WINDOWS AND LENSES: The Photography of Osceola Refetoff
By Betty Ann Brown
(a reproduction of the article follows below)
To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.
Coagula Art Journal – Fall 2016 – THIS WEB PAGE IS A REPRODUCTION OF THE STORY
A desert horizon shimmers below a cerulean sky.
The rotting innards of an abandoned building are seen through broken window above a dirty kitchen sink.
Blue mountains hover over a dusty desert garden.
Silvery creosote limbs punctuate a skyline that is glimpsed through a cracked turquoise wall (below).
Osceola Refetoff photographs the traces we humans leave on the surface of the planet. He captures remnants of our fleeting existence: the buildings, farms, gardens, and roadways that mark our passages through history. Originally trained as a filmmaker (he earned an MFA from NYU's prestigious Film School), Refetoff is very aware that the mythic narratives of cinema dominate many of our cultural perceptions. But instead of creating images that unfold over time (as film does), this artist has chosen to isolate pictorial moments that insist on quiet contemplation and reward viewers with the potential for shifted perception.
Refetoff's photographs are often shot through windows, from the windows of long abandoned homes in the Mojave Desert or the windshield on his car as he drives the ubiquitous freeways of California or the tiny windows that punctuate the metal bodies of immense aircraft. With a nod to the Modernist prerogative of flattened space contained within concentric grids, he allows the photographed window to function as one structural device, with the edge of the photograph as another, and the wooden frame of the artwork as a third.
Indeed, Refetoff's photographs conflate two aesthetic paradigms. One is Modernism's abstracted model of artwork as rectangle or grid. The other is realistic, based on the Renaissance concept of artwork as a window into an ideal world that functions with the same physical laws as ours. The conflicts between the flattened abstraction of Modernist screen and the implied spatial depth of Renaissance realist imagery create rich, visual tensions that activate the otherwise mute surfaces of the photographs. Shuttling between two ways of "seeing" the image, we are propelled into multiple interpretive responses: Should we read this as a formal exercise in rectilinear geometry? Or is content the priority: Is it "straight" documentary photography? As Armenian author Michael Arlen (Dikron Kouyoumdijan) reminds us, "One of the most visible lessons taught by the twentieth century has been the existence, not so much of a number of different realities, but of a number of different lenses with which to see the same reality." Coming to artistic maturity in the late twentieth century, Refetoff reifies the resonant nature of multiple lenses in his single-lens work.
There are several series that interrogate the window/lens allusions in Refetoff's oeuvre. The first, Desert Windows contains images seen through the often broken and always severely distressed windows of homes abandoned in the California desert. The austere landscapes of steaming sand, stones, and cacti are transformed by the distancing affect of their dehiscent windows into elegant biomorphic patterns. A second series, Flirting with Disaster, is comprised of photographs taken out car windows as the artist races along California highways. Blacktopped lanes unfold into an uncertain future crowned by the lace of white clouds. A third series, Armchair in the Sky, is taken out of airplane windows. In each case, the tip of an airplane wing cuts into the distant view of mountains and valleys and cityscapes, like a knife slicing the air that hangs near the surface of the planet.
Refetoff also photographs the architecture that punctuates desert horizons. In every case, there is a heightened sense of the layers of space as well as the way photography flattens and abstracts that space. Consider two examples from the artist's Dust to Dust series. One is a pristine white church with a small wooden cross at the point of its steeply pitched roof (below). It is a black and white photograph with one wall of the church bleached white by the harsh sun, the other fading into gray shadow. The two rectangles are turned into sloping quadrilaterals by the receding illusion of perspective. Behind the church is a deep black sky. White-gray-black: the photograph is a study in subtle tonal variation as it moves across minimal form.
A second church, from the same series, eschews diagonals in favor of a clear, flat rectangle parallel to the picture plane. A door and a large window pierce the pale facade. A tall wooden cross totters above the roofline, reaching heavenward like a diagram of existence, with the vertical line pointing heavenly, the horizontal remaining earth-bound. Particularly this second church recalls the Depression era photographs of Walker Evans, done for the Farm Security Administration.
Further, Refetoff photographs people. There is a familiarity and ease in his portraits that make viewers imagine that the artist has become a sincere friend of the subjects of his photographs. Tattoo-covered friends wrap their arms around each other and smile gently at the camera. Chinese children perform their face-painted and costumed characters. A little girl in a too-big cowboy hat holds her brown dog like an over-large baby doll. Two young women lean over a fence in Equatorial Guinea: One has bright red hair; the other glances knowingly at her friend, a sly grin on her happy face (below). Three hippie dudes leap into the air in Moro Bay. One has a walking stick, the other (presumably the youngest) twists a skateboard. All of them wear jeans and jackets and funky hats.
In each case, we learn something about the human condition. Refetoff erects [photographic] screens for our viewing. He makes sure there is just the right balance between the comfortable to seduce us, and the unknown to fascinate and perhaps change us. As with all good artists, Refetoff pleases us aesthetically even as he challenges us conceptually.
American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that, "Other men are lenses though which we read our own minds." Osceola Refetoff's photographs embody multiple lenses for us to "read our own minds" in multiple ways.
Betty Ann Brown is an art historian, critic, and curator. She has curated major exhibitions, including retrospectives for Hans Burkhardt, Roland Reiss, Susan Feldman, Linda Vallejo, June Wayne, and John White; and themed exhibitions addressing alternative families, gun violence, and environmental issues (Osceola's work will appear in GUNS at the The Loft at Liz's in Los Angeles, Sept 24-Oct 28th, 2016). Her books include Expanding Circles: Women, Art & Community (1996); Gradiva’s Mirror: Reflections on Women, Surrealism & Art History (2002); the online textbook Art & Mass Media (2005); Hero, Madman, Criminal, Victim: The Artist in Film & Fiction (2009); and Afternoons with June: Stories of June Wayne’s Art & Life (2012).
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