Santa Barbara

“Invented Images”

University of California at Santa Barbara Art Museum

The exhibition “Invented Images” included photographs by some twenty artists, most notably Jared Bark, Robert Cumming, Lucas Samaras, and William Wegman. The premise was to present work done since the late ’60s that uses “props and artificial set-ups as subject matter.” In this way, it resembled the “Fabricated to be Photographed” show of a few months ago at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, now traveling, and a less-clearly defined exhibition currently at the University of California at Irvine Gallery, “Situational Imagery.” Evidently, the collective curatorial mind and eye have latched onto something. Unfortunately, the curatorial voice has yet to enunciate what.

In San Francisco a haphazard attempt was made at presenting an historical context, namely a few kindred photographs from the late 19th century to the 1940s, for the late ’70s selection of “fabricated” photographs. At Irvine things were much less thought out; a small colony of Minimalist sculpture (Andre, Judd, LeWitt) and a DeWain Valentine disc co-existed uneasily with the likes of Cumming, Baldessari, John Pfahl, et al. Although the rationale of the mélange remains unclear (there was no exhibition catalogue), I suppose it, too, represented a stab at historical continuity.

At Santa Barbara the curators at least recognized the historical myopia inherent in photographic styles and chose work from 1973 to the present, the bulk of it made between 1974 and ’79. It may be a sign of the vitality of the ideas that motivates the photography in question that I sometimes found their choices inexplicable, but, for whatever reasons, theirs is a large, probably too large, exhibition whose strength and cogency is diluted by the inclusion of some patently stupid photographs.

Because puns, verbal and visual, form one of the two or three seminal concepts in this kind of work, the entire genre suffers in the hands of literalists: someone who makes photographs of vegetables hanging from the back of her head as hair surrogates, or someone else photographing his hands holding underwater a book about underwater photography, for example. By smothering all possible space in their photographs these artists only, and accidentally I think, make their work lifeless—psychologically and intellectually flat scraps of paper imprinted with the most topical of imagery, “information.”

Space, the common denominator of all visual art, can be manifested (or manifestly denied) in many ways. Photography seems particularly well-suited to space’s psychological connotations. In this exhibition no one understands that better than Lucas Samaras, represented here by some of his landmark SX-70 “Photo-Transformations.” Puns and double entendres, of course, engender a psychology of their own, as best exemplified in Wegman’s sardonic portraits of himself and his dog, Man Ray. Cumming masterfully synthesizes both the intelligent and the sensate possibilities of photography, all the while hybridizing it with sculpture. His 2 Shelves + 2 Shelves =4 Shelves/ 2 Apples + 2 Apples =4 Apples deftly handles modular structures and Conceptual art.

Laurie Simmons irritatingly coy setups of plastic toy figurines succeed only when she puts them in a real-scale context, as in the Brothers/Hay piece where a masked horseman gallops through the grass: a symbol of futility made graphic?

A note about the catalogue: besides its sporty cover (again toy figurines, this time on a striped field arranged to spell “Invented Images”), it is a distorted, perhaps ironically so, souvenir of the show. Color photographs are reproduced in black and white, worse (or more intellectually fecund, depending on one’s point of view), photographs are not reproduced to scale. Hence, a three- by three-inch color Samaras “Photo-Transformation” is further transformed into a seven- by seven-inch black-and-white illustration. Invented images indeed!

Richard Armstrong