October 24, 2020

John Divola: making the invisible visible | Babelia


He describes himself as an artist who explores the landscape, posing his gaze between the borders that delimit the abstract from the concrete. To this end, over almost five decades, John Divola (Los Angeles, 1949) has used the photographic medium aware that not only oral or written language falls short in the face of the complexity of the experience, but so does photography. Hence, in his artistic work, he has not stopped questioning the limitations of the medium. His images are not documents of what we refer to as reality, but they do not stop making reference to factors that not only determine our reality but feed our imagination and fantasy.

Chroma, his last monograph brings together images made between 1980 and 1985. An idea that did not come from the author himself but from Milo Montelli, founder of the Skinnerboox publishing house, who first saw this series of images published on the page of Instagram from the photographer. “I was very surprised to discover that the photographs had been taken in the 1980s. I found many similarities with the approaches used by many of the contemporary photographers that I admire ”, comments the editor, who has a catalog focused on experimental photography. “We usually publish books whose content delves into the photographic medium. Thus, the idea of ​​gathering these images perfectly linked with the approaches of other authors belonging to younger generations ”, adds Montelli, underlining the innovative character that has always distinguished the work of the North American author. A work composed of a very distinctive vocabulary that avoids any categorization.

Without a doubt, the reception of the book would not have been the same forty years ago. “At that time the separation between photography in the art world was very remarkable,” says Divola. “Those interested in photography were not interested in their abstractions or hybrid manifestations, in confronting a language that already prevailed in painting or sculpture. People weren’t ready to meet something like that in the context of photography, and in the context of art they weren’t really interested in looking at photography again. ”

Even so, by the end of the 1970s his signs of artistic identity had already been defined through the intervention of abandoned spaces – using different methods – which he later photographed. It was in the series Zuma (1979), one of his most acclaimed projects, carried out in a house on the beach in Malibu, where he used color for the first time. “In the early eighties I decided that I wanted to consider a series of images about things that cannot be photographed,” explains the photographer in a telephone conversation. “Determine visual metaphors about gravity, magnetism, how the water drains, or the things I see when you press my eyes with the palms of my hand.”

While doing so, two factors determined his search: the use of Cibachrome, a photographic process based on slides instead of negatives, whose industrial and artificial condition produced highly saturated and contrasted colors that were very suitable for the process, and the use of color gels integrated into the flash (something I had already used in Zuma). Both techniques contributed to elaborate these metaphors in order to make the invisible visible, giving rise to different sets of images that created under different strategies compose Chroma.


A diptych of the book 'Chroma'.see photo gallery
A diptych of the book ‘Chroma’. Courtesy of Skinnerboox

Among the strategies used, the use of diptychs where human beings oppose animals, while looking straight into the camera, stands out; the integration into the landscape of simple three-dimensional sculptures, which the author refers to as “generic sculptures”; landscapes broken by the incorporation of two-dimensional images silhouetted in flat colors; Strikingly colored abstract geometric shapes that seem to naturally integrate into nature as mysterious elements or invisible forces. Formulas that are repeated throughout the book inviting the reader to establish free associations, where an enigma sustained by the use of color prevails.

Dualities prevail throughout the book. The natural versus the artifice of color. Humans versus animals, but both as part of a unified natural world. Geometry versus chaos. The symbolic versus the concretion. However, the recurring use of diptychs goes beyond a simple image matching strategy in order to analyze their relationship. Through the use of color, the author manages to manipulate our responses. “I thought that the cognitive drive could be mitigated by the use of an inconsistent color. That is, the Gestalt (shape or configuration) of the image could undermine that impulse, ”says the author in a conversation with the critic David Campany that is reproduced in the book. He was also interested in the effect of color on the anthropomorphic impulse when interpreting the faces of animals as opposed to people. “I am very interested in creating simple things, and I try to avoid scenes elaborated in a more theatrical or cinematographic way. I want my intervention to be clearly seen ”, he highlights, referring to an image in which he shows a mysterious pink cone in the middle of a forest. “Normally you use two flashes. One built into the camera and one into the scene. The smoke comes from a handful of flour that I throw. The notion of a tornado could be an exhausting metaphor. Everyone has seen hundreds of images of these phenomena, making it something you recognize without having experienced it. So in the elaboration of these generic sculptures what I try to do is resurrect these exhausted iconographies, give them a new energy, a point of support that makes them oscillate between a condition that makes them recognizable and another that makes it something individual or particular in the world. “

Chroma It contains a whole range of associations. “With cinema, the gothic, and psychedelia – but also with a very purist investigation of the different aspects of photography – light, color, frame, timing, point of view, and so on,” writes Campany . “A work that confronts us with amazement and terror: fascination, curiosity and stupefaction … but also strangeness, dread and confusion. Can you imagine how magical the moment people first saw a photograph must have been? “Asks Divola, convinced that his power, like language, changed human consciousness.

Chroma. John Divola. Skinnerboox, 2020. 80 pages. 35 euros.

See here a photo gallery with images of John Divola.

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