I recently attended the absolutely mobbed opening night reception for BACKYARD OASIS, a much-anticipated photography exhibition at the Palm Springs Museum, promising “a microcosm of the hopes and disillusionment of the country’s post-World War II ethos. As a private setting, the backyard pool became a stage for sub-culture rituals and clandestine desires. As a medium, photography became the primary vehicle for embodying the polar emotions of consumer optimism and Cold War fears.” Sure that sounded serious, but we’re just talking swimming pools, c’mon, right? Well… turns out the water is deeper than it looks.
Anyone that knows me knows I need no excuse to hightail it for the high desert, and the meta moment from the I-love-my-job department that found me considering an exhibition about the charms and symbolism and cultural ubiquity of swimming pools along the LA-Palm Springs sunny superhighway, while reclining next to my very favorite swimming pool in the world, the one at the Hacienda Hot Springs. Some of the artists in the exhibition were to be staying there as well, all of us in from LA for the occasion. Like I said, meta. Art imitating life. Crisp blue waters evoking oases. The desert oasis as a metaphor for respite from unforgiving pressures. Yes, I’ll do it, what a great idea! I love my job!
What I did not expect, but which was a terrific surprise, is that the show would more than live up to the hype, turning out to be so much more than fun-time, blue-water, bikini-clad, eye candy. The sprawling, eclectic, and ultimately quite profound exhibition provides a multiplicity of ideas to consider. No empty calories here — maybe just a guilty pleasure or two. But in fact Senior Curator Daniell Cornell has more than succeeded in branching from the thematic through-line of the swimming pool in a way that transcends the theme. By the end, viewers have considered architecture, abstraction, landscape, candid snap shot, studied portrait, lifestyles of the rich and famous from several generations of celebrities, evolving fashions, social structure, aspiration, ruination — everything you could want for a serious examination of our culture in the second half of the 20th century. No wonder it’s in the extended Pacific Standard Time family! Perfect.
Presenting opportunities for architectural aspiration and consumerist self-expression, as well as genuine pleasure, the private backyard pools, more public but still private Raquet Club and posh hotel pools, and the pretty public though ostensibly private apartment complex pools make for a pageant of sociological backdrops against which to take the measure of the world. Always at the dramatic heart of the image is the “oasis” — but this iconography contains a multitude of meanings.
A few subcategories of narrative made for what were to my mind the most emotional and insightful moments — aka the ones that made me realize I was going to have to think about this, take it all quite seriously after all, whether or not I was rocking the deck chair. David Hockney was, naturally, well-represented, but there were also artists who photographed Hockney’s pools — who photographed them because they appeared in Hockney’s paintings and drawings. For some reason, I find this idea appealing and hilarious. Maybe because it both sends up the originals with their decadence and fancy sparkles — but at the same time, it reinforces the compelling visual character that inspired Hockney to portray them in his work; and with, it turns out, extreme accuracy.
Gorgeous movie stars in bathing suits really never gets old as a subject for photography. But the frequent appearance of celebrities in the work of a number of different artists in itself diverse. The best do something more than spy, they speak to. A depiction of Jayne Mansfield being as cute as pie; a friend of Richard Gere diving into the water in a strikingly modern and near-abstract composition; and Liberace having a playful romp with a “friend” in the most amazing bathing shorts — those are my favorites of the movie stars. Oh yeah, there are also heart-breakingly adorable, naturally sexy, wet, naked pictures of Marilyn Monroe frolicking in a pool for a night swim. Those are eternal.
The classics of architectural photography, especially Modernist wizards like Julius Shulman, are well represented and as cool as they always have been. Ed Ruscha’s early mini-masterpieces “9 Swimming Pools” are blown up on the wall; but I have to say, they looked much better in the small book form in which they originally appeared. However his presence in the show was a must, as his work was at that moment signaling a generational shift to a time in art and society that courted cypher and satire, or at least irony. Other artists working around that time and into the 1970s also addressed the encroaching darkness ahead in the American economy. It was arguably most expertly documented and presaged in the work of Los Angeles photographer and photographic historian Loretta Ayeroff. Her images of abandoned pools, decaying architecture, lonely waters, bleached paint, and dry-scaping feel stolen, captured, and vernacular — like she had to trespass to get them, always on the lookout like a person with an obsession. One imagines her sneaking into the backyards of strangers or abandoned properties, camera around her neck, just in case. Her gift for stark angles, found views, telling objects, rich color, and oppressive light speak of leave-taking, furtive escapes, and the unplanned neglect of what was once a place of pleasant luxury.
This and other divergent threads of inquiry pepper the show, with a surprise around every corner. A fine selection of Bruce of LA “physique” photos (aka hot guys in tiny trunks and loose loincloths) is a popular destination, and deservedly so. The counter-culture skateboard stuff is really fresh, representing for a genre that only recently started getting the attention and respect its influence deserves — and reminding viewers that pools aren’t always pretty — and sometimes an oasis is less about water than it is about freedom.
Loretta Ayeroff, Abandoned Pool, California Ruins, Perris Valley, 1974/printed 2011, Type R print from Kodachrome transparency, Courtesy of Loretta Ayeroff © 1974 Loretta Ayeroff
Herb Ritts, Richard Gere – Poolside, 1982, C-type print, Courtesy of the Herb Ritts Foundation, Los Angeles © Herb Ritts Foundation
Michael Childers, The Hockney Swimmer, 1978, C-type print, Courtesy of Michael Childers © Michael Childers
David Hockney, John St. Clair Swimming (from Twenty Photographic Pictures), 1972, c-type print from edition of 80, Sonnabend Collection, New York © David Hockney; photo credit Richard Schmidt
Lawrence Schiller, Marilyn Monroe, 1962/printed 2011, digital chromogenic print, Courtesy of Judith and Lawrence Schiller; Lawrence Schiller © Polaris Communications, Inc.