“The Great Picture” at Culver Center for the Arts: 2 reviews

"The Great Picture" installed in the Culver Center, Riverside. Photo Credit for both images: Courtesy of UCR Sweeney Art Gallery and Culver Center of the Arts


Review #1 Richard Bowie

“The Great Picture” is astounding. The world record holder, it stands at 30 feet tall and 111 feet long, and is a muslin mass of silver, whites, black and gray streaks; very much unlike any photograph I’ve seen and very different from what I was expecting.

The photograph is a panoramic view of an old Marine Corps air station, and the San Joaquin hills behind them. The line of the horizon rests about two thirds up the photograph, where the seemingly glowing mountains, trees, antennae, radio towers and buildings all reach up high into the sky. The rest of the lower half of the photo depicts a sort of skewed, bug’s point of view of the concrete runway. The splits in the concrete we step over every day created a grid of silver lines shooting up into the horizon in this work. A manhole cover is distorted into a huge, bronze floating oval; small tufts of grass emerging from the cracks in the runway are as long as your arm.

The shape of the display — a sweeping U shaped curve viewers can walk right into — provides for another impression. The soaring height combined with the near 360 degree length that seemed to embrace you from all sides transported me right into the middle of a parallel universe with silvery-white palm trees and control towers against a smoky, hand-painted sky. “The Great Picture” has only been on display at one other location in the United States, Art Center, in Pasadena, where it was hung flat against a long wall. When hung the way it is in the Culver Center atrium, your eye goes straight to the crowding of the buildings, trees and equipment in the center. I feel the method of display at the Culver Center allows a different point of view and for more varied interpretation, as viewers can envelop themselves in the scene and can more easily pay attention to the beautiful details throughout the entire piece.

What struck me most was the many different “layers” I was seeing in this work. After taking a minute, the image is clear and my brain, in its constant search for rationalization, sees reality. But then I recognize and appreciate the fact that though mountains and control towers are huge in real life, I am seeing them in a different way. In one layer I see a monochromatic, sterile look at a forgotten air force base devoid of human contact. But in a juxtaposing layer, I see the hundreds upon hundreds of brush strokes of varying sizes, shades and directions that revealed the image to me, each connected to a very real, dedicated human being who painted the emulsion onto the canvas.

This is a photograph, its subject is real and does seem familiar, but what hung before me was a work of art. The massive amount work was evident and could be felt through these numerous purposeful brushstrokes. The artistry is so impressive and the piece is so much more than just a large photo for the sake of being large. I left the work with a new impression of photography; the way a single, simple (or not so simple, in this case) image can alter reality, sending someone to another world, I think, is astounding.

Richard Bowie

Review #2 Thomas McGovern

“The Great Picture” is a must-see object that is both a fascinating for its size and for its content. The size is incredible and it is indeed the world’s largest photograph, measuring 32’ x  111’!. Made by a group of six photographers known collectively as The Legacy Project, their aim was, and still is, to document the transformation of the El Toro Marine base in Orange County into a public park. “The Great Picture” is only one component of the group’s mission, but obviously the most dramatic. Installed in the Culver Center for the Arts in downtown Riverside, the photograph (photo emulsion on canvas) was squeezed into a space that necessitated it being curved into a horse-shoe “U” shape. This certainly doesn’t help the viewer see the image, but that isn’t a problem because there isn’t much of an image to see. It is very difficult to read anything but splotches of highlights and shadows and if one looks very carefully, some faint structures in a barely perceptible landscape. This ambiguity is not a deficiency but a device that allows us a way to enter into the conceptual ideas embedded in the work. Like a lot of great Conceptual Art, the image is less the point than the object. What does matter is the size, the fact that it took a large group of volunteers to accomplish it and the process used to create it.

The group transformed an airplane hangar into a camera obscura- a dark room with a small hole (6mm!) from which the scene outside was projected onto light sensitive material. If this sounds antiquated, that’s because it is. This process is the germination of all photography and the technique (before light sensitive materials were used) has been around for centuries, aiding artists in countless artworks (see David Hockney’s wonderful speculation about its use by Old Masters in “Secret Knowledge”). This wonderful group effort reminds me of the ‘invention’ of photography and the many amateur scientists and artists whose efforts lead to Daguerre’s announcement of a photographic technique in 1839. When I stand before The Great Picture, I recall Nicephore Niepce’s 1827 image, “View from the window at Le Graz”, another ambiguous ‘photograph’ of highlights and shadows, from a scene out his studio window. Like “The Great Picture”, the scene in Niepce’s photograph isn’t the issue but the fact that he was able to produce and fix an image, when others for decades had tired and failed (fascinating reading about how photography was invented see Geoffrey Batchen’s “Burning with Desire”). But The “Great Picture” does show us something worth looking at and mostly, thinking about. The Marine base is closing and the remaining buildings are being reused or demolished and “The Great Picture’s” lack of detail and focus certainly suggest the base’s demise, as well as how its memory will slip into oblivion with time, as everything does without an image to remember it. This is a sweet metaphor of a military base fading into the past to make way for a public park and this beautiful object is now a major part of its history.

This is a profound object and quintessential photograph. It is about memory, time, language, collaboration, determination and luck. We are fortunate the Culver Art Center has mounted it for us to see.

In the rear gallery are other photo-documentations of the El Toro base by The Legacy Project’s six photographers. Clayton Spada’s night time images of the base are coolly creepy, suggesting a POW or concentration camp. Jerry Burchfield’s photograph focus on nature and convey a romantic mist, whereas Jacques Garnier’s photo and sculpture reminds us of the tight link between construction and demolition. Mark Chamberlain’s deeply saturated color photographs on canvas look like photo-realist paintings, all tightly constructed and presented. Rob Johnson’s images are a poetic take on traditional documentary photography, with formalism balanced against empathy. Doug McCulloh created an installation of a hundred or more composite images recreating one corner of a room in which bombers were built. Within the space here lies a nude woman who is bleeding, certainly commenting on photography’s unholy alliance with pain, suffering and sexuality.

These images and objects add another layer to what the El Toro base was, what it meant and what it is becoming, and stand as an important act of collaboration to create a fuller picture of both the place and how photography can function.

Thomas McGovern