Category Archives: art

words without pictures

I’ve been looking at WORDSWITHOUTPICTURES, an interesting online journal and discussion space hosted by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. True to its name, the site is a big pile of words without a single picture, an action that’s particularly willful since the topic of the site is photography! Actually, since the real reason for the site’s existence is criticism and discussions about photography, the decisions to suppress the imagery might actually be appropriate.

Even without pictures, the site is no visual slouch. Designed in just black and white, using three fonts in compelling, graphic ways, the site calls to mind Bauhaus, De Stijl and Constructivist experiments filtered through contemporary web stylesheets. What can you do with a few horizontal borders mixed with helvetica, times and courrier using bold font weights and -1 to -3 letter spacing? Take a look!

And yes there is a garden connection with all this. There was a recent interview with Charlotte Cotton, the new Curator of Photography at LACMA and the main person behind the site. In it, the interviewer described her apartment in a building in the Wilshire District near the museum, an apartment that was decorated tastefully as you might expect. But the apartment also included a collection of carnivorous plants!

shameless self-promotion

If you’re in San Diego, I invite you to attend The Photographer’s Eye: A Way of Seeing, one of the current shows at the Museum of Photographic Arts. It’s got one of my works from my Going series as part of it. The show closes April 20.

James SOE NYUN: Steering wheel, Monument Valley (from the Going series).

Also, a few posts back I mentioned that I’d put up the link to the Top 50 Photographers at Portland’s Critical Mass, where one of my portfolios is featured. The link is now active. Take a look!

the snake path

I just wrote about Robert Irwin’s terrific artwork in the UCSD Stuart collection. The collection has another piece that I like, Alexis Smith’s Snake Path, from 1992.

From the collection’s page on the artist:

Smith’s work for the Stuart Collection alludes to the complex relationship between nature and culture or, in the context of the university, between knowledge and the landscape. Her Snake Path consists of a winding 560-foot-long, 10-foot-wide footpath tiled in the form of a serpent whose head ends at the terrace of the Central Library. The tail wraps around an existing concrete pathway as a snake would wrap itself around a tree limb. Along the way, the serpent’s slightly rounded body passes a monumental granite book carved with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The snake then circles around a small tropical garden representing Eden. These pointed allusions to the biblical conflict between innocence and knowledge mark an apt symbolic path to the university’s main repository of books. The concept of finding sanctuary within oneself – outside the idealistic and protected confines of the university – speaks directly to the student on the verge of entering the “real world.”

Here’s their official overview picture of the work:

And here are some snapshots from a walk there last week, first a closeup of the hexagonal slate tiles that make up the snake’s “scales”:


…and here are a couple shots of Eden, maybe not exactly “tropical,” as described, but a lush planting that contrasts to the surrounding native vegetation:



The plants in “Eden” are plants that have biblical references or those that somehow look like they’d belong in an eden. In the two pictures above you can see how the Italian cypresses have been pruned in a way that to me recalls some of the plants in the background of Leonardo’s 1470s Annunciation, now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence:


So…you can study garden books on how to prune a plant–or you can study a painting by Leonardo da Vinci!

"garden art"

Set in the fake forest of UCSD’s eucalyptus groves is one my favorite artworks. Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms was installed in 1983 as part of the campus’ Stuart Collection of site-specific outdoor art. The piece, like much of the artist’s output, is a subtle presence that takes a while to absorb.

Here’s how you might encounter it, approaching on a path through the trees:

The piece is pretty unassuming and is almost not there. Stainless steel posts raise two V-shaped runs of a tight blue-violet colored chain-link mesh up into the tree canopy. That’s basically all there is to it, materially at least, which of course would be basically saying the same thing as a Mark Rothko painting is a piece of stretched cloth with some paint applied to it.

Once you add some light, the magic happens. Depending on where you stand and depending on how the light hits it, the piece’s panels are either almost transparent or absolutely opaque. What looks transparent subtly darkens and colors what you view through it. The panels that appear opaque accept shadows of the surrounding branches gracefully.


Move around the work and things change. What starts out transparent turns opaque; what begins as opaque dissolves into a blue-violet vapor. Visits during sunny weather end up being subtly different from those on overcast days. Like the living trees around it, the piece responds to the weather and its surroundings.



