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These American Lives @ Rena Bransten

John Waters, Separate but Equal, 2014, C-print, 6 1/2 x 9 7/8"
 
by David M. Roth

The Rena Bransten Gallery rarely mounts theme-based group shows, but when it does they tend to be exceptional. These American Lives, a photo-heavy look at America’s past, strikes a succession of bullseye hits.  An opening montage of 17 images presented salon-style lays out the show’s premise, echoing what Faulkner said about the past inhabiting the present.  The concerns raised – about poverty, race, inequality, privacy and political violence – line up eerily with events we’re witnessing today.  The view is panoramic.
 
Appropriately, the names of the artists in this sequence read like an abbreviated Who’s Who of 20th century American photography. Chronologically they divide between those whose careers began before WWII (Lewis Hine, Helen Levitt and Aaron Siskind) those who came after (Lee Friedlander, Henry Wessel and Danny Lyon).  Their subjects (geographically speaking) run from the streets of New York to the desolate and

Helen Levitt, New York, c. 1942, gelatin silver print, 12 x 8 1/2"

 developing West, and from the Great Depression to the near present.  Many are iconic. The surprise is how relevant they are today.  Take Levitt’s 1942 photo of a boy dressed for Halloween.  He has a heart painted on his forehead. That detail — coupled with the joy communicated by his wistful grin — reminds us that childhood, even in hard times, can be sweet, and that there were interludes in America’s past when blackness didn’t always equate to troubling headlines.

Another surprise is how the outliers included in this grouping, John Waters and Tracey Snelling, lend relevancy to the older works.  Waters, who is better known for satirical and transgressive films than for photography, offers two images (both from 2014) that serve as historical connecting points.  Separate but Equal, a grainy black-and-white photo of a segregated water fountain, is updated with text conflating the battle over gay marriage with the fight for civil rights.  The other is a doctored photo of Jackie and President John F. Kennedy shadowed by the grim reaper.  Both were made in 2014.  Going further back while simultaneously pushing toward the present, Hung Liu’s painting, Dirty Pink (2015), based on a 1939 Russell Lee photo of huddled dustbowl refugees, brings to mind today’s global immigration crisis. Equally relevant to current and past struggles is Snelling’s night shot of a gritty stretch of San Pablo Avenue.  It’s printed on a panel that has embedded in it a tiny video screen.  It shows a man identified as Harvey speaking to the camera.  The volume is too low to make out what he’s saying.  But what's evident from his gestures and general demeanor is the distinct possibility that he may be homeless and mentally ill. Snelling’s insertion of these animate facts into an already danger-tinged photo pulls you into the scene in a way few still photos can.
 
Album: New Car (2014), a bogglingly complex collage by Vik Muniz, injects levity into the proceedings.  Employing his tried-and-true method of making pictures from scraps of other people’s pictures, Muniz re-creates a found photo of a man posing triumphantly before a 1947 Chrysler Windsor.  This land yacht of a vehicle, a status symbol in its day, stands in sharp contrast to clapboard houses in the background.  It reads as an 

Lava Thomas, Requiem for Charleston, 2016, tambourines, lambskin, acrylic, 76 x 77 x 3/8"

exercise in nostalgia, a paean to good times past.  So, too, does a photo made by Peter Bransten, of kids playing on a swing set that once stood near the Palace of the Legion of Honor.  The children are blurred, the light diffuse, the scene idyllic.  Never mind that San Francisco in 1972 was hardly a place of peace and tranquility; the moment captured is transcendent.

At other junctures you may laugh.  I always do when I look at Henry Wessel’s photos. Wessel took the paving-over of the American West as seriously as did any of his New Topographics cohorts, but he never let ideology stand in the way of a good picture; his rearview (1989) image of a bronze-skinned male body builder at Muscle Beach attests to that, as do his supremely banal shots of kitchens in Richmond where the contents seem as precariously perched as some of that town’s hill-hugging houses.
 

Whatever the fun, there's no shaking the seriousness of this show’s intentions.  Lava Thomas’ tribute to those murdered by a white supremacist at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church points to the deepest fissure in American life: race. It’s a chevron-shaped array of wall-mounted tambourines covered in black lambskin, each of which carries the name of a victim embossed on the surface.  This blunt, mute statement, standing in contrast to the gospel music evoked by the instruments, all but screams of the violence that claimed nine lives in 2015.  Neighborhood Watch, Doug Halls’ 1995 experiment in surveillance, points to another fissure. Observe the telling details he extracts from a single photo of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill district

Hung Liu, Dirty Pink, 2015, oil on canvas, 80 x 120"

 

and you too may feel spied-on. (One thinks of the photographer/protagonist in Antonioni’s Blow Up.)  Like so much else in the show, it resonates across time, linking the gumshoe methods of yesteryear to those currently being deployed across the Internet by governments and corporations.

Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” These American Lives offers much proof.

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These American Lives @ Rena Bransten Gallery through May 7, 2016.  The show also includes works by Dawoud Bey, Tameka Norris, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Chip Lord, Rupert Garcia and John Baldessari.
 
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