Forsaken Utopias: Photographs from the OCMA Permanent Collection

This exhibition of photographic works from OCMA’s permanent collection offers a rare opportunity for a focused look at a sampling of OCMA’s significant holdings in contemporary art. Cocurated by the museum and the currently exhibiting artist Rodrigo Valenzuela, the exhibition is inspired by Valenzuela’s interest in a series of photographs by Lewis Baltz, The New Industrial Parks in Irvine, 1974. These photographs are part of the museum’s permanent collection. 


In 1974 Baltz documented the changing landscape of Orange County. His images, while repetitive and seemingly unremarkable, were not devoid of content. They demonstrated, in a matter-of-fact way, that the evolving built environment at the time happened to be repetitive and uniform. This iconic body of work has been particularly influential for Valenzuela in his development of the body of work American-Type on view here. In this exhibition the driving concepts behind Baltz’s work offer a framework for looking at photographic imagery of the landscape not as idealized, but rather as an unromantic documentation of the world around us.


A central thread moving through Forsaken Utopias is a perspective of the western American landscape that leaves behind the idea of utopia. For generations, imagery of the American west had idealized the natural landscape–a vast frontier of beauty and resources ripe with potential for freedom, growth, and empowerment. However, by the time these photographers were working, the Western landscape as a utopic construct was already understood as an unrealistic American fantasy of the “wild west.” These artists depict the landscape in ways that engage our more complex emotional relationship to it. For many of them, the western landscape is an abandoned, empty place that brings forth unbridled feelings of sadness and loneliness. 


All of these photographers consider the camera as tool to document their surroundings. For some, such as Baltz, Wallace Berman, Charles Gaines, and Robbert Flick, this act of documentation is part of a larger conceptual practice, one defined by a set of rules or parameters, or one that seeks to capture a series of images of a similar type or subject matter in a systematic way. For others, the camera is a tool that can record a precise moment in time, and as such seems to be able to stop or preserve time. This is particularly evident in images by artists John Divola, Richard Misrach, Jacqueline Thurston, and others who depict a kind of arrested decay of natural materials and physical environments.