Article that accompanys "Isolated Houses" book published by Nazraeli Press, June 2000
by Jan Tumlir


Like many who live in the city of Los Angeles, John Divola began in the mid
1980s to make regular getaways to the desert, staying sometimes the weekend,
sometimes longer, in the town of 29 Palms at the east end of the Morongo
Basin. We may assume that his aim was at least partly restorative at first,
as one generally comes out here to "unwind," to "decompress." The desert's
anonymous expanse is often applied as a kind of balm to soothe the inflamed
psyche of the urbanite. It promises an experience of loss and, ostensibly,
reconnection; the point being to cast aside for a time the workaday routine
so as to confront a somewhat more basic or essential order of questions
relating to oneself and one's place in the universe. The desert landscape is
existential in a sense both clichéd and inarguably compelling, and this no
doubt is also largely the source of its appeal for Divola. Yet if the plan
was initially to leave art behind, then this plan would quickly be thwarted..
Not only was the desert experience hardly exotic enough to compel a clean
break, in this case, with the experience of work, it would in fact suggest a
perfect thematic fit. Eventually, a medium-format camera was brought along
for the ride, and the entire trajectory and purpose of the journey were
altered accordingly. Somewhat like the water seeking branch known as the
divining rod, the camera always points one toward what it requires itself
for survival and perpetuation: no longer nothingness, the existential void,
so much as the first tentative signs of occupation and industry. Titled by
location in lines of longitude and latitude, moving from South to North, the
"Isolated House" images here collected in a sense represent the social
degree zero.

It is tempting to consider these recent photographs in direct response to
the ones that essentially inaugurated John Divola's artistic career in the
late seventies-the still highly regarded and much discussed "Zuma" series.
They arrive some twenty years later like some belated echo, an idea
distorted by time, by the changes in the discourse, the practice, the
techniques and technologies of fine-art photography, and by changes as well
in the eye of this particular beholder, by the evolution of this artistic
subjectivity, by the shifting narrative that propels the work forward,
landing us here and now as though no other outcome were possible. Bounced
off one edge of civilization and then another, this idea traverses a period
of concentrated creative activity as well a given geographical area which
has itself been subject to a process of accelerated change.

Here we may begin to address the question of reference, or what, during this
20 year span, have these pictures been of. What is the nature of their
particular object when this is fabricated specifically for the camera, as
with much of the work from the 70s and 80s, just as often as it is
encountered while wandering-I want to say drifting-through the uniquely
amorphous transitions between organic and non-organic form that basically
comprise the phenomenal experience of outdoor LA? A great deal of thematic
ground has been covered, but at the same time the work has remained focused
on this flickering borderline where reality and artifice tend to become
confused rather than properly sorted. If one single idea or conviction can
be said to animate Divola's output from the start, it is that the
photographic medium is implicitly well-suited to that obscure end, that some
essential correspondence can be drawn between the photographic map and the
territory in this case.

As though carried on the play of winds that oppose the ocean and the desert,
this idea necessarily concerns the city that extends in between. It concerns
the city as a generic concept-and as that which structures our encounters
with, and desire for, the natural - but also it concerns this particular
city of Los Angeles, where rampant development and then redevelopment ,
where the continual interpenetration of the urban, suburban, and so-called
"wilderness" has served to blur these categories to an unparalleled degree.
The resulting landscape is fleeting, evanescent; at times it seems
paper-thin, as "unreal" as its photographic depictions.

It is, I believe, worth noting that John Divola is a California native,
having lived his whole life in the "city of lights" as Jim Morrison once put
it (and perhaps we can add "camera, action!"). Yet even in the earliest
works, which emphatically registered the artist's manipulation of his chosen
subject, it was never just a matter of showing how the camera "lies," but of
showing how things become activated, how they tend to change "for real"
before its gaze. This is a fine but crucial distinction. Change is not
measured in increments of illusory deviation from some original truth, nor
is it just a natural occurrence for the camera to objectively document;
rather the camera must be considered wholly complicit in the overall
process, aggressively provoking the changes that it goes on to depict. The
images it presents to us are thereby more a circuitous sort of fact,
recording the material fallout of the camera's own presence within the

