Shotgun Review

California Continued: New Approaches in West Coast Photography

By Shotgun Reviews March 21, 2011

California Continued: New Approaches in West Coast Photography considers both the field of photography in California and representations of California in photography. Visual and social imaginaries of California have always been bound up in the mythologies of the American West: classic representations of California include train-hopping hobos, migrant workers, suburban sprawl, and Hollywood. The most prominent piece in California Continued emphasizes the last of those. Hung front and center in the gallery’s entryway is Larry Sultan’s photo of Paris Hilton, Paris on My Parents’ Bed (2008). The image of the infamous bleach-blonde star screams Hollywood. Like Sultan’s photograph, many of the other works in the exhibition, from Michael Light’s aerial view of Los Angeles to Richard Misrach’s photo of the Salton Sea, include iconography culled from the urban and suburban landscapes typical of California.

While the classic image of Los Angeles and suburban decay are no surprise in an exhibition about photography in California, the exhibition gains traction and depth with its inclusion of a more experimental set of work from photographers including Job Piston and Klea McKenna, who entirely forgo the camera in favor of alternative exposure techniques. McKenna’s Paper Airplanes (2010) presents an entirely abstract exploration of California’s military history.

To create Paper Airplanes, Klea McKenna folded forty pieces of light-sensitive paper, and then exposed them in the sky at an old WWII anti-aircraft lookout bunker located about ten miles up the coast from San Francisco. Hanging unframed in a grid, the folds in the paper are visible, lending the piece a sculptural physicality. The folds become a memory marker, not only for the flight at Tennessee Point, but also for histories of the Pacific coast and its role in WWII.

Klea McKenna. Paper Airplanes, 2010; Forty chromogenic prints. Courtesy of Smith Andersen North Gallery, San Anselmo, CA.

The announcement for the exhibition includes a quote from California author Joan Didion, which draws attention to the nature of creative representations and the ways that they shape the memory of a place. The quote reads: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he makes it in his own image.” Didion’s words could not be more descriptive of the overall tone of California Continued. The photographers in the exhibition—from Sultan to McKenna—each enact Didion’s words, rendering images and claiming memories of California that will in turn produce and define California as a geographic location and as a social imaginary.  

 

California Continued: New Approaches in West Coast Photography is on view at Smith Andersen North Gallery, in San Anselmo, through April 15, 2011.

 

Christina Wiles holds an MA in History and Theory of Contemporary Art from the San Francisco Art Institute. She is currently an editor at Once magazine. 

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