JOHN DIVOLA: On the Vandalism, Forced Entry, and Zuma series

Interview by Jan Tumlir, May 2005

Jan      What is your background? Haven’t you always lived in Los Angeles?

John      I grew up in the West San Fernando Valley. My parents lived in Venice California when I was born, then we moved to the West San Fernando Valley when I was about seven. It was suburban, but rural-suburban, at the time. When I went off to College, in 1967, I went thinking I would become a lawyer, an architect… I was originally an Economics major, but then the Vietnam War was happening and the draft and, of course, there was the hippie influence—all of this resulted in my reevaluation of those assumptions.  The culture appeared insane, bankrupt. I had become alienated from the idea of taking a conventional place in society, and somehow that freed me up to pursue more basic interests. So I wound up reading philosophy, taking courses in experimental film, in photography. I’d done some photography in High School, so I already had the basic skills, and that enabled me to quickly become deeply interested in the subject in a new way.

Jan      How did you start working with this imagery of the neighborhood, the house?

John      I was a student at UCLA, living in Reseda. I was studying with Robert Heineken. At the time, nobody in the UCLA photography department? had a camera, or if they had one, they didn’t use it. Everyone was doing gum-prints and blueprints, and so was I initially, and I remember looking at this gum-print I’d just made—it had this fetus floating in air along with elephants and so on, and I thought to myself, “Why should I care about any of these things?” I didn’t have any answers for why I had chosen this iconography other than that it was vaguely fantastic. So I decided that I would start photographing my neighborhood because at least it had an immediate connection to me.
      Initially, I thought up the conceit that I’d been dropped from outer space, that I would be completely objective. But, of course, I had no criteria for this objectivity, and I wound up being formal. I made photographs of abstract garage-door designs, bushes next to other bushes that made interesting formal patterns. Then, at some point, I became interested in images of women watering their lawns; I gave up on objectivity and totally dove into subjectivity. And from there, I later segued to the Vandalism series.

Jan      I’ve always thought of Zuma as your “breakthrough,” “career-making” work, and I was wondering what the exact timeline is here. Was it made during school?

John      The Zuma series was made three or four years after graduate school. I started out photographing social landscape imagery in the San Fernando Valley, so I went ahead and got the MA and had a show of that work. I then stayed one more year to get an MFA, and that’s when I started the Vandalism series. The work with abandoned houses arose out of two different sets of circumstances, the first being practical. I’d been driving around with a camera and I had just photographed some propane tanks; they were silver propane tanks, and when I printed them, I just loved the way they looked. The silver of the tank and the silver of the paper, there was something going on there, and then it occurred to me that I could paint anything silver and photograph it. So I started driving around looking for objects to paint silver and, of course, you can’t just paint anything in the world because it all belongs to somebody.  That’s how I ended up in the abandoned houses; I was looking for somewhere to start painting things silver.
But there were other reasons, such as my distance from authentic art objects. Growing up in the Valley, there weren’t really any museums or galleries to go to. So, I’m starting out as a photographer, I’m in graduate school, and I’m learning about art. I’m looking at slides of art as well as books and magazines.  At some point, I get this idea that it’s a really interesting time because Modernism is working toward an essentialism, an idea of authenticity, it’s working toward minimalism, conceptualism, earthworks, and yet I’m experiencing it all in reproduced form. There are all of the obligatory disclaimers: this trench is out in the desert, here’s a photograph of it, but you ought to drive out and see the real thing. This is a performance with twenty people in a gallery in New York, here’s a photograph, but you should have been there. So, I came to the conclusion that this was the primary arena of contemporary art, and that all painting and sculpture and performance was, from a practical point of view, made to be photographed, to be recontextualized and talked, or written, about.

Jan      The trajectory Modernism would take with painting and sculpture is obviously very different than with photography, and yet they both pursue a sort of essentialism that is embedded in medium. But then, what qualifies as the essential state or condition of photography?

John      To my way of thinking photography doesn’t accommodate itself to the logic of Modernism comfortably.

Jan      I was thinking about your point about the provisional nature of the document: how in the case of certain earthworks, for instance, the image stands as a place-holder for actual experience.
Yet even in art, somewhere along the way, those images that once only pointed to locations, events or acts “out there” in the world, were acknowledged as substitutes, or even took precedence. Douglas Huebler spoke about the world being too full of objects and images, and of not wanting to add any more. Photography provided artists with a means to withdraw from making, to bypass all intentional aesthetic decisions, and instead to simply point, click, and appropriate. The idea that the photograph could take up the cause of the found object, this is what happens between Conceptual and Appropriation Art,  is also what you’re discussing, in a way. At the same time that you were developing your photographic relation to art, art was redefining its own relation to the photograph. I’m wondering how conscious you were of this?

