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DONALD WOODMAN

December 15, 2005 - January 22, 2006 at OCCCA, Orange County

by Daniela Walsh




From the series “Rodeo and West,”
photograph, 43 1/2 x 57".











From the series “Rodeo and West,”
photograph, 43 1/2 x 57".












From the series “The Therapist,”
2001, photograph.












From the series “The Therapist,”
2001, photograph.
“Food 4 Less” says the sign topping the metal shed of a grocery store recycling center, where yet another sign exhorts people to “do more than recycle.” Exactly what one must do becomes at once clear and vexing, given that in the foreground the image of a surprisingly well-dressed homeless man sprawled next to an overturned shopping cart commandeers viewers’ attention. If a picture speaks a thousand words, photographer Donald Woodman is an eloquent narrator indeed. But, to his credit, he can also be equally compelling with just a spare image worth a sentence.

Woodman primarily makes black and white photographs, yet for the sake of telling a story, he will use color and/or any technical advancement, including the digital alchemy of computer enhancement, so as to make a point. This becomes apparent in a hazy shot, rendered in sickly brownish-orange hues, of the crowd packing a food court that could be Any City, USA. As one juxtaposes this image of perhaps thousands filling their bellies with pre-manufactured fast food set alongside the one of the passed out homeless man, one gets the impression that Woodman is an artist and photojournalist who does not mince “words.”

His skill as a chronicler of the travails of man and beast is well evidenced in the series titled “The Rodeo and the West.” Take the black and white image of a small calf roped and ready to die from exhaustion after having provided sport for those quintessential American heroes--cowboys and the countless wannabes that flock to such events. The subjects of such images may not seem related to a you personally, but in the context of Woodman’s obvious social consciousness and resulting body of work, they certainly feel that way.

Woodman further exposes to us insights into a man’s (presumably his) psyche in the series titled “The Therapist,” a grouping of multi-layered images that suggest a symbiotic relationship between therapist and patient. Anyone who has ever undergone therapy and heard nothing but “ahem” will relate to Woodman’s shot of a therapist listening to his patient with apparent detachment. The anonymous patient is represented by a close-up shot of a sneaker-clad foot, and the therapist’s state of detachment by his half-closed eyes that are partially obscured by the reflection of his glasses. The most revealing photograph in the series shows multiple images of the therapist’s face superimposed on each other while he, clearly uncomfortable, adjusts his tie. Such is the business of probing into others’ souls.

Such psychological probing will not surprise those who know that Woodman is married to the iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago, who has devoted much of her own art to analyses of the human/female condition. But this alliance aside, it is clear that Woodman is an artist of ideas first and foremost. He drives his concept by sticking to straightforward technique, avoiding gimmickry for the sake of novelty or effect.

As the title of the exhibition, “Photography in Transition” implies, the transitory nature of Woodman’s work lies both in its tiered content, as chronicled so effectively in “The Therapist,” and in various techniques used to layer images so as to approximate the passage of time or the processes of thought. His images range from depicting fleeting and ephemeral moments, to narrative shots whose content says it all, such as in the close-up of a young couple advertising their yen for pornography and Hustler magazine (from the series “Harbinger of Which Future.”).

The show combines all the virtues of good photojournalism with uncontrived artistry. Woodman’s preoccupation with social causes is an honest personal expression that does not require approval or rejection to validate the work’s aesthetic merits.