San Francisco

Suzanne Hellmuth and Jock Reynolds

SFAI Walter and McBean Galleries

Suzanne Hellmuth’s and Jock Reynolds’ recent exhibition, “A State of the Union: Photographic Juxtapositions,” evidences a multiplicity of unrealized possibilities. Enticed by the 200,000 photographs in the century-old archive of the California Historical Society, the artists began selecting pictures which through visual linkage, juxtaposition, and fragmentation could “address the issues and the nature of human events in this period of expansion and industrialization in California.” Conceived as an installation, the photographs were sequenced in units of two or more, re-photographed, framed, and exhibited in a specially constructed six room viewing space.

The strategy underlying these arrangements varies, from simplistic, thematic pairings like Pets and Wildlife (a girl holding a dog coupled with an elderly man grasping the antlers of a deer) to more mysterious, manipulated sequences such as After 9 Full Frames (18 pictures of baseball players, with white masking blocking out substantial portions of the picture). As much as Hellmuth and Reynolds attempt to expand syntax by restructuring, their strategy rarely moves beyond the obvious. This includes the juxtaposition of like content from different time periods, or formal conclusions as in Daily Double, a picture of tuxedo clad men at a roundtable counterpointed to a shot of a circular freeway. I suspect that the artists have had little experience with photographs, because they have selected pictures from the archive that are common to most image repositories of this type: automobile wrecks, murder evidence, wedding portraits and social functions. The few pictures that are indicative of California: agriculture, mining and forestry, are hardly ample or specific enough to corroborate the project’s aim. In contrast to Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, which defined its subject through a syntax oriented to the psychological, “A State of the Union” never suggests even the illusion of time or place.

Overshadowing the artists’ naive handling of photographic material is an ill-considered use of the photograph as both document and object. Experimenting with scale, spacing and arrangement, Hellmuth and Reynolds have crafted their evidence into objects—photography as post-conceptual art. Nevertheless, their product is generally as simplistic as their juxtapositions. For example, one long vertical panel is comprised of an airplane at the very top, a picture of a stewardess in the center, and, at the bottom, a plane being dredged from the ocean. One can’t get much more literal.

Perhaps a written text would justify this piece, but the few titles proffered were either obtuse or California funk-humorous. “A State of the Union” reads as a rather laborious, unfocused mediation, and even an intricately contrived installation cannot disguise the distance between stated intent and end result.

Hal Fischer