John      Well, I have to admit, not very. My practice really grew out of an attempt to accommodate a visual discourse coming out of photography to this parallel discourse in the broader arts that I was just becoming aware of, and it wasn’t so much a theoretical involvement as one of looking at images of aesthetic objects or gestures. I would point to someone like Walker Evans as probably more influential to me at this time than any given conceptual artist. From Evans I got the idea of appropriating the aesthetic sensibilities of the subject. He photographed hand-painted signs or buildings made by small-scale contractors that are imprinted with their subjective choices during construction, or else he finds a pile of gravel in front of a corrugated metal sign and appropriates it as an aesthetic installation. So I was really responding to that kind of approach, but then I was also willing to get involved between the camera and subject.

Jan      Here again I would think someone like Walker Evans was tremendously influential on artists in the late-1970s/early-1980s that took up photography because it was seen as a mode of hands-off appropriation of existing works. But that goes hand-in-hand with a belief in the transparency of photographs, right? That’s why I brought up the Huebler quote. Artists like Huebler, I think, were interested in Walker Evans too, and of course, this interest only becomes more pronounced once we get to Sherrie Levine. It’s about a kind of deferral of aesthetic decision-making…

John      The only distinction I would make goes back to the term transparency… I’m not sure that Walker Evans thought – and I’m sure I didn’t think – that the things he was pointing to in the world were always aesthetically interesting on their own. I think he understood that by using the character of the medium the subject could be translated into an aesthetically interesting photograph. For example, the pile of gravel in front of the corrugated metal building is not necessarily aesthetically interesting, or if it is, perhaps only from a single point of perspective in a certain kind of light; it’s more about the way that gravel and corrugated metal photograph and are flattened-out into a black-and-white, two-dimensional object that’s interesting. It’s about a photographic impression and about a relationship to things in the world, and not simply about transparency.

Jan      Right, but if you think about Dan Graham’s Better Homes for America, for instance, there is an implied use-value for photography within that project that more or less takes a certain transparency for granted, and what signs for intentionality is merely the fact that the artist via photography is able to shift the context of things. So, if you take a picture of a hole dug in the ground, it may not be inherently aesthetic or artistic, but if you bring it into the art context, it then becomes conflated with Minimalism and Earthworks in some way. Photography becomes a way to excerpt objects that exist in the world and give them aesthetic value through their contextual replacement.
But, of course, the idea of using a photograph to document something that you do in the world is a different than using a photograph to document something in the world that you think has aesthetic potential.

John      Right, but they’re not mutually exclusive. I was always interested in intervening in a way that was visual or sculptural or performative, but not particularly interested that there be a clear line between what I had done and what was there. I wanted to do something in relation to what exists before the camera and not have it simply be a document of an act or an intervention, but a synthesis of what is given and what I add with a consciousness of the language of the document. So it is an aesthetic enterprise: basically just knowing that this thing is going to be translated from three-dimensions to two, and that light can be added, and that an abstract gesture can be inserted. It might just be a pattern, but it’s the knowledge that somehow that pattern is going to function in a certain way, or read a certain way, in a photograph. 

Jan      You’ve often played with the flattening out of space via this movement back and forth between real deep-space of the world and what appears in the camera’s viewfinder. This movement allows one to set up situations to read a particular way in the final print, where the discrepancy between the worldly scene or referent and its photographic reproduction can actually be emphasized or exaggerated. Is there a particular line of development to those decisions? Did you start photographing the abandoned houses in a hands-off documentary fashion and then begin adding more and more marks to them?

John      No. One of the reasons, I think, I ended up in abandoned houses is that I didn’t have a studio. There was no way for me to deal with any other mode than documentary because I didn’t have any money to rent a studio. Once I started working in abandoned houses – and I didn’t go into it thinking, “I’ll make this a studio” – but it allowed me to think and act in a way that was somewhere between having a studio and being out in the world. 
In the early-1970s, there were a lot of abandoned houses in Los Angeles. In the first one I worked in, I found a pair of wing-tipped shoes out in the yard, painted them silver, and photographed that, and then I found myself inside the house and began marking. But, very quickly, when I looked at those first photographs, I realized that certain patterns came off their surfaces, and I could play with space in the corners, and I could throw things in the air… All of a sudden, it was like a studio space already inscribed with a personality or character that I could move through and engage with in different ways.

