"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.