Art In America                                                                                                                      November 1985

LOS ANGELES  - John Divola at the Municipal Art Gallery

Since the late 70s, little has been seen of John Divola's work. This is odd, since his part-Conceptual, part-formal, part-pretty pictures were among the more intelligent and challenging of the time. From a New York point of view, it was easy enough to imagine that in the '80s the Los Angeles­ based Divola had become yet another burnt-out case, or else had sunk into the ooze of aca­demia, there to await tenure and eternity.

In fact, however, Divola has continued to make photo­graphs more or less uninter­ruptedly, as this show covering his last ten years demon­strated. From "Vandalism," the series of black-and-white pic­tures that first brought him attention and which docu­mented his spray-paint addi­tions to interior spaces, to his recent silhouettes bathed in pink and purple light, he has focused on the act of making pictures and on the quirks of vision that photography, in par­ticular, elicits. Not unlike Rob­ert Cumming, he seems ob­sessed with physics, geometry and anything else that profes­ses to order the material world, while at the same time courting the disorder of actual exis­tence. Lately he also seems obsessed-if not tormented ­In quite personal ways: faces of women, heads of dogs and horses, triangles and trape­zoids rattled through the show like pictures in a slot machine.

In the "Vandalism" series, which began in 1974, Divola made patterned, repetitive marks on walls and in corners which altered the way the space was read in the photo­graphs he made of the sites. These images were, if only obliquely, allied with the materially transformative sculptural practice of Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark and oth­ers. They were also violations of that most sacred of spaces: photographic space. Where Edward Weston had once agonized over moving a shell a few inches to make a better composition, Divola blew the convention of noninterference sky high.

The pictures that followed, recording the depredations of others in abandoned housing near the Los Angeles airport, now seem something of a retreat from the "Vandalism" series. But with the "Zuma" series, begun in 1977, Divola returned to marking as an activity, while keeping decay and violation as themes. He also introduced color into the equation for the first time. Divola periodically visited an abandoned beachfront house as it slipped into decay, adding bright spray paint in colors that often blend together with gor­geous sunsets seen through the house's broken windows and burnt beams.

Since the "Zuma" series ­which earned Divola a degree of celebrity, if only briefly, the photographer has worked in a variety of modes. Some pic­tures, like “Which Way Water Drains” and “Magnetism,” sug­gest Cumming's influence. Others, like From a series  “About the things you see when you press your eyes with the palms of your hands (croissant­ shaped blobs, mostly), retain a Conceptual edge. Among the most interesting of his pictures made since 1980 are a series in which geometric forms are sus­pended in landscape situa­tions; a series of portrait like pictures of women lit by colored flash (frequently paired with similar images of animals), and a four-part piece called Who Can You Trust (1983-84). The four photographs that comprise Who Can You Trust, each with one word of the title emblazoned on its frame in Neil Jenney fashion, depict, from left to right, a woman, a dog, a mask made of ice and a horse. The enigmatic quality of this combination of images and words disguises but cannot hide the artist's wariness about the world.

The best of Divola's work of the '80s contains the off-beat and edgy humor of the "Van­dalism" and "Zuma" series to­gether with a scientific and slightly perverse curiosity about the structure of the world-including, one can't help but recognize, the com­plex structure of male-female relations. Despite the Ciba­chrome intensity of the colors and the continuing predilection for confounding perspective, Divola's newest pictures seem to be less about the medium of photography and more about Divola. It's a change that bodes well.

Andy Grundberg