Jan      So many of those abandoned houses literally are in a state between inside and outside; their ceilings are caving in, letting in the light… Within the context of the photograph, even the windows that look out of the space are touched by this inside-outside dialectic, right? This in-between state?

John      The inside-outside thing can really be traced through the three bodies of work in this book. In the Vandalism series there’s occasionally a window, but very few; it’s mainly dealing with corners, planes of interior walls, and other attributes of the interior spaces. The Forced Entry work is totally about inside-outside because I’m photographing where somebody has literally broken-in from the outside, so I’m photographing from the inside-out to the outside-in. And the Zuma work, from a formal point of view, is basically those two prior bodies of work synthesized, with color. The interest in marking from the Vandalism work plus the inside-outside interest from the Forced Entry work basically adds up to Zuma – just add color and the ocean.

Jan      I never thought of it in relation to a studio; in a way, you’re just like a painter in a studio.

John      Yes, but painting on the studio.

Jan      Right. But, then again, in the light of the more recent revisions of Jackson Pollock, let’s say, in regard to the importance that photography might have for his whole enterprise, even that’s not unusual. Those Hans Namuth films show the context of where he was working… You see him walking to his studio in upstate New York and see what was outside and how much it resembles what was inside… In black and white, all those bare trees and bushes look like the marks on his canvases and the marks on every wall of his workspace. The idea that those two conditions, outside and inside, might not be that different is very provocative.

John      The difference for me, though, is that I was not a painter, and I knew that the painting I was doing was incredibly crude and clumsy and naïve, but being a photographer gave me a kind of license to have a distance from it. I could rationalize that no matter what kind of mark I made, it was okay; I could still make an interesting photograph about a naïve mark. I was also thinking about it in relation to the document. I was never thinking that someone could walk into the space and look at it; the work was always made for the documentation, and for that context alone. I was very self-conscious about it. I remember going out to buy black, white, and silver paint so that it would conform to the vocabulary of the black-and-white photograph.

Jan      I was surprised to find that in a lot of the early black-and- white Hollywood films the sets were actually painted black and white. Shadows were painted in different shades of grey right onto those sets, and it’s interesting, that degree of rigor and control, in relation to your own practice, which is rough-and-ready, pretty art brute. In this play with spatial depth and perspective, you could have made some very fine optical illusions, but instead you chose to do something that was constantly flickering between working, in terms of successfully flattening-out the space, and not working. You can see exactly what was done, how the illusion was engineered. At such times, the image flips back into being precisely a document.

John      I’ve always been interested in series as opposed to individual photographs. I was always more curious about how a series indicates my complicity and functions as documentation of my ongoing engagement with a subject over a period of time. I never really wanted to make an individual photograph that was highly refined in those terms you’re talking about, optically or illusionistically. Instead, I wanted them to collectively describe a kind of engagement with a space or circumstance. They are remnants of an engagement as opposed to consciously constructed assertions.

Jan       So, it really becomes a record of two developments, one in front of the lens and one in back of the lens, right? The decision to act upon what you are documenting makes the presence of a particular, subjective point-of-view apparent, and that automatically undermines the credibility of the photograph as document.

John      Right, it certainly undermines any sense of veracity to the image as a scene that is simply found. Something I really didn’t think about at the time, but that I have subsequently considered in the work, is that regardless of that it is collectively a description of place. It is always a certain kind of interior, a certain kind of house, and a certain kind of landscape. In some cases, with the House Removals, for instance, you’re literally outside looking at the landscape. But I’ve always had an interest in the scene asserting its character, its sense of place, the specificity of its arrangement and being.

Jan      It’s one thing to use photography to document the character of these places and obviously quite another to actively participate in their destruction.

John      I don’t think I actively participated in their destruction so much as I displayed an interest in their destruction.  When I’d paint on a space, I didn’t think I was destroying, so much as activating it. I wasn’t the one kicking in the doors or setting the fires, although I clearly was interested in those acts. I was more of an observer, along for the ride.

Jan      Could you point out a concrete instance of the scene “asserting its character,” as you put it.

