative interior against the steady horizon.

Divola notes, “These photographs are the product of my involvement with an evolving situation. The house evolving in a primarily linear way toward its ultimate disintegration, the ocean and light evolving and changing in a cyclical and regenerative manner. My acts, my painting, my photographing, my considering, are part of, not separate from, this process of evolution and change.”

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