There is a strong romantic undercurrent at work here: basically the act of
representation touches off a process of accelerated erosion and entropy. The
house in "Zuma," for instance, is systematically trashed by the artist,
albeit in quite a "formal" or aesthetically opportune manner. Architecture
becomes ruin (here literally, elsewhere metaphorically, as in "The Four
Landscapes" portfolio where once-solid form is basically pulverized into
photographic grain) but never simply to be reabsorbed back into nature. One
never loses sight of the fact that this destruction is carried out for the
benefit of the camera, that it is culturally productive above all.
If the camera here functions, in the most general sense, as an extended
consciousness, a simplified model of the mind affording the distance
required to perceive the act of perception itself, then Divola's houses
multiply this distance still further. As externalized interiorities, they
project the mind-space of the camera into the tangible landscape. In this
way they draw thought toward the apparatus rather than past it. Whether we
are positioned inside looking out or outside looking in makes all the
difference in the world, although in the end neither position brings us any
closer to the ostensible object of our attention, neither can promise a
greater sense of immediate or authentic contact. There is a continual
flip-flopping, in Divola's photographs, between foreground and background
elements: the house either frames the landscape or else it is framed by it.
Ultimately, though, it is both options at once that we are invited to
consider. The house is both object and context. It is what we look at as
well as what blocks our view.

That which I have labeled as romantic in Divola's work cannot be reduced to
a knee-jerk favoring of nature in the nature/culture opposition. Rather, it
is the moment of categorical breakdown and admixture that he emphasizes, and
it is continually rearticulated from either end. One might again recall "The
Four Landscapes" portfolio in this regard, and the images of hikers
isolated, speck-like, against the So. Cal. mountains, or the equally tiny
boats frozen on the surface of the water, or in the series that segues
directly into this one, the houses surrounded on all sides by wilderness. In
all of these images the foreground object is poised on a fulcrum of
visibility; any smaller and it would be swallowed up by the scenery,
becoming just another undifferentiated spot in the photograph's grainy
gestalt. Again, two separate and opposed movements are being presented
simultaneously: at the level of primary reference, culture is being
dissolved into nature, but secondarily, at the level of the photograph, it
is instead nature that is being dissolved into culture. The stray dogs that
Divola regularly depicts roaming the urban terrain are perhaps the ultimate
shifters in this respect. Either domesticated and reverting, or wild to
begin with and becoming acculturated, they casually figure the profound
ambivalence that is at the crux of this artist's practice.

What might these dogs or boats or hikers have to do with this most recent
suite of images? They are, in a sense, transitional figures, the go-betweens
that bring us here. They travel through the particular course of Divola's
own oeuvre as well as across the actual geography of Los Angeles and its
environs. They follow both a metaphoric and a literal trajectory, that is,
but these are not to be distinguished so much as allegorically conflated in
this case. It is the ceaseless self-reflexivity of the photographic system
which permits this, turning every outward reference inward, no matter how
remote it might be. Distance is the watchword here, it being in effect the
failure of the apparatus to evince an authentic intimacy between subject and
object, the observer and the observed, that is at the heart of its success
for Divola. The opaque, grainy screen it erects between us and the world
outside is for him the source of an essential truth-meaning, precisely, one
with "real world" implications.

Themes of discovery, expansion, colonization, etc. might seem somewhat
incidental to this work, but they are nevertheless present. In LA., just a
short drive to the mountains, to the beach or the desert can bring one right
up to the edge of human society; the frontier is here experienced all the
more vividly for being subject to constant redefinition on every side of us..
At one end of the referential spectrum, then, there is space itself at its
most limitless and sublime. Like the ocean that stretches out indefinitely
beyond the house at Zuma, or the desert that enfolds these most recent
houses, it just goes on and on. Like the photograph in general, these houses
bespeak a desire for projection beyond the limits of the familiar and known,
perhaps even transcendence. Yet at the same time, they remind us just how
thoroughly conflicted this impulse has always been, for we could just as
easily read them as figures of containment and domestication. Echoing the
borders of the print, these houses remind us as well to what extent
photographic meaning is in fact a function of framing, excluding
information, cutting the world off at the edges. In this way, they fold the
limitless landscape in on itself, grinding it down. This is the substance of
John Divola's photographs; it is revealed at the extremes where the pictures
begin to disintegrate, right along with our memories, into small piles of
sand at our feet.