(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
At the opening of J. John Priola’s last show, visitors had to cross a bridge spanning a pool of blood in order to arrive at the central chamber of a giant heart. His theatrical photo-narrative exhibitions have caused sensations in venues like SF Camerawork, Vorpal Gallery, and the San Francisco Art Institute. Moving from splashes of color to lavishly upholstered environments, Priola has now arrived at an exploration of abstract landscapes of numbers and facts about the social body. On the eve of his new group show at New Langton Arts, Priola traces the pattern of his most recent orchestrations.
Elliott Linwood: Your previous work involved grand-scale objects – large photos with aspects of yourself intermingled with lush, controlled room settings. How has your work evolved, is it still as theatrical?
John Priola: When I first discovered photography I did self-portraits, trying every way to use myself in my work. In graduate school this approach was compared to Cindy Sherman’s, except multiple-gendered characters in my large pictures were played by me. In these split-negative images, I played with male and female senses of power and role reversals. I combined Jungian theories on anima, as well as classical paintings, to make my own Sacred and Profane Love, The Birth of Venus, and others, applying my face to every figure. These were a lot of fun because I got to be putas and cherubs.
My work kept getting bigger and bigger, therefore my work space became smaller and smaller. The water shortage and concerns about photographic pollutants made me want to print smaller too. Out of these practical issues came a really interesting format for me. Now my images are much smaller and related to the intimacy of the photograph, which attains the emotional proximity I want.
In your earlier work the audience sometimes had to draw back a curtain to view it. It seems the recent work has less entertainment value and more punch in terms of cyclically implicating the viewer’s sense of recognition and guilt.
There is a strong sense of discovery in the smaller image, even thought there’s less in the frame. You somehow get to look at it more and it often has more information in examining it.
What are the pictures of now?
Many deal with AIDS right now, as well as personal, intimate relationships. The work deals with self-evaluation, but I think more subconsciously than when I used my body in the construction of the image. In fact, I’ve removed people from the frame. Its’ gotten more symbolic, but I’m still working from art history. Much of the text and poems I’m using tend to be anonymous writing from the turn of the century. There’s sadness and anger in the work, but it isn’t aimed at any one entity or faction; it’s a more complex combination of the personal with the political.
How would you typify the larger works in this regard?
They were outwardly angrier. I felt like I learned as much from them as the audience did. For instance, even thought the gender assignments of power were ambiguous, they reminded me of a David Lynch style of unattractive power, where everybody’s power is somewhat abusive and un-redeeming, with no heroes, just dictators.
Do your photo installations still occupy entire rooms?
The show at New Langton is a group show where every artist will have their own room to play with. Mine is a 6’ x 8’ room upholstered in a condom-like, skin-textured latex. I don’t have formal theater or set design training, but you’ll see that drama is an ultimate concern for me. Skin-like imperfections and heavy latex smell are used to create a safe environment. Every surface in this room – floor, ceiling, walls – will be covered in a semi-permeable, breathable membrane. This half-stagnant affect should be very mind provoking, not just along the lines of how horrible this life-threatening disease is, but more how you related to it.
I don’t point fingers or provide answers. I want the audience to go through the process of translating these issues for themselves. I do art to communicate some of the feelings involved in taking responsibility for processing this stuff – where it is nearly impossible to point to a single solution in a situation that affects everyone in very complicated ways.
Another strategy I use along with the reclamation of anonymous texts is the use of plant symbols that resonate for me – like honeysuckle to represent the bonds of love. Other pieces show objects that are grossly mediated, like the photo of a third generation electro-micrograph scan of a body substance. Where is the objected located in this continuum? These combinations map personal relationships to overtly political issues.
I saw recently at the L.A. County Museum a huge 50” x 60” photo, displayed shortly after the riots, but commissioned earlier to capture the essence of Los Angeles. This photo showed a typical intersection with street signs, and was titled by the street address. It happened to be the very site where Rodney King was beaten. The only way you’d know that is by someone telling you this fact. Although the photograph isn’t on display anymore, it is still functioning through a very active process of story telling and the descriptions this process generates. The hear of this piece probably lies in the act of translation.
What’s the name of your installation at New Langton?
“501,272” which is the worldwide estimate, however arbitrarily that figure is derived, of the number of AIDS cases as of August 1, 1992. I’m trying to translate this.