Photos, sculpture merge at L.A. expo

Contributing Editor

LOS ANGELES ( — The sale of art tends to wear a glossy veneer of politeness.

In a gallery, the installation of art is generally intended to showcase the work for reasons other than salability, and prices are discretely kept off to the side like signs in theaters announcing maximum occupancy — required, but not desired.

In Los Angeles, going into a gallery is a fairly solitary affair, as one generally has the art all to oneself, minus the person behind the gallery desk. Art fairs reverse that equation with zeal.

Touted as “the largest photographic art exposition in the United States,” Photo L.A. 2005 was a jumbled amalgam typical of such fairs. Organizers maximized bodies per square inch and dealers maximized art per square inch, piling works on top of one another on the walls and on the tables. Discounts were proffered loudly and price tags were prominent. Business appeared to be brisk.

The works on display reinforced the contemporary multiplicity of photographic works sold as art. Vintage works by the usual suspects were present — Edward WestonHenri Cartier-BressonRuth Bernhard and more.

Demonstrating photography’s never-ending affair with the picturesque, landscapes and flowers were evident in great numbers, in both elegantly executed and Sunday-painter styles. Michael Schnabel at Bank Art managed to bring some aesthetic originality to the genre with his lovely B&W scenes of the Swiss Alps at night, shot with color film and printed with pigment inks on watercolor paper, creating densely matte, mysterious scenes far more intriguing than his well-executed but overly Teutonic empty zoo cages also on view. Bank also displayed works from Laura Letinsky’s “Morning and Melancholia” series, gorgeous, spare remains of meals that showed better individually than in accumulation.

In a nod to location, several dealers showed Los Angeles-themed work, such as Anthony Friedkin‘s late-1970s, early-’80s B&W moments, people by the pool or on the Pacific Coast Highway. Although rather played out as a trope, artists continued to demonstrate a fascination with color film’s reaction to darkness, and among the better sparely lit, desolate night scenes were Amanda Friedman‘s California landscapes at Paul Kopeikin and Marcus Doyle‘s humorous “things that go bump in the night” scenes of objects in landscape at Vintage Works.

A number of dealers brought works that combined photography and sculpture, with Andy Diaz Hope as the standout in this category with images printed on to grids of gel-cap pills. Unfortunately the imagery — snapshoty pictures at the drugstore or on drugs — was overly literal.

Among the freshest works of the fair were Thomas Allen‘s recent photographs of sculptural creations made from the covers of vintage pulp novels, delicately ingenious executions, on display at Foley.

Also notable was the booth of 21st Publishers, which displayed an exquisite group of lavish limited-edition books. Particularly eye-catching in its lime-green leather binding was “The Songs of Innocence,” which paired platinum prints of Joel-Peter Witkin‘s bizarre psychosexual tableaus and letterpress-printed William Blake poems.

In contrast to the bustling salesmanship at the main space, artist lectures were held in a hotel ballroom across the street. The bland, business-friendly décor and Starbucks lobby station served to remind how small a blip art photography is on most of the world’s radar.

One highlight of the event was Alec Soth‘s lecture on his work, both from the well-known “Sleeping by the Mississippi” and other creations. His earnestness never failed in his descriptions of the many false starts that led to his mature work, of years of making pictures that went nowhere but into a box under his bed, and of his current struggles as a successful artist and editorial photographer. Openly honoring influences such as Robert Frank and Joel Sternfeld, Soth declared that “the wandering, the finding, is 90 percent of the art.” And in the end, this sincere searching for a way to make something significant is what almost all the photographs at the exposition are about, and the din of consumption pales beside that searching and striving to create.