RIVERSIDE, CA — Empirical, Textual, Contextual at UC Riverside’s California Museum of Photography, is an enlightened, mid-career retrospective of immaculate works by the Los Angeles-based artist Brandon Lattu made over the past 25 years. The show’s title is almost comically clinical. It is a deadpan description of the meta-machinations of Lattu’s vocation: empirical data presents itself to the senses of the individual who then must pattern it into visual language (text) and place it into the ambiguous, codified context we call art.
In one work, a 28-hour film titled “Film Without End” (1999 – ), Lattu projects a light beam out the passenger window of his car, causing a luminous transparent rectangle (an empty Kodak 35 mm slide) to reflect off endless homes, strip malls, empty lots, freeway ramps, and chain link fences. It evokes Nam June Paik’s “Zen for Film” (1965) — the imageless movie that he ran through a projector back in the early days of Fluxus. I’m also reminded of Dan Graham’s commentary on the 1950s pre-fab tract housing of our infinite suburbia, each flimsy facade facilitates the owner’s evolutionary need to be the king of his own cartoon cave, while the TVs burn McLuhan cold. (See Jeff Wall’s book-length essay on the post-modern phantasmagoria of “Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel.”)
Lattu’s car-camera surveys and surveils the endless burbs like an LAPD chopper hovering all night awaiting the next OJ Bronco chase (the drama was still in the air in and outside the courtroom when began his car chase). As a work of neo post-structuralist film noir, Lattu’s blockbuster is kind of brutal—as if Ernie Gehr had made Polanski’s Chinatown. I’m reminded of Thom Andersen’s 2003 film-essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” an archeology of Los Angeles made by dusting off locations used in Hollywood movies.
As the show’s curator, photography scholar Charlotte Cotton, would attest, Lattu can actually be considered one of the leading pioneers of post-camera photography — a genre that uses scanners, photoshop, and other computer programs to simulate the world. One image in the show is an extremely high-res close-up of denim, flat and stiff as any pair of jeans that has never been broken in. “Denim, Levi’s 501©, Made in USA” has more pixels of indigo-dyed dungaree than fibers of actual fabric. Perhaps we are on our way to a new photographic denim — a day when a pair of Levi’s will be cut and sewn from a giant bolt of durable Lattu-brand photo-paper.
My favorite scan image is a gigantic box of breakfast cereal, featuring the well-known Rice Krispies mascots, albeit the sonic drone of Snap, Crackle, and Pop has fallen silent. One can only marvel at the work’s towering dimensions — it’s surreal cereal, on the delirious scale of a Rem Koolhaus building in Times Square. The luminous transparent cardboard box allows us to read all six planes at once. It is nearly legible, with overlapping and inverted topsy-turvy text facing in right and wrong directions, all at once. The composite of mystifying text can be read as an overstimulating concrete poem with the fancy “Kellogg’s” logo intersecting terms and details like “Nutritional Facts” and “Net Wt. 13.5 OZ.” “Toasted Rice” overlays a chart showing “1 + 1 = 4” and the phrase “Got Milk.” As a kid, I’d spend hours studying the cognitive universe on the back of every cereal box, as I greedily filled and refilled my bowl, blasting off with sugar. Lattu touches gently on our collective nostalgia for the good ol’ days of junk food and empty carbs.
Other works also point to a society on the brink of Late (or maybe in the age of crypto we should call it call it Lost) Capitalism: “Boy with Image of Payphone” (2016) is a life-sized portrait of the artist’s son seen from behind, wearing his sports jersey and standing at an antiquated telephone booth (with the ubiquitous sign reading “local calls 25¢”). There’s another of his daughter standing in front of a similarly obsolete ATM machine. Both pictures appear at first to be ordinary snapshots of the quotidian, but after closer inspection they reveal subtle nuance. Both teenagers are in fact standing before and pretending to interact with life-size photographs of the machines that are deceptively hung on the wall. Pushpins give the magic trick away. Indeed the entire world is a facade — coins and paper money are a funny relic of the past and telephone calls from public booths are simply gross, that is germophobically inconceivable (especially in a post-Covid world). Lattu manages to make all of this exquisitely surprising. The two images are as iconic and colorful as Giotto frescos and, by using his children as models, he makes them intriguingly and melancholically autobiographical.
Then a Yukon Gold potato (“Potato,” 2019) the size of a small meteorite steals the show! But we never actually see (or hear) it land. We only encounter the part that Lattu has cleverly modeled: the sliced-off end of the giant, starchy root vegetable, protrudes almost anthropomorphically from the gallery wall, like a shallow relief sculpture. But Lattu hangs a small photoshopped snap shot picture next to this bloated form; it shows the same potato from the reverse angle sitting in the adjacent room, claustrophobically wedged under a drop ceiling and smashed up against the wall. Ostensibly this is the rest of the potato’s hulking body. At least, Lattu has treated us to this illusion. In a moment of Magritte-inspired bowler hat whimsy, the surreal overtakes the real, and we scratch our heads questioning what we know cannot possibly exist. But then my mind swings like a pendulum back to the very real possibility of infertile fields and world wide famine. Could this giant Yukon Gold feed the world?
Lattu’s most compelling work, “Reciprocity of Light” (2007-10), is located in a large dark room. The viewer approaches a naked lightbulb that hangs from the ceiling in the center. It can read as a symbol of police interrogation, or a solitary life in poverty (think Dostoyevsky), or bohemian simplicity. The bright light shines on the viewer’s hand and arm casting a shadow that kicks off thousands of sensors buried beneath the tracing paper-veiled wall, which activates a giant grid of thousands of hidden light bulbs. This creating a moving lit-up impression of whatever passes before the central bulb. The result is that we see our own hands and arms move across this wall of oversized pixels (an effect that, according to US patents, has never really been done before). We see shadows that are no longer negative (absent of light), but positive—bathing in a flickering marquee.
With this truly breathtaking work, Lattu creates the show’s only moment of warmth. His detached cold gaze (like a dis-transcendental Emersonian eyeball) returns to a context of heat, anxiety, angst. I’m reminded of the existential imagery I associate with painters like Munch, Giacometti and Bacon, or playwrights like Beckett—the naked actor is shocked by his own shadow. We break from Lattu’s hermeticism or cool distance from the world he spies on, and for just a moment, interact with something that is convulsively, confusingly, radiantly alive.
Brandon Lattu: Empirical, Textual, Contextual continues at UCR ARTS California Museum of Photography (3824 Main Street, Riverside, CA) until February 6.