Residue of Enchantment

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Irving Penn, "Bricklayer," 1950

Irving Penn’s Still Life with Triangle and Red Eraser (1985) currently hangs in a small maroon room in the basement of the Getty Museum’s West Pavilion. It’s part of the In Focus: Still Life exhibition, a charming but uneventful “best of” survey of the Getty’s images of objects. The print is a recent acquisition, and one of which the Getty is proud. As aloofly controlled as any of Penn’s projects, it shows a draftsman’s instruments: a triangle, pencil, ruler, two erasers, and pigment. Penn made Still Life with Triangle as an advertisement for Fugi camera lenses, using new technology to fetishize tried and true symbols of a more archaic craft. Crisp, exquisitely angular, and sleekly finished, the image feels as though it has locked its elements in place, in an unmoving state of geometric perfection.

Thirty-five years earlier, Penn explored tools and trade in an equally composed but far less finished way. His Small Trades series, the subject of a 2009 Getty exhibition, showed various specialized workers wearing the uniforms and carrying the instruments of their vocation. Penn, a modernist to the core, treated these workers like nearly extinct curiosities that he was immortalizing while the chance remained. In the notes he took during Small Trades, he occasionally sounds like he’s working hard to suspend disbelief. The word “apparently” appears often: “The CARVER is a kind of young waiter apparently” or “the BONER is apparently a man in the large markets who hacks away at full carcasses.”

The tools are the series’ most striking aspect. The people make sense, and look basically familiar; while draymen and trouncers may not exist anymore, rough-faced workers in worn aprons certainly do. But the objects they carry seem like relics of long-gone rituals—antiquated horse whips, narrow saws, hoses, tapered ladders. Years later, talking to Getty curators, Penn described the Small Trades photographs as “residual images of enchantment,” making what was functional just fifty years ago sound mystical.

Erika Vogt, "Armors for Chorus and Players", sticks: celastic, acrylic latex, oil enamel, and tempera on wood, objects: military trench shovel, scale part, hooks, chimes, weights, celastic, and acrylic latex, dimensions variable, installation view, 2010. Courtesy Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles, CA.

I thought of Penn’s tools when I saw Erika Vogt’s installation at Overduin and Kite two weeks ago. Vogt makes functionality mystical too. Called Geometric Persecution, a title that hovers between severity and romance, the installation is quiet and open, but also rigorously controlled. Colored, rectangular rods that resemble yard sticks lean against the wall of the first exhibition space. Chimes, picks, weights, and hooks lay intentionally scattered on the floor nearby. These, like the sticks, have stiff celastic handles protruding from them.

Erica Vogt, "Geometric Persecution", 16mm film and digital video on digital video painted screen, oil enamel, wooden stand and acrylic latex 15 min, color, sound, installation view, 2010. Courtesy Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles, CA.

The tools are props in the exhibition’s centerpiece, a video also called “Geometric Persecution.” Projected onto a gray “screen,” a square within a square that Vogt has painted onto the otherwise white wall,  the video shows a wanderer moving through various familiar but abstracted landscapes–green bluffs near water, fields, dirt roads. She occasionally walks backwards, or is projected upside down, and the colored yard sticks, picks, and chimes fleetingly appear, as does a compass and other geometric instruments that would be as familiar in the Renaissance as today. The objects become part of the wanderer’s almost spiritual movement, relics of what could be cultist rituals.

Visitors are welcome to handle the tools in Vogt’s show, though I didn’t realize this until the second time I visited, after I’d read Aram Moshayedi’s ArtForum pick. They looked so carefully placed; moving them hadn’t occurred to me. When I returned, I did pick up a stick and chime, but only quickly, and, since I had been told they would be returned to their original location the next morning anyway, I was careful to put them back more or less where I’d found them. Like Penn’s Still Life with Triangle, there’s a certain completeness to Vogt’s show, as if the tools have already lived the life they were meant to live, and have now reached the end of their narrative, settling into carefully scripted, honorary resting places. Disturbing them felt uncomfortable.