Doug Harvey: Found Moldy Slides
Jancar Gallery, Los Angeles
March 15 - April 12, 2014
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, APR. 2014
Doug Harvey is a writer, and artist, and a curator whose conceptual practice and choices in medium, platform, and style can best be summed up as “all of the above” or better yet, as doing whatever is necessary to serve a particular idea. He writes, mostly about art, interchangeably from personal and broader critical and historical viewpoints. He curates in order to redeem the unjustly overlooked, or to subvert the perceived status quo in other ways. He himself paints, draws, photographs, makes and assembles music, and is a self-confessed quasi-hoarder and aficionado of the overlooked, discarded, and random in our visual culture. For these and other reasons, he has always been drawn toward what he calls “found art” -- which sometimes means perceiving the artistic value in non-traditional materials like old-timey advertising, underground illustration, outsider painting, and anonymous gestures. He does not always make his own art out of the actual found materials however -- one thing he is not is an assemblage sculptor -- but instead draws both direct and indirect inspiration and some inscrutable satisfaction from the discoveries themselves. In the case of his new exhibition Found Moldy Slides at Chinatown’s Jancar Gallery, however, it truly is a case of “all of the above.”
On view are a selection of about a dozen large-scale photographic prints, indeed produced from a collection of fungus-encrusted and otherwise distressed slides which Harvey found while essentially going through someone else’s garbage. First published in Mark Pilkington's Strange Attractor Journal #2 in 2005 (as well as becoming a live-presentation, soundtrack-accompanied slideshow) Harvey had discovered this treasure while, as one does, “rooting through the mounds of refuse” outside the house of a locally famous hoarder, the Edendale Packrat. Harvey “rescued” thousands of slides over a period of several days, all of which “seemed to date from the 70’s and be from the same family -- a swinging middle aged man and his sexy wife, partial to safaris and pilgrimages to Jerusalem.” Many were in fine shape but the ones that really piqued Harvey’s interest were those that had been damaged to varying degrees by water, moss-like mold, and who knows what else. He cleaned them up and started working with them, and eventually felt that quite a few would be worth printing large -- at something approaching the scale of the abstract expressionist paintings they so closely resemble. The results are nothing short of arresting.
Some images do look like tumultuous abstract paintings, with color field riots composed of accumulated densities of detail evocative of geological features or galactic nebulae. Some remain self-evidently photographs but appearing as though they might have been hand-embellished, tinted, or otherwise eccentrically processed. Some images retain or conceal aspects of themselves (architectural landmarks from Rome to Auschwitz, unnamed but presumably important people) in ways that are so affecting as to seem quite deliberate. All have had their original documentary function compromised in one way or another -- and yet it is precisely those debilitations that give the work their power. As visually compelling and seductive as the images are, the added dimension of wonderment at how they came to exist heightens their strength as objects, lending them an ambiguity the photographer was not going for as well as a mysterious and independent life story of their own he or she could never have predicted. They are powerful because they were both intentional and unattended, discarded by one stranger and rescued by another, documents now of another kind of journey. None of which would matter nearly as much if they were not so flat-out gorgeous.
And they are just as fascinating on a conceptual/semantic level, introducing issues of authorship, truth, transcendence, intention, control, chaos, narrative, meaning, and analog physicality into a larger conversation about photography in the digital era. As Harvey has said, “I feel like I’m only one of a string of collaborators, starting with the original photographer, the Packrat of Edendale, and the mold itself.” They are also a bit shocking because their beauty is the result of something rather repulsive and thus unexpected, which heightens the magic and the weirdness as well as the joy. The obstacles to their legibility only serve to draw the viewer deeper in, creating opportunities for audiences to make their own discoveries within the pictures, to retrace Harvey’s own experience with them -- but without the dumpster-diving.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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