Untreated Strangeness

Chris Kraus
Catalog essay (abridged) 2009 



One ought to remember that all cultures impose corrections upon raw reality, changing it from free-floating objects into units of knowledge. The problem is not that conversion takes place. It is perfectly natural for the human mind to resist the assault on it of untreated strangeness; therefore cultures have always been inclined to impose complete transformations on other cultures receiving these other cultures not as they are, but as for the benefit of the receiver, they ought to be.

– Edward Said, Orientalism


My objective in arranging this show was to present the work of my friend George Porcari. I’ve known George since the 90s, we’d often talk- ed about movies and books at the library where he works as Acquisitions Librarian at Art Center College of Design. This library boasts an impressive alumnae: Diana Thater, Mark Von Schlegell, Jorge Pardo, Theresa Pendlebury, Steven Hanson, and the late Giovanni Intra have all put in time checking out stuff in the video room and behind the main counter. I’d read George’s essays on photography fiction and film over the years – essays that, although he’s never pursued a career as a critic, consistently probe the patterns of meaning behind the material surface of culture but I hadn’t encountered his visual work until 2006 when Alexis Hall mounted a solo show of his photos and videotapes at Mandarin Gallery in LA’s Chinatown.

That show, entitled Greetings From LA, was drawn from two bodies of work: a series of photographs taken around LA between 1976 and 1979, and a subsequent series, taken 25 years later in Europe during the summer of 2005. The early Los Angeles photos - most of them taken through wind- shields of moving cars – depict dense but bereft interstitial slices of urban landscape, peopled or not, exposed in flat even light.

In LA Christmas, (1963, previous page) sad cones of tinsel planted in striped red and white buckets descend into Wilshire Boulevard’s western horizon against a smogged cyclorama of sky. In Greetings From LA #9 (this page, top) a small boy boxed in the back of a moving Dodge station wagon frowns at the person pointing a camera into his face, the left side of which is angelically bathed in western light. In the background behind them, a stocky white middle-aged Ma and Pa at an early self-serve 7-11 gas up their car. The couple look oddly regional: affixed in the last third of the 20th century, they’re really only one generation removed from LA’s great migration from the Dustbowl Depression past.

Porcari took these photographs as a young man in his early 20s. Having arrived with his family from Lima, Peru a decade before, he observes his new home with a sense of disheartened wonder. Other photos taken during this time depict mid-rise rectangular office blocks flanked by one-story stucco commercial storefronts; space-age novelty food-stands sprouting from wide asphalt boulevards; old women and men in powder- blue leisure suits crossing the streets like animals lost from their herd. The images index archetypal signs of banality, and yet their intention isn’t to posit an – equally archetypal – critique. Rather, they’re haunted by sadness, as if Porcari was recording his own sense of displacement, the estrangement of someone who’s come from a faraway place and knows he can’t return.

Discussing this early work with his friend, the writer Veronica Gonzalez, Porcari remarked:

“When I was very young I was influenced by Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank ... who I still really love, but all that stuff was very much about Cartier Bresson’s decisive moment, sort of catching a particularly poignant moment; Robert Frank was a master of doing that, maybe in a subtle way, it didn’t have to be someone falling out a window, it could be someone watch- ing TV ... But when I saw the films of Nicholas Roeg and some other people I realized that if you could stop the frame at any one moment ... I imagined that it would be, first of all, beautiful but that it would be a kind of non-moment, nothing would be happening; it would not be either a Cartier Bres- son moment or a Robert Frank moment. It would really be nothing. But it would also be so many other things; you could apply your own imagination to everything that came before and came after. It was so rich with possibility and photographers hadn’t explored that area. ... (A Conversation Between Veronica Gonzalez and George Porcari, exhibition catalogue, Mandarin Gallery, 2006)

Two and a half decades later, traveling around Europe during the summer of 2005, Porcari decides to view these foreign cities (Paris, London, Berlin, Rome) through the dense mesh of reflections cast by glass telephone booths and architectural facades. The colors are thick. In Two Locked Doors, 2005 (this page. middle), deep shifting shadows of architectural foliage fill the transparent void of a corporate cathedral’s lobby-cum-nave. In Public Phone and Passerby, 2008 (this page, bottom), blinding post-nuclear light beams from the vanishing point of a Paris street, backlighting swirls of scratched and sprayed graffiti on the glass walls of a Telecom booth. The phone itself – a steel-brushed aluminum monolith – in the center foreground - appears to survey the rest of the frame unharmed. There’s a great deal of visual information in each of these frames – the glass surface serving as both a literal and metaphorical window onto the disjointed jumble of street. It’s as if the subjective sense of displacement through which Porcari viewed the Los Angeles streets as a young man in the late 1970s has now been institutionalized into the glass-box design of the urban landscape itself.

I found the show stunning. But it wasn’t until George Porcari launched his website (wwww.lightmonkey.net) in 2008 that I realized how large a body of visual work he had amassed. Hundreds of images, produced over nearly four decades, most of them documenting his observation of cities in Europe and the US; rural and tourist sites in Peru; the Mexican/USA border and barrio neighborhoods in downtown LA.

