"Century" at the Living Room and "Person + Thing", Craig Crull Gallery.

 When Nature Calls

Winter doesn't last in L.A. In fact, I've hardly noticed it, but life-long residents tell me it is now spring.  It's all the same to a transplanted New Yorker, although there are slight variations, such as not needing a sweater in the afternoons. Such are the trials - one perfect day after another.  Of course the drawback is traffic.  Our trip into the city is slowed by an accident on the 405.  It appears to be nothing worse than a fender bender, but the paramedics are huddled over a young woman and the gawkers have slowed traffic to a near halt.  It's not too bad because we're deep into an audiotape of Man Ray:American Artist, however, what makes the trip difficult is what we don't have: a restroom.

Finally we exit the freeway and wend our way through a mixed neighborhood of modest homes and tiny yards in Santa Monica.  We're looking for 1132 Broadway where Margaret Morgan is showing an installation called "Century (1978 - 1999)"at The Living Room.  We locate the address and sure enough Morgan's work is in what appears to be the living room of a small, very well maintained, wood-frame house.  "Century" consists of 100 4"x 6"color photographs in 8"x 10"mats with silver frames arranged in a grid pattern from floor to ceiling.  The project developed out of her interest in the "non-spaces" of domestic life and evolved into working with the private spaces of public institutions: bathrooms. (It's interesting that in America we use the word bathroom to mean any room with a toilet, but in Europe if you ask for the bathroom you are shown a room with only a bathtub, which makes sense.)

Morgan made these documents over a twenty-year period on both hemispheres and in many continents, using all kinds of cameras and films under every lighting condition. While some of the pictures are of sinks and faucets, most are of toilets, shot head-on in the most ordinary fashion, with little attempt at composition or what might be called "artistry." These are simple records of toilets shot on the fly, and nothing  like Edward Weston's famous photographs of plumbing.

However, what is striking about this installation of an unlovely subject, is that like Weston's icons of bathroom fixtures, it is beautiful. Morgan often uses the wrong film under the wrong light (daylight film without a magenta filter under fluorescent lighting,) giving many of the images a cast of varying shades of pale pea green. Other kinds of film and other kinds of lighting temperature create "mistakes" of an even more pleasing variety.  The whole grid is set up on a gradient, with deep cadmium yellow toilets fading into grays and whites, ending with a brilliant candy-colored blue section in the lower right. These look as though they were shot through a turquoise filter, but Morgan claims not. What gives the piece, (which after all is of photo mart prints of mixed quality, some, ten and twenty years old) a uniform appearance, is that they have all been drum-scanned and made into digital prints.

Morgan photographed in the bathrooms of universities, museums, hospitals, and libraries, and appears to have even made her way into the men's room as well as the constricted spaces of planes and trains. The reductive gloss of photography has cleaned up these rooms, turning insipid lighting and mottled walls into delicate colors and subtle shading, all made pure for our unrepelled consumption and close inspection.

We are invited to gaze without anxiety into these vehicles for waste disposal. This allows us to turn our attention to the details. White lids, black lids, tiles and linoleum, square sinks and round ones, pink soaps and white.  She has also included photographs of engravings from early 1900's Kohler plumbing catalogs. We notice signs we have seen a thousand times, "Please use the trash container for anything other than toilet tissue,"and reconsider the meaning of the text.

Also, we cannot help but think about what goes on in this sphere of public life: illicit sex, drug sales, and violence against children, e.g. the recent case of the teenager who killed a young girl in the ladies room of a Las Vegas casino.  In many cities homeless people sleep in the public washrooms of buses and trains, particularly women. It's the only safe place.  Then we remember all the rude signs we have seen in restaurants and shops that say, "Restrooms for customers only,"and the difficulties this makes for the homeless, never mind the average citizen in need, and in a hurry. Why, in the biggest, newest, buildings for theaters and performance halls has no one figured out that there should be three times the restroom accommodations for women as there are for men? Has no designer ever noticed the lines at intermission? Is it because men build these buildings?

 To be sure, there is nothing in  the toilets Morgan photographs up close. The water is clear, and we are grateful for this. (She says she didn't want to produce a "yuck" statement.) "Century" is not about the body, but about public institutions and social need.  Morgan has given us much to think about in the realm of the unthinkable, usually unbeautiful, but critically necessary, spaces of modern intimate life.

Intimate Augueries

Photographer, Nancy Monk's work is of intimacies of an entirely different kind.  Her Show, "Person + Thing" at the Craig Krull Gallery in Bergamont Station consisted of a series of finely painted black and white photographs. Small scale, and carefully crafted, Monk's black and white images are all but obscured by veils of acrylic paint in very specific shades of pale china blues, golds, and black and white.  The blue she uses might be characterized  as "cornflower blue" or like the blue of a Van Gogh sky, or maybe as matching  the crystal-clear sapphire blue of Clint Eastwood's eyes. Monk describes it as, "not Dutch, and not Delft, but a kind of Northern European color."

She came to this color through her work with glass.  "The blues and the whites are a reference to the color that you see when light hits the edges of glass when it is cut, and also refers to water and ice. Glass is in transition the same way as water and ice; the molecules are always in motion." She thinks of the paint as being like glass. While the images appear "covered", Monk says, "To me they are not really covered. To me it's as though the paint is transparent."

Monk is attracted to Dutch artists and one can't help thinking of Mondrian in her minimalist bisecting of the spaces and edges of her photographs. She's also looked at Paul Klee and Corbusier. Color is important, and she explains that she's gone through periods where she has limited her palette to only one hue. "For awhile all I did was yellow work, and variations on gold. Gold was about the luminosity and light."

She began this work after photographer William Wegman made a visit to the school where she teaches. He happened to wear a paisley print shirt that to Monk looked like a gallery of Indian paintings. "I took a lot of photographs of him and began painting him out, just showing his shirt." Later she began making portraits of her family, students and friends, "I have always loved taking pictures of people but originally I did it only as a kind of hobby. Usually making art is a very private experience for me, but eventually I started asking friends to pose and I found that making portraits was a nice way to be working with people."

She never takes pictures of strangers, preferring to photograph only those people she knows well.  In "11 in a Garden, 1998"a tiny series of heads have been transformed into daisies, the petals of the flowers ringing each face in a blue background. In another, a group of her students appear to be in an elevator, everything painted out around them. One has to peer closely to see their diminutive smiling faces. All of the work is small and requires close looking. Monk makes the painted wood frames herself and they are as much a part the images as the color. She works intuitively. "The photographs tell me what to paint," says Monk, "I don't know what it is going to be until I see the image printed and then take it home from the darkroom and figure out what I'm going to do with it."

In one series Monk photographed objects that are in her house, (a pitcher, small figurines) and placed touches of gold acrylic in thin lines and geometric shapes next to the objects. A (toy?) bear is placed against a line in "Bear Going, 1999"and at another side of the line in "Bear Returning, 1999."Monk says,  "Some objects make a good picture, and some don't." In another series she photographed a clay cutter left over from her work as a sculptor. She placed it against a black background and created a "Theme and variations" in the way the wire moved and changed configurations against the dark cloth.

One gets a sense of deep personal intimacy when looking at these tiny elegant images. As viewers we are compelled to stand with our faces pressed against the windows of the frame to study their intricate constructions and fragile beauty. This required, close, inspection opens doors that are located nearer the heart than the head.

Photometro, Volume 17, Issue 154, 1998 A.M. Rousseau