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Transfictions: Jack Butler, Eileen Cowin, and Grant Mudford

February 18 through April 17, 2004

 

Los Angeles is a place that embraces innovation and celebrates risk. It is also, however, a place that demands accomplishment. To be an artist in Los Angeles is to be part of a tradition that has defied the rules, a community that has ignored convention, and a sensibility that has resisted easy classification. This has often led to tremendous breakthroughs in media, style, and intent. The post-surrealists Helen Lundeberg and Lorser Feitelson; Ed Keinholz, Wallace Berman, and the Assemblage artists of the 1950s and sixties; the Finish-fetish artists of the 1960s and seventies -- all benefited from the West Coast's assertively permissive intellectual and aesthetic climate. Photographers, too, were transformed within this laid-back crucible. The approaches and uses of photography by Southern California artists signaled an invigorated interest not simply in imagemaking, but in the implications of the images themselves. This is clearly seen in works done in the 1960s and seventies by artists such as Ed Ruscha and Robert Heinecken, whose concerns were predicated less upon that which had been photographed than upon the philosophical and theoretical stature of the process and its product.

It has become somewhat obvious as of late that there has been a change in the way in which photography is being treated vis-a-vis the general sweep of the art world. Auction catalogs of contemporary art are now offering as many photo-based items as they are the more traditional paintings and sculptures. Rare is it that a gallery of contemporary works will not have at least one or two photographers among their roster, and the more traditional photography galleries have seen a growing awareness accorded imagery that is more conceptually driven. Even the most lumbering of arts institutions -- museums -- have embraced the diversity of audiences that respond to photography. That the art world has changed is a given. That photography's place within the art world has changed is also a given. What remains most comforting for many of us, however, is that while these commercial and institutional shifts have occurred, the position of artists who use photography within this structure has remained consistent: they make art.

Artists such as jack Butler, Eileen Cowin, and Grant Mudford are classic examples of artists who came to national attention in the 1 970s whose need to make art has never flagged. Each uses photography in service to his or her unique vision and interest, not because it is photography per se, but because the medium affords them the most effective means by which to explore and communicate their ideas. Additionally, they are artists whose visual and conceptual investigations have remained fairly consistent over the course of their careers. Each has tenaciously addressed and readdressed a core concern: Butler, the role of images in popular culture; Cowin, the nature of narrative; and Mudford, the transcription of space and form. By bringing together early and more recent work by these three artists the curators of this exhibition have presented us with an opportunity to gain insight into each artist's individual aesthetic. More important, however, the exhibition provides a broader platform from which to view the shifting directions and visual priorities undertaken by those who make art in response to -- and often in spite of -- the technological, commercial, and cultural realignments embraced by those of us who don't.

 

Following is text from the Gallery Guide:

 

INTRODUCTION

This exhibition juxtaposes the early and recent work of three Los Angeles-based artists, highlighting their unwavering exploration of a single concern and their dedication to artistic experimentation. Butler investigates the role of images in popular culture, Cowin explores the ways in which we construct our world through narrative, and Mudford compresses three-dimensional space onto a flat surface. While these artists have pursued a single issue throughout the course of their work, they have each done so in a highly innovative manner.

Butler, Cowin, and Mudford came of age as artists in the freewheeling atmosphere of 1970s Los Angeles. While photography at the time was not widely recognized as an art form, its peripheral status gave photographically based artists the freedom to experiment with the medium. As a result, the artists featured in Transfictions helped to challenge and expand the popular understanding of photography as a faithful recording of reality. They questioned the long-standing assumptions about the relationship between photography and "truth," and pointed out that, like paintings, photographic images are artistic constructions.

The three artists continue to live and work in Los Angeles. While today photographs are celebrated as works of art, Butler, Cowin, and Mudford persist in challenging our assumptions about photography, and furthering our understanding of the medium.

 

Jack Butler

 
I've always been interested in the so-called 'veracity' of the photograph, the believability of the photograph, because people think of the photograph as being real.

