Studying in Los Angeles in the early 1970s under Robert Heinecken, John Divola encountered Abstract Expressionism as a photographic phenomenon. The object quality of the painted canvas, made virtual through its representation in magazines and catalogues, seemed something ancillary and assimilable to the image. Photography was a cannibalistic medium, not so much documenting other acts of art-making as subsuming them into siteless, scaleless facsimiles. Fixed by the camera’s frame, the artwork reproduced became an artwork designed for reproducibility, as Walter Benjamin famously phrased it.
Divola’s latest show centered on eight selections from an untitled series of silver gelatin prints made in 1990. Each was composed by flinging a handful of flour at photographic backdrop paper coated with thick, sloppy strokes of black tempera. Desultorily applied, the paint shimmies down the paper in a rehearsal of New York modernism’s most over-determined mark: the AbEx drip. Still wet when the shutter is clicked, the paint attracts particles of flour that congeal in caked, crystalline formations. Partly settled on the surface, partly suspended before it, the flour complicates the spatiality of each photograph. The forms that it assumes vary from cumulous to miasmic, conjuring a range of associations: numinous landscapes, nuclear fallout and Rothko’s moody rectangles. Slightly unfocused, the images are soft and sumptuous. The pull between materiality and metaphor—the bluntness of paint and flour, the profusion of meanings that they inspire—structures the photographs on view.
Divola’s mobilization of pictorial clichés (sublimity, expression) is deliberate, if doubly distanced, both by his act of quotation and by the mediation of the camera’s lens. Coming some four decades after Pollock’s own, Divola’s brushstrokes register the exhaustion of AbEx strategies. Enacted by Divola, the drip becomes yet another tool in the artist’s repertoire of gestures: a vehicle for slapdash formal experimentation. Clumsy and counterfeit, his drips perform neither anguish nor catharsis. If anything, they’re a bit pathetic. “I could rationalize that no matter what kind of mark I made, it was okay; I could still make an interesting photograph about a naive mark,” he has said in an interview. Painting becomes the instrument of photography, and the photograph is made deliberately painterly, matte in finish and keyed to the size of the human body, like the canvases it cites.
The series suggests a further parallel between the brushstroke’s status as an index of the artist’s hand and analog photography’s constitutive indexicality. (Recall that 1990 remained a predominately pre-digital moment.) Divola’s photographs both withdraw from and insist on their own making, contrasting the automatism of the camera’s operation of point-and-shoot to the throwing of flour, whose contours in the composition attest to a human presence now absent. It’s a tension fundamental to both the AbEx drip, at once materialogically determined and subjectively composed, and the index that absents the artist, declaring its status as a mechanical transfer, only to reassert the self through its implication of an originary presence.
Divola’s body of work traffics in these remnants and traces of a spectral self. Early series such as “Vandalism” (1973-75) and “Zuma” (1977-78) document the interiors of abandoned homes inscribed with spray-painted testimonies (“I was here” and so forth). So it is fitting that the show’s title, “Clive Wearing’s Dilemma,” refers to a neuropsychology patient afflicted with chronic amnesia, unable to form new memories or recall old ones. If the series’ mood is melancholy, it is because it yearns for an impossible, because always anterior, presence.
Some 40 years ago, photography-and particularly color photography-was predominantly an amateur documentary tool, an artisanal underling to painting’s full art status. In 1977, John Divola, a few years out of art school, stumbled upon an abandoned lifeguard quarters on Zuma Beach in Los Angeles and graffitied the walls with sweeps of spray paint that accumulated, like an Ab-Ex composition, into allover patterns. Sometimes the strokes hardened into geometrical shapes resembling formalist abstraction. He would then photograph this defacement/decoration as a frame for the seaview through the broken windows, claiming the interior as an abstract art ground.
The “Zuma” series (1977-78) extended photographic documentary into something between a subjective visual diary and a record of an art performance. Divola’s interventions develop throughout the series in conjunction with the damage wrought by the local fire department when they adopted the structure as a training site. Spray paint is scorched and reapplied in different configurations, the accretion describing a legible linear narrative that corresponds to the application and erasure of the paint. Kunstverein Freiburg showed a selection of 12 “Zuma” photographs (all 24 by 30 inches) along with three larger works from the “Dark Star” series (2006-08).
The broken windows of Zuma #8 (1977) give directly onto the Pacific. As yet, the walls are white. Divola photographed at dawn and sunset, so that daylight would not overpower his flash. A few remaining window shards are sprayed scarlet. A sprung suitcase on a litter-strewn carpet is an emblem of vagrancy, ominous as an open coffin. In Zuma #12 (1977), a shower curtain is thrown into the air and captured as it hovers like an exotic bird. Intervention becomes performance; the photograph an acknowledgement of its medium’s function as a surrogate for the act it preserves; the room a self-reflexive metaphor for the black box of the camera, the window its aperture. Alternatively, the seascape is cast as the non-art “real,” the external world, the unassimilable other.
And yet, conversely, the glittering sunsets are traditional art signs, clichés of Romantic yearning, and the images of the dilapidated interior a sociological record of urban dereliction, a familiar genre of photographic realism. Artifice and what lies beyond it—the documentary “real”—keep switching their grounds, only for the distinction to collapse in the photograph’s flattening of space. Time is also rhetorically negated-these are timeless records of elapsing time, with no clues to date them, and no human presences except for a blurred horse rider on the beach, an archetypally atemporal image (Zuma #73, 1978). In the later pieces in this series, Divola re-graffitied the blackened walls in a cyan that matches the sea’s blue, cutting illusionistic breaches into the dark shell of the room. For a structuralist meditation, “Zuma” is remarkably surrealist, even occultist. Photographic space is pictured as a haunted realm populated by invisible forces both mischievously destructive and experimentally creative.
The eponymous “dark star” of the more recent series is a spot of black paint of varying sizes sprayed onto a white wall within another derelict interior. It has been photographed from different distances, always appearing at the dead center of the images. Divola’s intervention, three decades later, is more concise; but it effects the same transformation of the interior into formalist pictoriality, and of the past which the image depicts to its present materiality-color, surface and photographic aggregate. The black spot constitutes both a maximum exposure of the photographic paper and a lesion in the image, a hiatus in its illusion, which is filled by the viewer’s reflection in the glossy print. Time present qualifies time past in a temporal palimpsest.
Photo: Zuma #4, 1978, pigment print, 24 by 30 inches; at Kunstverein Freiburg.