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Julian Kreimer is a “painter’s painter.”
No, I take that back. He’s a “photographer’s painter.”
His painterly impulse registers in the relatively short history of photography — especially in the by-now ancient movement known as the New Topographics.
New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape was an exhibition curated in 1975 by William Jenkins for the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, which reflected on new trends in American landscape photography. Included were Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Frank Gohlke, and Stephen Shore, all of whom went on to become highly regarded and influential practitioners of their medium. But have these photographers also been influential on painters and on our way of evaluating current trends in painting? I wonder.
Photographers of the past have customarily been burdened with having to be compared to painters all the way back to the Renaissance. What if we reverse this trend? What if we compare Kreimer — a painter in every sense of the word — to the photographers who preceded him?
Take Robert Adams for example. Adams was present on the scene as the “burbs” were being built. I can picture him strutting into pop-up developments like an outlaw in a western, down silent streets to motionless cul-de-sacs, as the first generation of tract houses were being erected on evenly parsed plots of saturated counties, and freezing with his Pentax reflex camera the moment of human dislocation and isolation.
In choosing this even newer topographic in the town of Encinitas, just outside San Diego (as this season’s artist in residence at the Lux Art Institute), Kreimer, you could say, is part of this same moment, albeit delayed. As the population continues to grow, as American capital continues to inflate, the moment continues to spill out into uncharted territory, reaching out into whatever unexploited horizons are left to be grabbed. And this is where we encounter Kreimer, perched atop a discreet hill at the moment of its realization as “prime real estate.”
When Robert Adams clicked many of his most famous suburb photos in the early 1970s, white flight was just beginning. The cities were too compacted — too diverse — and the “long open road” was said and done (think Robert Frank and Walker Evans). The American fantasy was deeply embedded in the unconscious: the dormant aspirations of the middle-class consumer were about to be awoken by, essentially, tantalizing television commercials.
As is evident in Kreimer’s suburban painting, the sprawl has never stopped, well, sprawling. Even in war, the first to enter are the builders, not the infantry. Army contractors go to Afghanistan to build towns. I once told a friend that we were fighting in the Middle East not for oil or heroin, but for the opportunity to produce, inflate, and consume plywood.
In his art (and life) Kreimer has arrived, domestically, inside this same equation — this same American dream — this same desire to make the picture, with all its contradictions, complete. His paintings do not refer to the past or to the future; they don’t involve ancient history or tomorrow’s investment. They are built just as the home he paints is built. They are developed on the spot. The hill is developed into a house. Kreimer’s “interest” is developed into a picture.
Kreimer’s work could almost be considered an integral part of the home-making process, like the engineer’s survey, architect’s blueprints, and cable guy’s ever-increasingly complexities of wires and routers. The paintings are both “in” and “of” the scene. If landscape paintings were valued as much as flat screens, they probably would come as built-in features of the house, along with all the other “smart” and “friendly” and “green” (LEED Certified) technologies. Maybe this is a stretch.
Kreimer’s paintings, in any case, certify that everything man-made is being built at once in order to take optimal advantage of every natural resource. As Kreimer’s painting of a house dries and finds a wall to hang on, so does the tar that holds down the roof, and the primer and paint that coat the walls, and the grout that holds up the bathroom tiles. It’s all happening for the immediate future — for the next moment of obsolescence.
While it is somewhat disappointing to see a million-dollar mini-mansion built in a day to last a decade or two, it is somewhat refreshing, on the contrary, to see a painting made with the same breeze, something that expects to last and to be regarded forever. Such is our expectation of oil painting.
Indeed, Kreimer could have documented this industrious happening with a camera, capturing the soft, angled light, the quasi-interior/exterior balance, and the distinct liminal spot where he seems to stand. But a photo would not have been “built” piece by piece. A photo emerges all at once. A painting and a house have in common the fact that they both get slapped together.
The classic landscape photos I have already addressed tend to be remote. Photography has a unique ability to reflect with cold detachment, and to communicate the uniformity and dislocation of the suburban ethos. The photographers of the ’70’s gave us a means to pause and consider the sobering effect of choosing a path into such a self-defeating void. The photographers, with their pictures seem to ask: am I a free man, or am I just a trespasser?
The New Topographics were exploring the “burbs” with a cunning intellect and suspicion — an accurate sense of knowing how futile and anticlimactic it was even to snap the damn picture in the first place. But they were also motivated by a rebellion against the previous generation’s clichés — the urban romance recorded, say, by Alfred Stieglitz or a little later by the likes of Rudy Burckhardt. Or the equally heroic immersion and stun-gun effect of Garry Winogrand. Their work, even in small towns, was always keenly aware of the population, no matter how sparse, no matter how wealthy or impoverished.
The New Topographics may have documented the upward mobility of the folks who put money down on the dream package, but to the cynical eye of the loner-photographer, hungry for the authenticity of the street and the volatility of the “instant,” these sterile neighborhoods represented a road to nowhere.
This happens to be the nowhere where the Kreimer generation, of which I am a part, was conceived, born, and, in my case, plopped in front of the TV.
Kreimer’s work allows me to approach this same road to nowhere, but evidently it has been a road to somewhere, after all. Or, a least a nowhere that is still unknown. His paintings are densely populated by the painter, and as distinctly upper-middle-class as small en plein air paintings of this sort have ever been. They take a stab at the paradigm we are still all living out: comfort, instant gratification and the desire for a place — preferable a place with a view of the Pacific Ocean — to call home.
Julian Kreimer: Works continues at the Lux Art Institute (1550 S. El Camino Real, Encinitas, California) through March 21.