Porcari modestly describes this visual work as ‘photojournalism.’ In his ability to capture the transient sweep of global commerce and culture, the photos are ‘journalistic’ in the largest possible sense. I’m reminded of Magnum Agency founder Werner Bischof (about whom Porcari has written): how, when he abandoned surrealism in the wake of the Second World War, decided to “focus [his] attention henceforth on the face of human suffering;” how a subsequent book of his photographs was described as depicting “[P] eople and their behavior in the present chaos,” and later cancelled, because these had already become images no one wanted to see.

Porcari does something like this in his work, although – while people often appear in his photographs – they aren’t the focus, per se. Deceptively ambient, his work is, in fact, extremely intentional and highly composed. There are no “portraits.” Everyone in Porcari’s world is a bystander. For this reason, his pictures of migrant LA, the Mexican border and Peruvian Indi- an vendors at national tourist sites are the most realistic depictions of these locales I’ve ever seen. Images of the ‘developing’ world most often appear on the media screen bursting with colorful energy (when used as exotic back- drops for fashion shoots) or deplorable squalor (Food Bank appeals) or as disingenuous celebrations of our common humanity (sepia-prints of proud plantation workers wall-papering Starbucks).

But, as Porcari shows, there’s really not very much difference between the lunch-time crowd outside Time Warner in midtown Manhattan Time-Life Building (NY Time & Life Building , 1982, this page, top), the crowd of tourists grouped in front of the mist at Machu Pichu (Tourists Machu-Pichu, 1999, this page, middle) and the skinny Latino men sitting on cars around a juice cart in downtown New York in Union Square (NY Union Square, 1982, this page, bottom). Everyone, in some sense is a tourist ... the person is less defined by any innate singularity than by his or her place in a state of perpetual flux.

At the same time, Porcari’s work is profoundly and classically European. His sensibility and compositional sense are marked by the kind of engagement with the aesthetics of 20th century New Wave cinema that only someone who wasn’t there at that time and place, can enjoy. A Man and a Woman Who Never Met (For Manuel Alvarez Bravo) (1984, next page, top) evokes the timeless modernist airport of Chris Marker’s Le Jetee. Peru, Car, Ruins (1999, next page, middle) looks like an incongruous still from Antonioni’s Red Desert, and isn’t the sunlight in Public Phone and Passerby 2008 something like the last frames of L’Eclisse?

In his most recent work, Aventuras Con Tío Cesar (1-22) 1993- 2009 Porcari directly addresses our suspect nostalgia for 20th century historicity. Each of the 22 dual-frame digitally printed panels is composed through the juxtaposition of photos taken in Germany during the 1930’s against more recent photos that Porcari has taken himself.

Aventuras Con Tío Cesar #12 positions a black and white shot of a couple cropped and enlarged from their necks to their waists. It’s a sexy and intimate shot: The modest v-neck of her short-sleeved cardigan jacket; his black suit and tie. Her arms are folded, his right palm gently rests on her elbow. She stands in front but her body bends slightly towards his. Alongside them, a blast from the future: hundreds of glass rectangular windows in a rectangular office building, colorized pink and rising above the trees into the halated night.

As a foreign medical student, Porcari’s uncle Cesar witnessed daily life during the dawn of German fascism through ex-pat eyes ... until the situation escalated to the point where, in 1939, he had to leave. The dizzying sense of time-travel (lightness and weight) that permeates Porcari’s main body of work is compressed within these 22 frames.

The aesthetic space that Jorge Pardo’s work bridges between architecture, art and design is well known. Is it a sculpture? Is it a house? Is this even an interesting question to ask? A long-time friend of Porcari’s, Jorge Pardo has graciously provided three original works created specifically for this exhibition. Made of oxblood-toned MDF, a highly compressed form of particle board, the sculptures – Table 1 (this page, bottom) and Table 2 (both 2009) and Partition (2009) – revisit earlier incarnations of similar objects fabricated in the mid- 1990s. But while the original Table (1995) resting in Porcari’s Los Angeles loft is a classically rectangular object, the new Table pieces are witty conflations of high and low mid-century modernist pieces of domestic furniture. With its 5’ ovoid table-top surface resting on legs devised from bisected circular cut-outs, Table 1 (2009) at once evokes high modern design’s penchant for Miro-esque globes, and a drinks-cart or folding TV table. Table 2 (2009) spins off in a stripped-down but similar vein: the weight of the surface supported by an upturned circular “leg” that mirrors the circular base of the table.

These sculptures-that-are-also-furniture are deployed, in Untreated Strangeness, to contain and present the work of other artists. Porcari’s multiple prints spread out over both tables, inviting the viewer to sit and peruse; Fisher’s video work projected onto Pardo’s Partition. This isn’t the first time Pardo’s work has been used in this way. In a Bob Weber and Jorge Pardo 2001 exhibition with the late artist and designer Bob Weber at China Art Objects, Pardo contributed lamps that were used to illuminate Weber’s part of the show.