Los Angeles

Allan Sekula, Performance Under Working Conditions, 1973, video, black-and-white, sound, 22 minutes. © The Estate of Allan Sekula.

Allan Sekula, Performance Under Working Conditions, 1973, video, black-and-white, sound, 22 minutes. © The Estate of Allan Sekula.

Allan Sekula

Christopher Grimes Gallery

Allan Sekula, Performance Under Working Conditions, 1973, video, black-and-white, sound, 22 minutes. © The Estate of Allan Sekula.

For more than forty years, Allan Sekula worked intently to uncover the ways in which forces of production shape social relations—to reveal what Marx called “the contradictions of material life”—in a world structured by the increasingly globalized markets of advanced capitalism. Photography held a particular attraction for Sekula, whose eloquent writings on the medium’s history are as notable as his photo-based works. With characteristic clarity, Sekula outlined some of the appealing yet problematic features intrinsic to photography, including “its unavoidable social referentiality, its way of describing—albeit in enigmatic, misleading, reductive and often superficial terms—a world of social institutions, gestures, manners, relationships.” Photography, for Sekula, was not a means to an end but a social practice, one that would take him to port cities around the world as he conducted his final intensive studies of maritime industries and trade, prior to his death in 2013.

This exhibition presented a selection of Sekula’s early photo- and video-based works, most of which he shot in Southern California in the 1970s. (The artist made the earliest pieces on view while he was an MFA student at the University of California, San Diego, between 1972 and 1974.) A subtle biographical element threads through many of these photo series, as Sekula used his camera to cast a mock-sociological eye on familiar people and places. (In reference to his early work, Sekula stated, “I felt that the only way to ‘account’ for my politics—the only way to invite a political dialogue—was to ‘begin’ with my own class and family background.”) In the photographic and ready-made work Meditations on a Triptych, 1973–78, three color photographs of Sekula’s parents and two younger sisters hung above a small chair and table, on which lay a typed text that dryly analyzed the “man,” “woman,” and “two small girls” pictured (no names are given) in terms of socioeconomic class and gender dynamics. Portraits of Salespeople, 1973, Surf Movie (San Diego), 1973/2012; and Guns and Butter (El Toro), 1975/2012, feature images of workers, surf culture, and signs of the military’s presence found in the everyday landscape of the region. In School Is a Factory, 1978/80, photographs of students taking various vocational classes at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California—where Sekula taught photography for a few years—are juxtaposed with those showing foregrounded hands holding a toy schoolhouse and a clear, figurine-filled funnel above corporate buildings visible in the background (presumably housing companies where those same students might work upon graduation), accompanied by captions punched into Dymo label tape of the names and locations of the places pictured. Both humorous and acerbic in tone, the work draws a link between the regimented skill set taught at community colleges and the division of labor on which large companies depend, underscoring the role schools often play in reinforcing class inequality and uneven power relations. Labor and class struggle are key issues in This Ain’t China: A Photonovel, 1974, in which fragments of fictional narratives are suggested by paired and gridded photographs of workers at a fast-food restaurant (including Sekula himself), who alternately work busily, pose for the camera, daydream, and scheme against their employer, who is represented by a man in shades, sitting behind a desk and obscured by shadows. The show included a maquette of the work, in which one can see how the artist used contact prints of 35-millimeter and C-print negatives to edit and sequence the images into short filmic moments.

In a corner of the gallery were two videos: Performance Under Working Conditions, 1973, a slapstick comedy in which a pair of aproned characters from This Ain’t China (Sekula and a friend) “perform” making pizzas to order on a sound stage, and Reagan Tape, 1981, a montage of clips featuring Ronald Reagan, taken from Hollywood movies and his first State of the Union address. Made in collaboration with Noël Burch, Reagan Tape was originally projected using a voltage converter and car battery during demonstrations on campus at Ohio State University in Columbus, where Sekula taught in the early 1980s. (He was ultimately fired for his political activism.) Although Reagan Tape did not fit thematically with Sekula’s other exhibited works, its inclusion—in a show that coincided with Donald Trump’s inauguration—modestly carried forth Sekula’s spirit of resistance.

Kavior Moon