California photographer J. John Priola works on the threshold of conceptual art.
In earlier work, he took nighttime shots of illuminated house numbers, bringing out their creepily uninviting quality and somehow making them look like possible markers of fate.
In new work at Anglim, Priola focuses again on under-noticed aspects of domestic architecture, in this case, uneasy marriages of modest homes and outdoor vegetation.
What to grow and what to permit to grow evidently make unrelenting problems for many homeowners. Priola has titled his series "Nurture," apparently to indicate the opposite or flip side of nature, trouble spots where flora and human decisions, or indecision, collide.
Nurture: Grass (2014) shows a rumpled swatch of AstroTurf thrown over a bare patch between a garage and gated side entrance. The bit of surrogate lawn sits beneath a palm tree of seismic robustness seeming to menace the low stone wall containing it.
Nurture: Grey Wall (2014) finds a scrawny shrub apparently clinging desperately to a bit of trellis against a wall that appears to have been hastily painted in mismatched grays, perhaps to conceal graffiti.
Priola's new pictures, like many that have preceded them, remind us how many potential questions, how much intimate domestic history, may lie embedded on the margins of our attention. His interrogative gaze prepares visitors to Anglim for the much more searching attention demanded by the collages of Jean Conner, widow of Bruce Conner (1933-2008), whose work, stretching back decades, merits more notice than it has received to date.
Kimberly Chun, special to the Chronicle
Neighborhoods are all too easy to peg by their castoffs. For example, you might know certain segments of the Mission for their castoff mattresses or portions of South Berkeley for the fancy coffee left out by the curb.
Glen Park photographer John Priola, however, took a different tack when it came to capturing and cataloging the donations bundled up on the street for pickup by a favored nonprofit.
"I've participated in these nonprofit collections myself, putting out donations periodically," says Priola, 50, who will become the chair of the photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute in January. "But only in the last year have I started to pay attention."
What materialized is a series of 75 digital color images, "Philanthropy," which casts an eye toward the bags, boxes and bits of furniture that people put out for charity. Inextricably tied to those deliberately or loosely arranged trash bags and mystery objects are the homes they are leaving: stark stacks of apartments, hidden ranch houses, twisting Normandys, Marina-style row houses.
"Frankly, they're like still lifes to me, portraits of the people who put things out," the photographer says. "What drew me in was this underlying interest in stuff and how things are really representative of who we are as people. There's a real difference between the people who throw out trash on the street and people who set out belongings to be repurposed or donated. They're set out with care."
Priola asked friends to tell him when their neighborhoods were having pickups and shot in the morning in assorted neighborhoods and cities over the course of a year. For the first time, for this series, he moved from what he calls "an antiquated 4-by-5 black-and-white medium" to color and digital. "The subject mater really asked for it - or demanded it, actually," he says. "I wanted the present tense right there. I wanted it to be palpable, so it needed to be color and look like the world."
Nonetheless, "Philanthropy" connects to past work such as Priola's "Saved" series - which set the patched, glued and darned estate-sale discards and found objects against a rich, depthless black background - and the inadvertently poetic-sounding "Weep Holes," with its more architecture-centered images of those easy-to-miss drainage orifices. "There's two sides there - what's behind it and what's in front of it," the photographer says of the latter. "So much of my work is about what you can't see."
He didn't run into any poachers pawing through the street-side donations, but was once stopped by a donor who wanted to know what he was up to. "I was about to photograph his box of things and I told him I was photographing the generosity of the neighborhoods," Priola says. "I told him I could just skip it. And he said, 'Yeah, just skip it.'
"I don't blame him," he continues. "The people who donate still have attachment to the things."
In a related way Priola will add a social practice element to his work with this show: He asks visitors to bring toys, puzzles and gently used clothing to donate to Community Assistance for the Retarded and Handicapped, which is affiliated with Thrift Town. He'll photograph the collection as it grows.
"I always realized I can't just take advantage of someone else's attempts to make their community or organizations thrive," he says. "I didn't want to just piggyback and take."
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2008
J. John Priola shows a new series of black-and-white pictures at Gallery Paule Anglim that continue his survey of undernoticed details of domestic architecture.
This time he has turned his attention to vent grates in house foundations and the "weep holes" in retaining walls that permit drainage.
As in "Hillhurst Avenue" (2007), he offers these tiny architectural epiphanies, in a plainspoken manner, in big prints with wall, aperture, sidewalk and perhaps a fringe of vegetation forming a nearly depthless, nearly abstract pattern. A series of postcard-size prints examines single weeds obtruding, one or two at a time, between wall and sidewalk.
Priola poises these images on the border between documentary and conceptual art. They seem to equate the insufficient attention people give to details of the world and the insufficient attention they give to photographs. Such an equation would risk insulting the viewer, did Priola not effect it so discreetly that it too may pass unnoticed. Priola also quietly revives what Vancouver,sh Columbia, photographer Roy Arden calls "the romance of the index" - the excitement of believing, in the Photoshop age, that the phenomenon before the lens left its own photo-chemical imprint.
"Outside the window, a watcher in the dark"
Does all photography have snooping as a subtext? All kinds of pictures support that idea, from images that capture things too fast, small or distant for the naked eye, to straightforward but stealthy ones such as J. John Priola’s series "Dwell" at Gallery Paule Anglim.
Each of Priola’s black and whites looks from deep blackness into the lighted window of someone’s residence. His titles identify locations but give no clue whether he collaborated with the people whose dwellings are captured. The faintly invasive feeling the pictures emanate suggest, correctly, that he did not.
The almost abstract formal elegance of Priola’s pictures offsets their creepy air of belonging to a stalker’s album. Yet their formality also reminds us of the time they involved and Priola’s risk of discovery in setting up his 4-by-5 camera.
"Dolores Street, Ground Floor South" (2001) reveals almost nothing of the domestic interior beyond. The nearly opaque curtain flattens the arched window into a tombstone shape. A hazy shadow pattern makes it hard to tell whether the view looks from outer blackness into a lighted window or out from a dark room at muffled light.
Priola’s pictures make a fascinating counterpoint to the "Summer Night" of Robert Adams at the Fraenkel Galley across the street.