John      I remember painting something in a corner of a house and not being particularly interested in the result, and then coming back two days later and somebody had kicked a hole in the wall. It was perfect! Or I’d be photographing and the wind would kick up and blow through the curtains, and then that would make the image. But that’s exactly what I was after. Those moments were the most exciting to me, certainly more so than if I had an idea about something to do and then simply did it and photographed it. There had to be some kind of intersection between the given character of the place, what’s gone on inside that place, and whatever marking I happened to add.

Jan      On the more documentary side of your project, or the side that is about place, it’s remarkable to me to what extent this work is very specifically about Los Angeles. There is a certain kind of West Coast sensibility that seems to be about adjusting to impermanence, and your work deals very directly with that. It is almost a record of impermanence, a process of accelerated change that you’ve obviously experienced your whole life.

John      One assumes that everything is temporary.

Jan      That’s especially poignant in the House Removals, because there’s nothing more solid or fixed than a house, right? It’s the emblem of rootedness, and when that thing disappears from its site it is almost a traumatic event…

John      Being in Rome recently really gave me a sense of the historical depth… It’s almost as though those buildings can’t be pulled up, there’s an illusion of literal depth there. You come back to LA and everything really appears to be on the surface. The built landscape is like a crust that you have no expectation of lasting, one that can be simply raked off the surface of the earth. In fact you expect that at some point in the not-too-distant future it will be brushed aside, and that something else will be put in its place—that sense of everything being un-anchored, that it is dynamic and in flux…

Jan      …Right, that it’s all touching lightly on the earth… The fact that LA is a desert city makes that sense all the more acute, right? The moment you go out into the desert and take those images of the Isolated Houses, for instance, it is to throw into sharp relief something that we contend with every day.

John      Right, those houses seem just plopped down and could be blown away.

Jan       When you look at that desert landscape, you think about the natural processes of entropy and weathering and, to some extent, I’ve always thought that this parallels the acts of vandalism in your earlier pictures. Even though these acts are committed by individuals, their outcome can also be conceived as a kind of natural erosion…

John      In the Vandalism series, I am the vandal. But in the Forced Entries, it is indeed someone else. Weird things happened, though. At some point, somebody took all the interior doors and used them to board up the house from the inside.  In one case, a door was at an angle and I painted dots on it with drips coming down, and somebody then took that door and nailed it to the wall to cover up the window, and now my drips were going horizontally. I was very interested in that because it had nothing to do with my initial intention. And, of course, the Zuma house burned multiple times. In that instance, although I didn’t know it until toward the end, it was the fire department setting it afire and putting it out for practice. So, they were significant collaborators.

Jan      The view out the window is cyclical or even, in a way, unchanging. It forms a backdrop of constancy.

John      Right, or if it changes from one image to the next, it’s changing in this predictable way. Like, if this image is morning and this one is afternoon, then there’s going to be another morning or afternoon, and it’s not going to just go to darkness and that’s it, whereas the house at some point is just going to be gone.

Jan      Again, I’m thinking about the house as an emblem of normalcy, the integrated life, and I’m wondering exactly what sort of position you’re taking up in relation to that. One might describe it as alienated, or even melancholic.

John      I’ve always thought about the houses as a reference to a certain kind of absence. In later work I’ve dealt much more directly with the idea of the presence of absence, but initially it had to do with the absence of the people that once lived in those houses. Initially, I was thinking about melancholia in relation to an absent subject, but then I became attuned to something in the medium that was inherently melancholic. Absence is built into the process, the photograph as this dead industrial thing. Being simply silver on paper, or dye on paper, in itself represents the absence of whatever is represented; it is an index of loss, a lost present that cannot be retrieved. And then there is another level of absence – my own. I’ve acted upon those spaces, so my own absence from the photograph is necessarily implicated.

Jan      One could also think about this in relation to Romanticism. Behind it all, there’s this notion that the works of men are always going to be reclaimed by nature, and that in fact aesthetic pleasure can be derived from that process. In regard to art, that pleasure is not located in the act of making something so much as its destruction. That’s the beautiful moment, that’s the money shot: it’s in the ruin.

John      Yes, well, I’m obviously interested in the ruin as a kind of visual information but, at the same time, it’s always been the most problematic thing for me. It is the most clichéd and exhausted iconography, the deteriorating barn in photography, or the ruin in painting.

Jan       You’re talking about the Picturesque?

