Monumental Photographs

by William Thomson

Photography and painting have long been engaged in a lively and at times uneasy dialectic. Throughout the century, manyartists have explored the rich critical ter­ritory between these two seemingly dis­parate media, whether they have been photographers bringing the pictorial conventions of academic painting to their imagery or painters utilizing photographic techniques in their work. In recent years, Los Angeles photog­rapher Uta Earth has emerged as an im­portant figure in contemporary art whose imagery explores the relationship between photography and painting, among other issues. Barely 40, Earth has achieved inter­national recognition for her poetic, im­pressionistic photographs of anonymous interiors and landscapes. Today, it is dif­ficult to find an art magazine that does not mention one of Earth's current exhi­bitions, and her work is found in the col­lections of distinguished museums includ­ing the Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney. Closer to home, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (mfah) purchased three of Earth's photographs from an exhibition at Lawing Gallery in 1996 and another major work this past April. Incidentally, these acquisitions were spearheaded not by the mfah's photogra­phy department, but instead by Alison Greene, the museum's curator of zoth cen­tury art — one example of how Earth's work, while rooted in photography, easily crosses over into the realms of painting and installation art.

Earth's most recent exhibition at Law-ing Gallery was one of the highlights of FotoFest 98 and showed how the artist has continued to refine her signature out-of-focus technique while developing new approaches to scale and subject. The oft-quoted expression that "less is more" cer­tainly applied to Lawing's spare installa­tion, which was comprised of five of Earth's most recent creations: two movie-screen-sized canvases, two smaller dip­tych panels and a portfolio of ten prints. It takes a certain amount of daring to pre­sent an exhibition with such a relatively small number of works, but Earth's largephotographs look their best in Spartan surroundings and the installation was con­fident in its economy. In many respects,this subdued exhibition served as a re­freshing counterpoint to the geographic sprawl of Fotofest and the sheer exhaus-tiveness of the Rauschenberg retrospective concurrently shown at Houston's three major museums.

Earth's two monumental photographs - Field #20 (1997) and Field #21 (1997) — each measuring 11 feet high by 17 feet across — dominated the installation (the latter piece was acquired by the MFAH). At first glance, it was easy to mistake these enormous works for paintings, because their scale rivals that of the largest Ab­stract Expressionist canvases. A closer inspection, however, revealed they were actually photographic images produced using an unexpected technique. Orig­inally created for the Wall Project series at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, these two photographs were printed on canvas using an industrial printer, the same device used to make billboards. In both of these works, Earth has depicted anonymous urban streets that resemble Hollywood backdrops. The artist has in fact acknowledged her interest in themoviemaking practice of filming in generic settings that substitute for specific locales. In field #20 and Field #21, build­ings and streetlamps have been blurred and cropped in such a way that the images are unidentifiable and devoid of a clear focal point. Installed opposite one anoth­er in the main gallery at Lawing, the two canvases engulfed the room and the viewer's field of vision, making one feel a part of Earth's blurry, half-conscious world.

It is tempting to look for symbolism in the red traffic lights of Field #20, which seem to invite the viewer to stop and look at this carefully composed scene, a distant relative of Giorgio De Chirico's empty, mel­ancholic city streets. Throughout Earth's oeuvre, there is a pronounced sense of absence and longing, and her photographs have often been described as portraits of absent subjects that leave the viewer pon­dering who or what is missing. On a for­mal level, Earth's photography resonates with the work of a number of well-known painters, from the gently illuminated inte­riors of Johannes Vermeer to the smudged imagery of Gerhard Richter. Field #20 and Field #21, however, are more closely relat­ed to the Impressionists and, in particular, to the Pointillist imagery of Georges Seu-rat. Earth's two canvases, when viewed at close range, dissolve into abstract patterns composed of countless tiny dots, the re­sult of their unique printing process. Yet from a distance, they resolve into a fuzzy but readable image, much like A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-86) or even a color television screen.

In a more pastoral scene, Barth cap­tured a lush, tree-filled landscape in Un-titled, 98.4 (1998), one of two diptychs included in the exhibition. While most of the other images in the exhibition possessed an eerie sense of calm, 98.4 was, by comparison, alive with movement — leaves shiver in an unseen breeze and the contrasting size of the work's two panels adds a rhythmic quality to the photographs. Barth has put both viewer and subject in motion in a work reminiscent of Willem de Kooning's now famous paintings of suburban expressways seen through the windows of speeding cars. By contrast, in Untitled, 98.2 (1998), Barth depicts a scene that is deathly still, but she more directly addresses the roots of her Modernist aesthetic and its close rela­tionship to painting. In this photograph, a misty body of water, presumably a river, meanders through an un­known city; close to the right edge of the right panel, a thick, bright red stripe verti­cally cuts the foreground. The visual tension produced by this bar is striking, so much so that it evokes the paintings of Barnett Newman. Even more noteworthy, however, is the richly textured, crackled coat of red paint visible on the pole, so different from the perfectly smooth surface of Earth's photograph. Was the artist attempting to create the illusion of painterliness orrespectfully tipping her hat to the heroic days of painting?

A portfolio of ten waterless lithographs titled passing (1996) concluded the exhibi­tion on a wall in the back room of the gallery. Created using adver­tisements and other commercial photo­graphs, these works ally Barth with yet another important painter, Andy Warhol, who made a career appropriating imagery from the world of commerce. Barth likewise appears interested in exposing consumerism's shallow desires; in one print from the portfolio, she includes the partially decipherable phrase "you need and want?" In other images, Barth pre­sents severely cropped fragments of ideal­ized, unknown bodies and isolates them from the products they once pitched. The resulting images — an arm, strands of long blonde hair, an eye — are trans­formed into consumer goods that are as ambiguous as they are seductive. Cut off, quite literally, from their original contexts, these commercial snippets are easily rec­ognized as ads, but the viewer can never be sure as to what was or is for sale.

Rarely does the exhibition space of a commercial gallery mesh perfectly with the art on view, but Lawing's understatedinterior — white walls, concrete floors, and best of all, no wall labels — provided an ideal setting for Earth's smart, mini­malist imagery, which remains suspended somewhere between photography and painting. Visitors found nothing that de­tracted from the sheer pleasure of looking at these enigmatic works that seemed to float within the space, offering fleetingglimpses into familiar, lonely worlds. While Earth's photographs are indeed profoundly elegant and beautiful, they are intelligent works, firmly anchored in the present and engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the past.

William Thompson is the Public Affairs Officer at the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin. In his spare time he likes to think about photograph.