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Burning Down the House at Pasadena Museum of California Art

A woman in a long skirt spins dervishly against a mauve background while a wooden sculptural lamp in the shape of an embracing couple dominates the foreground. A man with two faces simultaneously laughs and cries behind a potted houseplant. The scene of a one-night stand is recorded in minute detail in the Polaroids left by a bed. Two clay women battle over a chintzy trophy. This is just the entryway of Burning Down the House at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, a show featuring the work of Ellen Brooks, Jo Ann Callis, and Eileen Cowin—three California artists active since the 1970s whose work combines photography, dramatic staging, and storytelling techniques in order to contemplate or deconstruct traditional narratives involving familial relationships and gender roles.

Jo Ann Callis. Salt, Pepper, Fire, 1980; dye transfer print; 22 ½ x 17 ½ in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Jo Ann Callis. Salt, Pepper, Fire, 1980; dye transfer print; 22 ½ x 17 ½ in. Courtesy of the Artist and Rose Gallery.

Jo Ann Callis’ work is both silent and violent. She sets a calm scene in a domestic space and upsets it with dramatic lighting or a blur of motion. In one alarming image, Hands on Ankles (1796–77), a woman stands on a dining-room chair in designer pumps—we can see her only from the knee down—as a man’s hands grab her ankles through the chair back, from behind. This may be the most literal of her photographs, a rare interaction between two figures depicting the power struggle inherent in domestic life and the complicated relationships between men and women. Salt, Pepper, Fire (1980) is an odd table setting with salt, pepper, black coffee, and a flaming plate. The salt and pepper shakers are our protagonists, lit to be the bystanders witnessing this inexplicable fire; the smoke rising from the fire resembles a bird in flight. Callis is a master of manipulating light for dramatic effect; her photographs use light so skillfully and unnaturally that they could be paintings.

Ellen Brooks. Balancer, 1982; cibachrome print; 24 x 52 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Ellen Brooks. Balancer, 1982; cibachrome print; 24 x 52 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Ellen Brooks contrives various tableaux, often of theatrically staged sculptural figures or dolls. Sometimes the figures are in domestic settings, but often they are on an actual stage, as in the aforementioned Trophy (1984), where two women pull each other’s hair and wrestle over a trophy on what appears to be a stage. Brooks highlights issues of female competition, suggesting that the diminutive prize is all these women are offered, and still they fight instead of working together to build a better prize. In Balancer (1982), a woman is balancing on one hand on a makeshift block tower in front of a blue curtain, and in her other hand is a tiny model of a domestic scene: a kitchen in which a woman is performing a striptease for a man. The balancer’s back is to the viewer, and she is in a silver lamé showgirl costume; the scene reveals just how difficult it is for a woman to maintain a career (city towers), a desirable body (revealing costume), and a man or home (domestic scene). This is a diptych, however, and the photograph on the right is of the same curtain, but with a ladder placed in the middle; it leads me to wonder if she is indeed balancing, or if she is falling from a great height.

Eileen Cowin. Untitled from One Night Stand (3), 1977-78; digital light jet print; 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Eileen Cowin. Untitled from One Night Stand (3), 1977-78; digital light jet print; 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Eileen Cowin’s work also delves into psychological territory. In I’ll Give You Something to Cry About (1998), she mixes stills of her mother taken from home movies with staged photographs of injuries—a prick from a rose or a raw blister on a hand—implying the emotional and physical pain often caused by familial relationships. Her triptych One Night Stand (1977–78) offers almost forensic documentation of the setting of the titular event. It is also a double entendre, referring to the nightstand featured in the photographs as well as the sexual act. Detail shots of the bed and nightstand are seen in daylight, and each has a different Polaroid, showing the undressing of a man and a woman, placed in the scene. The natural lighting offers a different way of thinking about space and intimacy outside of the passion and dramatic lighting of the night.

It is fitting that this show is on view at the same time as the Robert Heinecken retrospective, Object Matter, organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on view at the Hammer Museum, since all three women emerged from his circle, either as students or colleagues. You can see how his work influenced their multi-medium approach to photography at the same time as you can see how theirs differ from his. Heinecken uses the mediated female form unabashedly—and often offensively—as a muse; it is something he can tear apart and reassemble, as though he has an innate right to it. These three artists are working with both female and male forms, but their work lends respect to all figures, instead choosing to delve into more abstract, direct, and emotional qualities of form.

Burning Down the House is on view at Pasadena Museum of California Art through January 11, 2015.

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