 

Early work

As the basis of his artistic practice, Jack Butler has employed found photographic images to question the documentary aspect of photography. In the Excitable Pages series (1978-1983), Butler enlarges, paints, tapes, and scratches images culled from advertisements and fashion magazines, continually re-photographing his results. The original images were meant to convey beauty, excitement, and attraction. However, by recontextualizing them, and marring their perfect airbrushed surfaces, Butler reveals their underlying dynamic of sexual power and imbalance; social violence; and dominance and submission. Through his interventions, the meaning is inverted, yielding a work in which the violent, almost repellent subject matter contrasts with the luscious, sensual surface. This disjunction between image and object demonstrates the instability of the image and the degree to which its meaning and context are linked. (right: Jack Butler, "Untitled (#15)", from the series "Excitiable Pages", 1979, printed 1990, silver dye-bleach (Cibachrome) print, 20 x 30 inches, Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

 

Recent work

In his more recent work, Butler continues to use found imagery and explore the construction of meaning in journalistic photography, expanding both the scale and scope of his photographs to achieve the more subdued look found in series such as People the Pictures Weren't Of (1998). These dramatic compositions reverse the rules of seeing: by enlarging the small, barely visible figures that originally appeared in the background of found images, Butler shifts the perspective of the work. He disregards what the original photographer regarded as being of primary and secondary importance. By re-ordering the implied hierarchy of the image, Butler raises important questions about how images are manufactured and the effects that a photographer's choices have upon the representation of reality.

 

Eileen Cowin

 

[In Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon] the people are all involved in telling the story of the same event and they all tell it from their point of view. They believe what they saw was the truth, but they saw it with their eyes, their point of view, and they're all different. Everybody has a different truth for the same event.

 

Early work

In her own words, Eileen Cowin is fascinated with "the idea of storytelling, the nature of narrative, and the relationship between fiction and nonfiction." The photographs in her Family Docudrama series (1980-1983) revolve around elaborately constructed scenes that have the look and feel of a low-budget soap opera. Despite the fact that Cowin assigned each character a specific role, gesture, and emotion, this strict planning does not, and should not, prevent the viewer from reading these compositions literally, metaphorically, and personally.

Cowin insists that she does not want to tell a specific story, but instead encourages viewers to interpret the scene in their own way, knowing that the meaning will change depending on their life experiences.

 

Recent work

Cowin's recent work continues to challenge the traditional beginning, middle, and ending of narrative. Her video installations often feature actors interpreting a previously scripted text. It's So Good to See You (1999) challenges the viewer's reception and interpretation of the issues surrounding public and private space. In the gallery, the viewer is confronted with short, repetitive video clips of actors engaged in private activities. Although it seems that the actors are unaware of being watched, at some point they look up and make eye contact with the viewer. This psychological confrontation forces viewers to construct meaning from discrete and fragmented moments.

 

Grant Mudford

 

I think one of the shortcomings of reality, of real experience, is most people's inability to examine something carefully and thoughtfully without moving around or being distracted by something else. What photography does really is it forces you to examine something you normally wouldn't.

 

Early work

Grant Mudford draws on his training as an architect to translate the volume of structures into flattened studies of light, color, line, and plane. His photographs call the nature of representation into question, and enable us to see the built environment in new ways. In the Long Beach series (1979), as well as in his early black and white views of North American cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, Mudford photographs the mundane -- a Ferris wheel, a nondescript corner of sidewalk, a view of telephone poles and tire tracks -- and transforms these ordinary structures into strikingly abstract compositions in which the play of textures and lines creates a highly patterned surface.

 

Recent work

In his recent photographs of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, Mudford continues to disturb traditional readings of architectural space. Whereas the rigid geometry of his early black and white photography depends upon the interaction of line and shadow, in these large-scale compositions, color serves to organize the broad expanses of texture and geometric forms of architectural elements. In Walt Disney Concert Hall, Under Construction #3 (2002), Mudford eliminates information from the photograph that would place the scaffolding depicted in an easily recognizable context. Instead, he creates an abstract image of intersecting and superimposed lines and colored planes, transcribing the spatial medium of architecture onto a two-dimensional plane, not by attempting to conceal the flatness of the picture plane, but by asserting it.

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