Witness to the Sublime
By Ingrid Reeve
Situated serenely within the picturesque grounds of the Pomona College Art Museum is a vibrant exhibit by photographer John Divola. The 15 photographs in “John Divola: As Far as I Could Get,” framed in white, are incredibly luminous, like HD T.V., yet they were masterfully created in 1977 and 1978. The resounding theme is that of an ocean view through a window, giving the viewer a distinct space to occupy within an abandoned home on Zuma Beach in Malibu, California. In this series, titled Zuma, Divola challenges the notion of photographer as witness.
The cohesive visual theme running through this body of work contributes to the illusion of photographic truth. However, upon closer examination, the artist’s hand in the process begins to emerge. The individual works, like fragmented spaces, are clearly documentations of a very specific space and time, but they bring about questions of human presence and human interaction with the space. In Zuma #3 worn and torn curtains reveal the decomposition of a once lovely home; these curtains are offset by carefully considered wood panels—abstract elements that serve as remnants of the artist’s hand. A vertical turquoise panel balances mysteriously on two other wood panels, which seem to be digitally interposed. Yet the dull colors of the interior wall absorb the turquoise hue and take on a strident color redirecting the viewer to the idea that Divola’s manipulations of the image where done in person where the light of the panel would reflect on the physical color of wall. Divola altered the Zuma beach home scenes in person, not digitally—nor manually on the printed photograph. Floating objects, evidence of the artist’s presence, can also be found in other photographs from the Zuma series. Divola was on the cutting edge of photographic practices.
Perhaps inspired by the firemen who started training in the home, affecting it and pushing it closer to its ultimate demise, Divola’s work takes a backwards version of performance documentation when he too begins to make his mark on the home’s interior and document it. As seen in Zuma #23 and Zuma #25, he added painterly graffiti to the wall and ceiling—marks that suggest abstract expressionism more than street art. Then he documented the way the light changed the artwork and the way the work changed the home. The marks, mostly polka dots and lines, glisten in the light, like dance party lights, the stars or even the sublime.
Images that contain Divola’s primitive marks and graffiti appear full of hope, but the photographs with fire damage reference destruction. Add an M8A1 to Zuma #9 and you’ve got a scene right out of Call of Duty: Black Ops or a number of other first-person shooter video games, amazingly with scenes created in 1978. The interior of the home provides a wide range of tone to this exhibit; steady ocean views offset the evolution of the home. While altering the walls of the Zuma beach home for his photographs, he was also charting new territory introducing questions of an artist’s role and the artist’s work. These images were without a doubt ahead of their time both aesthetically and conceptually.
The exhibit on view at the Pomona College Art Museum is one of three collaborative exhibitions for a career spanning presentation of the artist’s work. Additional exhibits of Divola’s work are being held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
“John Divola: As Far As I Could Get” at Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Ave., Claremont, (909) 621-8283; www.pomona.edu/museum. On view thru Dec. 22.