Caves of forgotten dreams

Brice Bischoff's "Cave X" and Colin Christy's "Wild and Scenic" turn the outside inward

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Intimate exteriorities at Colin Christy's "Wild and Scenic" non-earthwork earthwork
PHOTO COURTESY OF SWARM GALLERY

arts@sfbg.com

HAIRY EYEBALL If you follow Canyon Drive from Hollywood Boulevard all the way up into the hilly territory of Los Angeles' Griffith Park, you'll reach a cul-de-sac. Beyond that, accessible by foot, is a small stone bridge which leads to a dirt trail that eventually lets you out in what's known as Bronson Valley. This is where you'll find the Bronson Caves.

Even if you've never visited the caves in person, you've probably at least seen them: they've been used in countless motion pictures and television shows. One of the mouths served as the exterior shot for the Bat Cave in the original '60s Batman TV series. Natalie Wood's long lost Little Debbie is discovered in one of the caves in 1956 flick The Searchers. The caves also make cameos in plenty of schlocky, B-grade sci-fi and fantasy cheese of both classic (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) and more recent (The Scorpion King, 2002) vintage.

Given their status as one of the film industry's leading landscape doubles, it's only fitting that the caves aren't actually caves. There's nothing natural about them: they're all that remains of an early 1900s quarrying operation to supply stone with which to pave the streets of a rapidly-growing LA. On a clear day, from the other side of one of the tunnels, you can get a seemingly eye level view of the Hollywood sign.

This long history of artifice amid geologic permanence is both everywhere and nowhere in Brice Bischoff's series of large-scale C-prints of the Bronson Caves currently hanging at Johansson Projects. The caves are the photographs' crispest formal feature, although it's the dazzling and seemingly supernatural rainbow-hued blurs within and near them that first catch your eye.

The colorful shapes — which vary in form from blasts of light to smoky wisps — evoke both the caves' history as a site for staged close encounters of the third kind, as well as nineteenth century spirit photography. They're also simply beautiful to look at. Their origin, however, is more mundane: wearing raggedy costumes made from colored paper, Bischoff gestures before his stationary camera using the space of the caves to suggest a course of movement. The time lapse captured by the camera's long exposure renders his presence ghostly while setting into relief the surrounding rocky proscenium, although the artist never disappears entirely. (In one photograph, there is the suggestion of a human form wrapped in the Jamaican flag.)

Even though Bischoff's presence before the camera is required to create each image, his photographs are the opposite of performance documentation. Rather, they are formally and thematically similar to Hiroshi Sugimoto's ghostly black and white portraits of old movie palaces, for which the photographer left his exposure open for the duration of a projected feature so that the screen appears as a glowing white light that illuminates the ornate architectural decor around it. So to do Bischoff's photographs collate an accretion of instances which, individually, are less important than the location in which they've occurred. They bring to the fore a history which, at 24 frames per second, has always been relegated to the background.

The Bronson Caves aren't the only natural feature on display in this exhibit organized around California landscapes. Tabitha Soren's carbon pigment prints that combine crashing Pacific waves into vertiginous tsunamis and Ellen Black's videos of doctored beach-scapes and mating snakes pack plenty of visual punch but lack the elegant conceptual underpinnings of Bischoff's series.

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