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The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium
Recommendation by Cathy Breslaw

Martha Rosler, “Flower Fields,” 1974, super 8mm color film on video, silent; 3 min. 40 sec, is currently on view at MCA San Diego, La Jolla. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

Anyone interested in recalling or learning about cultural life in San Diego county during the time period from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, will be fascinated by “The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium,” which shapes the era for us through the eyes of sixteen widely known artists. They came together at University of California San Diego when the art department was newly formed with a common focus on conceptual art. The exhibition features one hundred photographic works including photographic series, installation, slide projection, video, audio recordings, artist books, ephemera and a program of film series. The art practices of these artists examined the social issues of the time: first wave feminism and struggles with identity; gender in the workplace and the nuclear family; the Vietnam War; racial issues between African Americans and whites; immigration as it relates to Mexico and border issues; and general social unrest.

Technique and formalism take a back seat to historical documentation here. For viewers of a certain age the images may elicit memories of personal experiences, as well as providing perspective. For others it is a fresh look at some of the important social issues of the 1960’s and 70’s that beg for us to draw comparisons to current social, cultural and economic challenges.

Elizabeth Sisco’s installation, “Flashcards,” incorporates text and photography that simulates Spanish vocabulary practice cards. “Flashcards” examines the complicated relationship between the economics of Mexican workers and their movement across the border to find work. Martha Rosler’s photo-montages form a critique of fashion photography and it’s use of the female body as a selling tool. From the series, “Body Beautiful or Beauty Knows No Pain,” “Cargo Cult,” depicts a group of containers that become frames for women’s faces derived from advertising placed on the deck of a ship, ready for “shipping.” Carrie Mae Weems’ “Family Pictures and Stories” is a series of text plus image works that portray the African-American family in public and private moments, in a realistic manner that was shockingly fresh at the time. Eleanor Antin highlights the female figure and the pressure to be an object of beauty — conceptually a sculpture — via her photo-documentation of her 38 day diet to lose 10 pounds. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison experimented with expanding the use of photographic landscape as a platform for presenting information and stimulating discourse on the topic of ecology. This important exhibition engages in a socio-political critique of a pivotal time in American, as well as local history that continues to resonate.

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, MCASD La Jolla

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