To the general public Robert Irwin is now probably most famous–to me unfortunately so–for designing the Central Garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum in LA. It’s a beautiful and interesting garden, but not one that shows off what he does best. The Getty website talks about the garden as “always changing, never twice the same,” which any gardener would say about their own garden. But it also is a description I’d apply to the piece at UCSD.

It’s interesting that the Running Violet V Forms, from 20 years earlier than the Getty garden, also has a botanical element. The Stuart Collection description mentions that “[p]urple flowering iceplant, echoing but not matching the color of the chain link, is planted under the fence.” When he was working on the Getty garden, Irwin was quoted declaring himself not to be a gardener, and of his working with plant consultants to complete the design. This is where bringing in a plant consultant at UCSD might have resulted in a different artwork. Today, the iceplants live on only as one or two little mounds that almost never bloom. You wouldn’t take them to be intentional parts of the artwork. Planted in the fairly deep shade of the understory, these sun-loving succulents live out a meager existence, deprived of the very light that gives life to the artwork high overhead.

some japanese gardens

I just ran across this cool site, a picture gallery page off of Bowdoin College’s Japanese gardens home page. Though my garden, with its patches of heavily assorted plantings, generally doesn’t have much of a Japanese garden feel, I have a real fondness for the studied natural simplicity of the Japanese garden aesthetic. This site has some amazing gardens, particularly around Kyoto, and includes the iconic Ryoan-ji raked sand garden, plus 28 others. Each has several pictures, a map, and introduction and a brief bit of history.

One of the artists whose photographs got me interested in photography again in the 1980s was David Hockney. I’m not sure of his level of infatuation with Japanese gardens, but he did do this striking piece in 1983, a big photocollage of the dry garden at Ryoan-ji. It’s a little hard to see in this reduced picture, but he’s pieced together bits of the garden, pieces of the surrounding temple, pilgrims to the site and the black plastic containers of the film he was using to shoot the scene. And if you look close you can also see his socks.

When he was doing these photocollages, the story goes that Hockney dropped off his film at the neighborhood quickie photo place. In this photocollage you can see the mismatched printing the place did, particularly obvious in the central sand area. After Hockney made the originals, these collages were then editioned, using Hockney’s negatives. The people making the edition tried to replicate Hockney’s originals, which in this case meant going through the headaches of doing an intentionally “bad” job of printing the negatives, trying to match the job the local photo place did for Hockney.

These works don’t have the same vivid colors that Hockney’s paintings do, but they for sure share some of the same sense of space and time. Inspired by cubism, things don’t fit together perfectly, but your mind pieces the scenes together in a sensible way anyway. For me these works are almost like sculpture in that regard: You can’t see them all at once. Instead of traversing the space around an object, though, your eye moves around the image, giving you a sense of space. Viewing the work–a collage of images captured over a certain timespan–engages time in a way a single photograph typically doesn’t.


Here’s an image I ran across in the LA Times this morning that I wanted to share:

It’s a painting entitled “The Bridge” by Swedish painter Tommy Hilding in his current Urban View show at the Angles Gallery in Santa Monica. I haven’t seen it live in person, but the reviewer talks about how the image is constructed from “screen-printed dots, puddles of photo emulsion” with “smeared squeegee marks over the images.” In that way, the work references photographs, and more specifically photographs in reproduction.

In the way the rural landscape hangs over the banal homes, streets and gardens, however, it also strongly references the camera obscura and photography using camera obscura-like inverted images. The photographer most known for doing this currently is Abelardo Morell. He basically takes a room somewhere, draws all the shades, pokes an aperture into the shade, and lets the inverted image of what’s outside shine inside, turning the room into a camera obscura. He then photographs the dim image cast on the wall with a view camera using a long exposure, sometimes several hours. Here’s one of his camera obscura images that he made, this one here in San Diego County at the Hotel del Coronado:


Abelardo Morell: Camera Obscura Image of Hotel Coronado in Room, San Diego, CA, 1998

For me, Morrell’s camera obscura images are visually striking but ultimately unresolved. Yes, they play with the ideas of indoor/outdoor, public/private, but ultimately I don’t find the images to be particularly nourishing. (There are other examples of his work, though, that I really do like quite a bit.) Other photographers are now copying Morell’s technique, but what I’ve seen hasn’t gone into any territory not already explored by Morell.

