All photographs copyright John Divola

Vehicles to Perception – John Divola

All photographs copyright John Divola
All photographs copyright John Divola

In an Artist Statement, John Divola said “The photograph as an object has a relationship to that which it represents something like the relationship the snake skin has to the snake that sheds it.” The snake skin remains as a separate object from its previous owner, much as the photograph is a remnant of a perception that existed for a brief moment in time. Divola’s unique conceptual works of photography are vehicles that transport the viewer to that moment in time.  Now there is an opportunity to see Divola’s work in a collaborative museum exhibition, As Far As I Could Get, sponsored by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA). The exhibition is in three locations, SBMA, LACMA, and Pomona College Museum of Art, two of which I was privileged to view personally.


In 1977 and 1978, John Divola happened upon an abandoned house on the beachfront of Malibu. The Zuma series is the result of private performance art by Divola at that neglected structure. The Pomona College Museum of Art is exhibiting fifteen of the Zuma series until December 22, 2013. Divola revisited the house repeatedly, photographing its descent into deterioration, eventually moving things around or adding his own spray paint for extra interest. In the vivid color photographs, the artist uses the geometric lines of the broken windows and doorways to frame the permutations of the sky and sea beyond. Divola’s performative additions of paint on the ceiling and walls implicate him directly in this evolution of a space in time. The resulting images juxtapose the beauty of nature with the burnt out remains of a vacated beach house, topped off with painted alterations of gestural lines and angled shapes. In Divola’s own words, “My participation was not so much one of intellectual consideration as one of visceral involvement.”


At LACMA until February 2, 2014, viewers are treated to four different black and white series of works by John Divola. The artist’s intent on involving himself directly with his work is evident in the 1996-1997 series aptly entitled As Far As I Could Get. Divola set the self-timer button on his camera for ten seconds and then ran into the existing landscape. In each of the five pigment prints representing the series at LACMA, one sees the lone human figure running into the horizon, immediately establishing a tension driven by curiosity.

As Far as I Could Get

Two other parts of the exhibition at LACMA include eight gelatin silver prints entitled Seven Songbirds and a Rabbit (1995), and Artificial Nature (2002), 36 continuity stills from films made during the 1930’s through the 1960’s. In the former, Divola created prints on linen from archived stereographic negatives, and literally spotlighted hidden details. The latter series is also based on appropriated archived photographs, this time of movie sets created by MGM in their heyday. At first glance these pictures appear as natural landscapes. After continued viewing, the memory of films of the past like It’s a Wonderful Life begin to surface. Then clapperboards, stage lighting, and signage reveal the truth that these are not natural at all but the merely the simulation of nature employed by the filmmakers.

Artificial Nature

Also at LACMA is Divola’s series 20 x 24 Polaroids (1987-1989), in which the artist has fabricated simple sculptures against mundane backgrounds. His intention was to create “a basis for a subjective investigation and involvement”. This series clearly illustrates the artist’s continued quest to explore and enjoy photography as a conceptual art form.

Seven Songbirds and a Rabbit

John Divola has a unique devotion to the art of photography, its history, and its future. He is not shy about exploring the blurred lines between reality and impression that are created by film. The collaborative exhibition As Far As I Could Get invites the viewer to join him in this exploration.

Kathy Stewart