Walk into California Continued: New Approaches in West Coast Photography at Smith Andersen North gallery in San Anselmo, and the first thing you will see is the late Larry Sultan's 30" x 40" image, Paris On My Parents' Bed. Photographing Paris Hilton for Interview Magazine in 2008, Sultan posed the young celebrity on the bed of what had been his parents' room in his family's childhood home in the San Fernando Valley. (The house was no longer occupied by the Sultans by the time of the shoot.) The young Ms. Hilton, with fully made-up face and hair, lounges sidelong on the unfamiliar bed as if it were her own, clad in only her robe and socks, seemingly unaware of the camera as she checks her cell phone. The image is brilliant, capturing the essence of a California that Sultan knew intimately: teeming with equal parts ambition and loneliness, it is a place constantly reinventing its own likeness.
Curated by photographer Jennifer O'Keeffe, California Continued refuses a singular view of the West Coast; in fact, it has no tight thematic or methodological categories whatsoever. Instead, it represents many Californias, as seen through the eyes of thirty photographers from various regions of the Golden State. Broad ranging as it may be (very broad at points), there is not a bad photograph in the show.
Photo: Todd Hido
Some serious heavyweights are on view -- Todd Hido, Katy Grannan, John Divola, and Richard Miscrach to name a few, but the show is largely occupied by emerging artists, many of whom experiment with the boundaries of medium. Job Piston's haunting Untitled (Red Portrait) is 16" x 20" blood-red photogram, created by exposing photographic paper for an extended period of time to an illuminated image on his computer screen of the face of Matthew Shepard (who was brutally murdered in 1998 for being gay).
Photo: Klea McKenna
Klea McKenna's piece, Paper Airplanes, consists of a grid of forty 8x10 paper airplanes made from photosensitive paper, which appear to have been folded and flown in daylight before being subsequently processed. The resulting piece, full of warm and black tones, and bearing the marks of its own unfolding, makes reference to the World War II soldiers deployed to the Marin coast as look-outs for enemy planes.
Chris McCaw uses paper negatives, and points his camera directly at the bright California sun, causing literal burns on the surface of his images, not unlike the tenuous quality of human skin. Against the backdrop of more established California-based photographers, these experimental practices make good on the show's "New Approaches in West Coast Photography" claim, engendering new ways of looking at a cultural and topographic landscape that is uniquely our own.
Let us return to Larry Sultan's quintessential photograph of Paris Hilton, also the last image one sees when exiting the gallery. Other than Sultan, every photographer featured in the show is living and actively making work. The central placement of Sultan's photograph speaks volumes about the show's intent. This collection of work is a fitting homage to Sultan's influence -- both literally, as he was a teacher to many artists on view, and conceptually -- by grounding California as a unique and complex source from which to make work. He would be proud to see it.
California Continued: New Approaches in West Coast Photography runs through April 15, 2011 at the Smith Andersen North Gallery in San Anselmo, California. For more information visit smithandersennorth.com.