Another photographer who’s mined somewhat related territory where a right-side-up image is fused with an upside-down one is Harry Callahan in some of his multiple-image experiments. These are shots where the featureless sky prints out white from the relatively intense amount of exposure the sky areas get in relation to the rest of the image. Since the sky prints white, and since he’s inverting the camera between exposures, the tops and bottoms of these images are white. The only thing that isn’t white is a band of information in the middle of the picture that consists of a small piece of a building with another superimposed on top of it, upside-down. I don’t think Callahan had anything in mind other than doing some formal studies, and these images succeed brilliantly in doing just that. He sets a goal, then creates some stunning images that exemplify his intentions. Morell’s images are graphically interesting, but it’s the intention part that I’m not sure I get. So his camera obscura series doesn’t gel for me in the same way Callahan’s works do.

Anyway, Back to Tommy Hilding. In using this camera obscura-like trick of right-side-up and upside-down, he’s made an interesting image graphically. But there’s a richness to his image beyond the formal qualities. Is the green inverted landscape the more pristine land that was bulldozed and chopped up to create the blight below? It’s probably not as literal as that, but the question hangs in the air as much as the landscape hangs over the little suburban homes and barren patches of garden space. In Beauty in Photography : Essays in Defense of Traditional Values, the photographer Robert Adams quotes Albert Camus, who wrote that the the builders of the City of Oran had managed to “exorcise the landscape.” Is this what’s happened here? Is the original landscape hanging over all of our heads in our squalid little cities like some indictment? Is it the ghost of something that’s lost to us forever? Or is it hanging over us like some dark premonition, ready to drop and crush us?

coda: John Pfahl

A few posts ago I wrote about the garden photography of John Pfahl. Four of the works from this series are in the exhibition, Picturing Eden, at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts. The show runs through January 13, 2008.

The show has a lot of work in it on the general theme of paradises, whether they be gained, lost, regained or created. The show is curated by Deborah Klochko, and had its origins at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. I had almost no time to look at the work, but there were definitely some great images. I’ll try to write up something a little more extensive later…

when landscaping fails

Desert Center, California lies about halfway between Indio and the Colorado River, halfway between a hot, flat desert town and the Arizona border. Unless you need to stop for gas, you pass by it on I-10 at wide-open highway speeds. It’d be a blur like any other anonymous desert town if it weren’t for the palm trees.

The huge date palms there grow single-file in formations that describe wide circles, V-shapes, or a triangle that’s many acres across. Transplanted there by Stanley Ragsdale in the early 1990s, most of the trees now have seen better days. Even for drought-tolerant date palms, irrigation is essential here in the low desert. The watering proved inadequate and many of them died. In their current state of falling into ruins the trees are visually amazing, the vegetable equivalent of the Acropolis.

Palms 1, Desert Center

James SOE NYUN: Palms I, Desert Center, California

I first went to photograph the town and its trees in 2003 on a hot, breezy day in April. It was approaching noon, and there was no shade other than what a minimal palm trunk could provide. It’s not the sort of lighting situation that a lot of photographers consider acceptable, but for this body of work it was perfect. Besides, so many of the well-known 19th century expeditionary photographs of the American West were taken in harsh conditions similar to what I encountered. Palms I, above, and Palms II, below form a diptych: Imagine Palms I on the left and Palms II on the right.

James SOE NYUN: Palms II, Desert Center, California

There weren’t many structures there next to the interstate, not much beyond the obligatory cafe and gas station. The big surprise, though, was an abandoned school, compact, constructed of brick, and modern in its architecture. It had almost no windows in the classrooms except for high clerestories place beneath broad, sheltering eaves. Not that different from the schools I attended up in the Los Angeles area, I thought. In photography–and in painting for centuries before it–ruins are often a bit of a cliche, but name me a landscape photographer who hasn’t shot some at some point. I couldn’t resist:

Desert Center School

James SOE NYUN: Breezeway, Abandoned School, Desert Center, California

Both the palm trees and the town clearly had seen better days. Stephen A. Ragsdale, the man who founded the town in 1921, died in 1971. Stanley Ragsdale, the one who directed the planting of the trees, died in 1999. Without their energies, this area of the city faltered, and the palms began to fail. The town and these landscapes shot there function for me like Northern European vanitas paintings, reminders of life’s struggles, its shortness, and the certainty of entropy. Again, those aren’t transcendentally fresh ideas, but to see them particularized in a place that’s struggling though still very much alive fascinates me. Judging by the number of people who leave the highway, gas up, then drive slowly towards the palm formations, I’m not the only one who’s fascinated.

