Reflections may be a well-worn photographic subject, but few artists have presented them with as much ambiguity and mystery as Roger Vail. Vail has made a career out of destabilizing familiar things. His slow-shutter-speed night shots of Ferris wheels and neon lights, for example, demonstrated, better than any works I can think of, the lure of what Tom Waits called “the narcotic American night.” His current series, Inconspicuous Places, of window reflections, pushes in the opposite direction, toward quiet contemplation, and comes bathed in (mostly) neutral tones of the sort Vail experienced as a youth in Chicago watching long winters melt away from behind glass.
What sets these images apart is the artist’s ability to capture various aspects of window reflections simultaneously: surface views (of graffiti, smears, cracks and grime); transparent, through-the-glass views; and distant objects reflected in the glass – all in a single frame.
"Surfaces become the field of vision," explains Vail, likening them to the layered patinas of Matisse. They consist of solids and transparencies, "so getting those planes in focus" requires Cartier Bresson-like reflexes "because light conditions are in a constant state of flux."
Such photos, which lean toward Surrealism, are commonly thought to be products of darkroom or digital trickery. Vail’s certainly fit that profile. With their disorienting juxtapositions of architecture, signs, storefronts, people, interiors, graffiti, people and light, Vail’s pictures – we assume – are heavily doctored. They are not. They are straight photos, and that jaw-dropping fact that tells us something important about the way we move through the world. Namely, that startling images such as these are everywhere to be seen if only we look. Most of us don’t. Vail, in a state of reverie, stalks city streets with the goal of making pictures of extraordinary scenes hiding in plain view.
There’s the San Jose sidewalk that appears to be melting, like a visage reflected in wind-blown water; the scene in Las Vegas, in which a school bus appears to have crashed through the window of a restaurant that really isn’t a restaurant at all, just a piece of reflected clip-art. And that graffiti-scarred window in Alameda that reads like a skeleton whose stomach contains animal innards? You’re looking at building insulation through a hole in the glass. Or, so it seems. Without forensic study or the artist telling you, the facts of Vail’s pictures remain tantalizingly out of reach. And that is what separates his from those of other photographers who’ve worked this territory, from Atget to Friedlander.
Like his predecessors, Vail is a formalist. His concerns are line, shape, composition, color and light, and he builds his images with the solidity of architectural photographs, from the ground-up. He doesn’t set out to create content — he relies on the viewer to supply that. Rather, he is a hunter-gatherer, alert to what serendipity throws in his path. A good example is an image from San Jose that recalls Steiglitz’s and Steichen’s night shots of Manhattan. This one, of fog-enshrouded trees, Vail found reflected in a window with a rectangular swatch of gray at the center, a readymade invocation of Rothko and Baldessari.
Such pictures simultaneously challenge and engage photography’s ability to lie and deliver facts. Vail plays with these contradictory characteristics, confusing, confounding and, occasionally, driving straight past them. His picture of a window in Watsonville, that appears to have been pelted with eggs and turquoise paint, and his image from Santa Cruz, which resembles a distressed lithograph, are both fine examples of that rare quality in photography: pure abstraction that asks not for source identification, only for acceptance on its own terms as nonobjective art whose “truth” stands in plain view, at the edge of consciousness.
Sculptor Dean De Cocker stakes out an entirely different territory: the psychic residue of the auto and aerospace industries that surrounded him while growing up in Southern California. His elegant, post minimalist/finish fetish works serve as homages to America’s post-WWII years – and as celebrations of flight’s inherent lyricism. You don’t have to be a racecar driver or pilot to appreciate them; the aesthetics of industrial design – automobile, aircraft and furniture – prevail, giving the work a highly polished look, replete with glossy armatures, clean, sweeping lines and NASA-worthy shapes that reference tailpipes, fuselages, propellers, allerons and the like.
Most of the works in this show employ materials and forms that DeCocker has used before: canvas or synthetic “fibers” stretched across wooden frames; painted circles festooned on metal rods; cloud or buoy-shapes; and boat shapes that allude to the maritime aspects of war – an open-to-view subtext relayed in titles like Long Range Escort, Night Patrol and Last Days of the Pacific Campaign.
DeCocker is not a veteran, but his affinity with WWII veterans, is particularly strong. It began several decades ago with an epiphany that struck when he climbed into a Mitchell B-25. “I crawled up into the tail gunner’s seat and had an experience like I’d been there, done that — but not in a good way. It was more like in a past life: I had been killed or I’d been killing people. It was eerie,” he told me in 2003. The artist subsequently sought out and interviewed pilots about their experiences in the South Pacific, and he immersed himself in the literature, films, and music of the era. From that point forward, flight became a jumping off point for the artist’s explorations of abstract form.
The most prominent feature of his wall-mounted sculptures is how forcefully they convey the feeling of flight and of weightlessness. It’s a function of the geometrically arrayed support beams from which objects hang and the angle of repose those supports enable. DeCocker likens his welded armatures to drawings in space, and when you look at Fear or Fury, a trio of paper cones held aloft by a sweeping arc of metal tubes, that observation takes on real significance. G-forces tug at your stomach and the roar of jet engines practically rings in your ears. The same energy runs through Last Waves, a quintet of blimp-like shapes that bulge out from the wall, like squadron fighter jets breaking out of formation.
What’s new is the artist’s use of clear plastic tubing, loosely draped from supports to evoke the look of lymphatic or fuel systems, and small-diameter cylinders, built of black-painted paper, that recall weapons, telescopes and kaleidoscopes.
Given his mix of biomorphic and industrial forms, repetition and slick finishes, and his meticulous parsing of space, form and volume, it’s tempting to pigeonhole DeCocker as a Post-Minimalist. But such categorizations obscure more than they illuminate. After more than two decades of using forms and metaphors of flight as the basis for his art, DeCocker remains sui generis, pushing forward ideas that appear to be infinitely extensible.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Roger Vail: “Inconspicuous Places” and Dean DeCocker: “Running at Full Tilt” @ JAYAY through October 27, 2012.