Los Angeles

John Divola, Forced Entry, Site 29, Interior View A, 1975, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16". From the series “LAX/Noise Abatement Zone,” 1975–76.

John Divola, Forced Entry, Site 29, Interior View A, 1975, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16". From the series “LAX/Noise Abatement Zone,” 1975–76.

John Divola

Santa Barbara Museum of Art/Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Pomona College Muse

John Divola, Forced Entry, Site 29, Interior View A, 1975, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16". From the series “LAX/Noise Abatement Zone,” 1975–76.

It is only fitting that photographer John Divola’s midcareer survey, “As Far as I Could Get,” would be spread across three California museums in three different counties. Those who have managed to see it all surely didn’t see it all in a day, and this insertion of ellipses into the viewer’s experience seems apt for a body of work concerned with temporalities, the photographic suspension of movement and stasis, and the poetics of presence and absence.

The show’s curators, Britt Salvesen, Karen Sinsheimer, and Kathleen Howe, eschewed chronology and threaded Divola’s thematic interests throughout all three presentations. Several series in the exhibition, “Vandalism,” 1973–75; “LAX/Noise Abatement Zone,” 1975–76; and “Dark Star,” 2008; as well as the Theodore Street Project, 2013 (all of which were installed at Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the lead institution in this collaborative effort), share a premise with Divola’s best-known series, “Zuma,” 1977–78 (which was on view at Pomona College Museum of Art): the documentation of abandoned houses in their entropic, vandalized states. In decrepit rooms, the artist sometimes arranged detritus or dressed up decaying walls with spray-paint squiggles and dots, filling in a cast shadow or tracing the outlines of a chance arrangement. Other photographs catch tenuous stagings—the odd object tossed into the frame, captured midflight—thus assuming a hybrid of documentation, action, and tableau in which the authorship of elements in the scene is left ambiguous; Divola’s derelict spaces bear the marks of unseen actors, the artist being only the most recent among a slew of past residents and vagrants.

If his practice has braided strands of documentary photography, Conceptualism, painting, and performance, Divola’s concerns have diverged from those of his contemporaries who interrogated the operations of the image in the ’70s and ’80s, insofar as his work has remained faithfully photographic. He has sought to affirm, above all, what a photograph can do—and, in a sense, what it cannot. “In all my work there’s this notion of the melancholic,” he once observed, in a rather Barthesian mood. “You can make a photograph about the sublime, but you can’t make the sublime itself.”

Inverted, Divola’s musing on the limits of representation suggest another, almost naive dimension to his practice: Even if you can’t make the sublime itself, you can make a photograph about the sublime. And he has brought an attendant sense of wonder to many of his projects. A series of five 20 x 24" “Polaroids,” 1987–89 (on view at LACMA), that show moodily lit, handcrafted constructions depicting the natural world—planets, a rabbit, a tangle of barren branches—are evocative of Odilon Redon or Georges Méliès and have a deliberately childlike affect. An untitled series of black-and-white abstractions from 1990 (shown in Santa Barbara), made by photographing flour as it was thrown against a dark monochrome painting, speak to a kind of backyard experimentalism that pervades Divola’s work.

Amid these ad hoc stagings and playful experiments, a common setting surfaces as a principal subject—Southern California, its built and natural environments. A vast and shrubby wilderness envelops the artist in “As Far as I Could Get,” 1996–2010 (which was shown at LACMA, and for which Divola famously set his camera on a ten-second timer and sprinted out into frame) and likewise surrounds the spectral canine figures in the aptly titled “Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert,” 1996–98 (which was on view at SBMA). Divola’s houses, too, are quintessentially Southland; recalling noirish crime scenes and apocalyptic premonitions, they invite a host of LA clichés. But in his investigations of the actual fragility of that Southern California archetype, the single-family home, Divola’s work opens onto the social and the political. These photos register the transformations in the political economy of the region over a period marked by rising real estate prices and class polarization. As anyone who has read Mike Davis knows, houses in Los Angeles function as a primary site of political energies and class antagonism. These images fulfill, perhaps more than intended, the documentary directive to record—not only physical deterioration but also diffuse violence—while the artist’s performative decorations seem to reiterate the basic message of all graffiti: Divola was here.

Eli Diner