For more information on Desert Center see: Wikipedia / The Center for Land Use Interpretation.

For more information on the large series this images are a part of see: James SOE NYUN: Blue Daylight Project.

extreme gardening

In the late 90s I was fortunate to be part of a show of photography at San Francisco Camerawork, entitled Feed, that centered on our relationship with food. One of the artists in the show was one of my photographic heroes, John Pfahl, who in the 1970s produced his funny and quirkily beautiful Altered Landscapes series. In that San Francisco show he was represented by images of compost, Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile.

The work that I’d to say a few things about are his documents of over-the-top gardenscapes, his Extreme Horticulture series.

Dr. Wadsworth's Tree

John Pfahl: Dr. Wadsworth’s Tree, Chatauqua, N.Y.

These are all beautiful, color-soaked images, most of them of the sort of gardens where “natural” isn’t a word that would immediately spring to mind. The raw plant materials are often gorgeous, but they’re sheared, arranged and manipulated in ways where the hand of the gardener or designer is in-your-face obvious. Often gardens like that give me the creeps. They and talk to a culture where a country’s President is often shown on his Crawford, Texas ranch, clearing brush, like he’s some sort of representative of good humanity battling the evil forces of nature that want to overrun our boundaries. Most of Pfahl’s gardens are testosterone gardens, gardens all about control, gardens all about domination. But at the same time, they’re often beautiful or funny in their overmanicured way.

Bare Trees and Topiary

John Pfahl: Bare Trees and Topiary, Longwood Gardens, Kensett Square, PA

Espalier Demonstration

John Pfahl: Espalier Demonstration, Longwood Gardens, Kensett Square, PA

Pfahl Getty Garden

John Pfahl: Cactus Garden, J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California

Maybe I’m overgeneralizing, but the East Coast gardens pictured seem heavy into shaping plants into topiaried sculptures. It’s a heavily European thing–Just think of the immaculately-worked gardens at Versailles. The Western gardens seem to show a little more interest in and respect for the materials. Plants are placed where the designer wants them, but they seem to be chosen more for what they can do in that location, rather than what can be done to them. The arrangements of cactus and succulents at the Getty, for instance, show clear thought about where the plants were placed. But the plants are allowed more to be themselves. (And I wonder if that freedom somehow also translates into freedoms that people are allowed to have…) Besides, have you ever tried to prune a cactus?

The tension of natural tendencies versus control is one that’s always interesting to me. Nature often isn’t convenient, and it’s often never where we want it to be. Scraping a hillside to put in suburban housing and pulling up an errant weed are part of the same continuum. But where do you draw the line about what’s good and what’s bad? Is keeping a garden inherently better than bulldozing native scrub to build more mcmansions? I think the answer is yes, but the question is a complicated one. There’s economics, notions of justice, respect for living things, and all sorts of other things that have to be considered. It’s an intriguing question that resides not far below the surface of John Pfahl’s photographs.

and so it begins

There’s an old family photo that I think about every now and then. My sister and I are seated at a viewpoint overlooking the lower falls on the Yellowstone River. My sister is staring into the camera and at my mother who took all these early family pictures. And next to her is me, staring not at the camera but over the railing at something off to the side, not the main attraction of the falls, but something else–maybe the gorge, maybe the river, maybe the clouds and sky and weather. Lost in the landscape.

For me gardens can be wonderful little mementos of the larger landscape. Surround me with interesting plants and their interesting colors and textures, and you’ll stand a chance of losing me in it. But I’m also interested that these patches and pots of earth are totally faked versions of what lies beyond the garden gates and city walls. There’s always a human hand in the garden, and I’m interested in what the garden reveals about the person planning, planting and tending the garden.

And I have lots of other interests that I expect will end up here–art, photography, design, music, politics, science, stuff in the news–and so I expect these notes will ramble a bit, something like an old Lady Banks rose growing in many directions from its rootstock. Since the rambles and brambles grow from the same rootstock, though, I expect they’ll have something in common.

I guess all that’s a bit of a manifesto. I don’t want to lay down too many rules, though, because the world is such an interesting place, even if that world is a small patch of garden with herbs for the kitchen or a tiny re-creation of the cosmos in a flowerpot on someone’s apartment windowsill.

And so, off we go!