Since the early 1970s, John Divola has been critically lauded for spawning an influential body of work that has pushed the limits of photography as a medium, at times using it purely as a way to arrive at a different understanding of his practice altogether.
Primarily using the greater Los Angeles area as his starting point, Divola’s works often focus upon the most ordinary of places, from the quiet of the suburbs to the immediate outskirts of the metropolis - a working practice he continues to follow to this day. In the series Four Landscapes, 1989-92, four different sceneries are shown: the wild outdoors, the ocean, the desert, and the urban city. In each set, a connecting subject matter is present in the landscapes, whether it is people wandering through the forests, boats hanging silently in the middle of the sea, dogs in the suburbs, or small houses in the far distance of the desert. While the natural settings incline us to see these first as simply images of nature, the human and animal imprint in these works suggest it is their placement in the images that fully activates the meaning of the scene.
In the 36-piece Artificial Nature series, nature is a mirage or a product of well-designed smoke and mirrors. All of the images in the series are photographs the artist found while culling the set photography from films produced during the golden era of Hollywood studios in which nature is but a figment of studio manufacture (and imagination), approximating the natural environment in an ironic twist. The title itself alludes to the peculiar marriage of two opposite poles, the artificial and the natural, that seemingly makes sense only by the artist’s choice to configure them. Like the strangely affecting presence of the dilapidated house of the large, color Collapsed Structure J, 2008, Divola’s work is in ways a comment on finding the artistic value in the most random of things, adjusted by skill to mean more than it would on its own.
At once using the ideas of sculpture, painting, and performance art – and using photography to document the resulting experience – Divola’s practice at times expresses the possibilities of creating art not beholden to normal control. In the Untitled, 1989-90 work, Divola exposed an image of a man on top of a hill, his dark silhouette standing on top of an equally dark hill. There is a washed appearance to the photograph, printed on linen: an appearance produced by the artist having left this work on the top of his house’s roof for over a year. Exposed to elements, whatever they may have been, it is a photograph that in some ways has also become an object – a surviving calendar of a uniquely artistic experience.