John      It’s actually something I’ve had a dual relation to, especially in later work: identifying an exhausted metaphor and then trying to resurrect it or to work with it regardless of the fact that it’s dangerous territory in terms of cliché. I’ve never really thought of it as a primary metaphor, this idea of a Romantic entropy that regenerates the world. I’ve always considered that an exhausted metaphor that I couldn’t really afford to embrace directly. So I dealt with it as a preexisting iconography as opposed to a central kind of content…

Jan      Even within the Romantic framework of a dilapidated house, this thing that you’re pointing out – the door that’s been kicked in, let’s say – that makes for a highly empirical image, right? You can read it almost scientifically: you can almost feel the force exerted on the object, and there’s a certain kind of pleasure that comes from that degree of legibility. But then, the moment you start adding your own aesthetic marks to those existing, empirical marks, and when you start messing with the depth perception of the space, that throws the image into a whole different register…                                       

John      Right. I guess my primary impulse is to focus on the door being kicked in, but the door being kicked in as a sculptural act – that is, the appropriation of this anti-social act as an aesthetic gesture.  As an idea it is only interesting in one photograph; it’s not the specificity of how that particular door looks kicked in. As soon as you take an interest in the specificity of that particular kicked in door, then you’re into a whole different realm. And that’s actually a problem, it seems to me, of a lot of criticism that reduces people’s work to these singular conceptual gestures. The critique would explain the genesis of one photograph, so then how do you accommodate the fact that there are twenty of them? 

Jan      With each consecutive photograph, more time gets added into the spatial equation. The work takes on a kind of phenomenology, which is basically about perception over time…

John      …And this “over time” is not only related to going to the space, moving through and maybe acting on the space, because there’s also the process of going back and looking at an initial set of imprints and selecting from that set of imprints to make a master set of imprints. All of these are implications of a conscious engagement, of choosing and acting. In the end, whether it’s interesting or uninteresting, it’s only by virtue of being a byproduct or index of those processes.

Jan      This reminds me of Baudelaire’s idea that art is the “mnemotechnology of the beautiful,” which I’ve always taken to mean that beautiful pictures claim a special place in our memories as a kind of rule against which we measure the value of everyday perceptions. The best example I can think of is that of the photographer who snaps a picture when the scene in the viewfinder seems somehow “right.” What happens at such times is that reality begins to resemble a picture; the view through the camera falls into registration with the pictorial archive of beautiful moments that we all carry around in our minds.. And all of those relationships – between perception and memory, the everyday and the grand archive of the beautiful – become that much more vivid in this age where the bulk of pictorial work is being done in the second-stage, post-production mode.

John       You’re exactly right, although again, I don’t think I’m exercising an intervention at that intermediate level that is conceptually significant. You talked about looking through the viewfinder and seeing a picture. It’s like I see a vague set of attributes that could conceivably interact in an interesting way. I really don’t worry too much about what I see through the viewfinder, at least not at that point, especially if I’m using a flash because I don’t know what it’s going to do. I just see vague potentiality. It’s really (about) working with a set of attributes that will hopefully interact in an interesting way.

Jan      In a surprising way?

John      Absolutely.

Jan      How do you maintain that surprise, that “vague potential,” as you put it? Is that something you’re trying to hang onto, somehow?

John      Well, within any creative process there is that point of diminishing returns, right? It’s the point at which the results become predictable and, even though one picture might be slightly more interesting than another, the differences are so subtlety incremental and basically indistinguishable that to go on and make more of them is just not entertaining or fruitful any longer. So, that’s the point at which you try to figure out a new body of work or another way of going about it. I think that, if you look back on my work, there is a lot of variation in both the way I deal with the medium and in the format. And, although I like to think there is a continuity of subject, it’s just what you come across and how you try and deal with it. You can’t control it totally; that’s the thing about photography, it pulls you into the world. And that’s the thing about looking through the camera: yes, you have that archive of images in your head, but it’s never that in the viewfinder. It’s always some kind of compromise between what you’re looking for and what is there. It’s almost democratic in that it forces a negotiation between intention and the actual nature of the world.

Jan      That’s very nice, because this idea of negotiation is something that you literally visualize in a number of these works. It happens, to some extent, where the picture is flip-flopping between deep space and flat space. That’s almost like an allegory for what we are talking about: it’s becoming an autonomous picture while still remaining a document, one that is tied to the specifics of place and derives all its significance from what is already there.

John       Just that appreciation of what it is and how it looks in the photograph…