MARK CHAMBERLAIN AND BC SPACE

 

Through April 11, 2010 at CSUF Grand Central Art Center, Orange County

by Daniella Walsh

Through May 14, 2010 at Soka University, Founders Hall Art Gallery, Orange County

by Roberta Carasso

 

Some 37 years ago photographer Mark Chamberlain emerged fairly unscathed from a two-year stint in the US Army. Unlike many of his peers, he was not shipped to Vietnam but was routed into South Korea where he, rather than shooting people with a gun, learned to shoot with a camera, thanks to crafts classes taught by the Army.

 


Mark Chamberlain, "Lip Service," photograph.

When he re-entered into civilian society it was as a generic anti-establishmentarian with a strong impulse toward environmentalism and social activism. The latter motivated him to open BC Space, a Laguna Beach gallery at first devoted to furthering photography and a venue for his own works along with that of like-minded colleagues, including the late Jerry Burchfield.

As photography became accepted as a serious art form, Chamberlain expanded his circle to include painters, sculptors, multi-media and performance artists, showing their work in a gallery that was truly like no other in the city, best known as the cradle of California Impressionism. Chamberlain sought out artists and art that was relevant to issues close to his consciousness: Politics, religion, the environment, anti-war activism — slaughtering every “sacred cow” imaginable.

Now, at last, Chamberlain’s curatorial vision is being recognized in the retrospective exhibition “Mything in Action,” the title a word-play reference to his formative military past.

Co-curated by Mike McGee and Andrea Harris-McGee, the exhibition focuses on accessible, yet relevant pieces and also some that reveal the time in which they were made. For example, Chamberlain’s “Spring in the Garden,” a photo-collage of a nude covered in linear blooms, brings viewers back to the early ‘70s, years of flower power and sexual liberation.

Scroll forward three decades or so and there is Pat Sparkuhl’s sculptural assemblage “Let us Prey.” Consisting of stacked up Bibles and religious paraphernalia favored by children or more naïve supplicants, and topped by a nude baby doll nearly overwhelmed by an oversized cross, the piece indicts all who rob children of their innocence and faith in the name of religious authority.

Given BC Space’s roots, photography takes a prominent place, with Burchfield’s “Entrance to El Toro Blvd” representing the Legacy Project, which also involved Doug McCulloh, Jacques Garnier, Rob Johnson and Clayton Spada. The group of artists chronicled the gradual deconstruction of the former El Toro Marine Air Base.

 



Mark Chamberlain, "Nature Prevails," photograph.

Among the paintings, Roger Armstrong’s “Fate of the Beast Within,” stands out. In it, a creature displaying the features of both man and baboon howls in pain and anger; one of its hands is nailed to the ground. A nearby hammer suggests that the debilitation may be self-inflicted. Rendered in a largely red palette, to many who lived through them the painting may suggest the Sixties and its myriad upheavals.

The late Andy Wing’s “Buffalo Hog,” has a quieter but nonetheless disturbing vibe since it reminds one of past historical/environmental calamities on one hand, and of a future in which nature might yet extract its revenge.

For all its socio-political messaging, Chamberlain also kept an eye on the essence of art, which still is and always has been about intelligent visual appeal. Doug McCulloh presents beauty in a diversity of human faces, and Robert Glenn Ketchum’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” celebrates the beauty of nature.

Jorg Dubin’s “Sandman” represents the material/financial excesses of the last decade only too well: A clown wearing a business suit has accessorized himself with the requisite clown hair, make-up, oversized shoes and a briefcase. While the oversized entertainer pulls a mini-float bearing a toy clown by a string, one painfully remembers that there has been little levity in an epoch that has brought two wars and financial ruin t o many.  

Chamberlain’s photographic retrospective, made up of six riveting series, consistently reveal his strong sense of conscience for the individual, society, and the environment. Unlike an archeologist who digs up the past, Chamberlain the “Arteologist,” anticipates consequences before their harmful effects, as society creates, builds or destroys.

In 1968, Chamberlain, an army draftee, returned home from Korea where he photographed extensively as a means to keep his sanity and from a longing to articulate all that stirred within him. His photographic odyssey began with “Dubuque Passages,” a deep probe into his past, a reevaluation of his life, and preparation for his future move to California. The nostalgic tour of the rural Mid-West, via black and white gelatin silver prints, is of homes, farms, signage, cemeteries, and the modest life of Iowa’s folks, along with cats and dogs slyly sneaking into most images. For those of us who lived through that era, likely in another place, it is our life too. The Dubuque setting is unpretentious, even poor, but conveys a strong sense of humanity, family, home, neighborhood, and solid roots upon which Chamberlain builds his subsequent series.

In California Chamberlain created Future Fossils,” rampant footprints being left by urban growth spinning out of control. The series is a turning point, where the artist, seeing the need to voice social and political ineptness, fearlessly takes on unpopular issues. Among the future fossils Chamberlain observes is the lunacy of the automobile and TV antennas, conveniences becoming more blight than blessing. Using cibachrome processing, Chamberlain records sunny yet cold concrete and steel environments that sharply contrast with the rural landscape in Iowa and are more riveting. If art can be judged by its affects, then here Chamberlain soothes us by the warmth of California color, while pointing out potentially damaging outcomes many refused to acknowledge. Now 30 years later, viewing the full sweep of his imagery, we realize that even what he then saw as technological advances today continue to add fossils to the junk heap.

“The Laguna Canyon Project,” initiated in 1980, was probably his largest collaborative venture. He gathered an army of artists and community who willingly participated in support and protest along the “Last 9 miles of Westward Migration.” The project served as a metaphor for the canyon, which covers an area from the Santa Ana Freeway to the Pacific Ocean. “The Laguna Canyon Project” alerted the public through action, and yielded the huge photographic mural, “Tell,” the visual focal point to preserve the majesty of Laguna Canyon. This spring the project will be concluded, as the original 1980 documentation has been repeated every ten years. Sequential photographs of the nine miles were taken during the day and night to record the canyon and its changes.

“The Legacy Project” takes Chamberlain full circle back to the military in the form of the El Toro Marine Base and its resurrection as “The Great Park” in Irvine. With a team of artist/photographers, a gigantic pin-hole camera captured the largest recorded image (3 stories high by 11 stories wide), known as “The Great Picture.” The image is a view from the control tour - the heart of the base. An upshot of this latest work is that the enormous photo will be displayed in China at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, a growing industrialized culture that might find his messages and our L.A. locales interesting.

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