Book Review: Jo Ann Callis: Other Rooms
Released by Aperture (June 2014)
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, SEPT. 2014
Other Rooms is the first publication to thoroughly survey Jo Ann Callis’s famous/infamous, formalist/conceptualist photographs from the mid-1970s. Brought out from who else but the photography-loving magicians at Aperture, the book brings together Callis’ pioneering work in both black and white and color film, featuring nude portraits and set tableaux that have the interrupted quality of film stills, imparting a sense of permission to voyeurism with an intimacy that is both constructed and ingenuous. Aside from the scholarly and emotional impact of seeing these seminal images collected in one place, with the editorial participation of the artist, there is something satisfyingly lush and tactile about the production value of the book itself which underscores the subtle luminosity and erotic pleasure animating these nevertheless fiercely feminist portraits.
The collection is prefaced with a text by Francine Prose that is its own reward, offering a frank and accessible interpretation of the open-ended ideas and implications of Callis’ work -- and of the viewer’s anticipated complicity in the more sexualized aspects of its meaning. In fact, the instigation to involve a viewer’s own memories in the content of an image is an avenue of investigation that goes beyond these images to Callis’ broader practice and indeed to the entire field of photography and its expanded, problematic relationship to truth and narrative. The paradoxical proximity that suggests the invitation of the photographer (and by proxy, the viewer) into a scene of otherwise presumedly private fantasy further gets at the crosscurrents of complicity and codes that the work seeks to deconstruct.
Jo Ann Callis (born in Cincinnati, 1940) began teaching at CalArts in 1976, which explains a lot about the fearlessly experimental, interdisciplinary approach she has long pursued. Across work in a plurality of mediums including painting and performance, Callis has become best known for her provocative, evocative investigations of the body as both a study subject of formalist nudes, and the location of unconventional, personal and societal sexuality. Her use of bindings, coverings, and props in the images including twine, belts, tape, honey, sand, fabric and other ordinary substances and domestic objects are unsettling and hypnotic, frequently funny, anxious, saucy, and ambivalent, offering variable readings of the (mostly female) nude as both a reliable trope of art and a path to revolution.
All images are courtesy of Rose Gallery, Santa Monica, where an exhibition keyed to this publication was on view June 7 -- August 16, 2014.
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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