The Prescient Politics of a Seminal Conceptual Photographer

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The Prescient Politics of a Seminal Conceptual Photographer

LOS ANGELES — In a press release for a past exhibition in Berlin, Phel Steinmetz described himself as “interested but not as committed to” political and social issues as his colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, a cohort that included seminal conceptual photographers Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, and Fred Lonidier. Steinmetz, who was a professor at UCSD from 1971 to 2011, taught all three before they joined him as faculty. 

While the best-known works by the other artists examine labor, politics, and war, often with a Marxist bent, Steinmetz took a broader lens to culture and nature, and their inexorable collision. Now, nearly a decade after his death in 2013, his attention to the effects of capitalism on the environment can be recognized as both political and prescient. Phel Steinmetz, the artist’s second show at Michael Benevento, takes a light-handed approach in positing the continuing, and even increasing, relevance of the artist’s work, which has often been overshadowed by that of his peers. 

Phel Steinmetz, “Early one smoggy morning” (1976), silver gelatin photo collage and ink mounted on matte board, 8 x 19.5 inches
Phel Steinmetz, “Untitled (Bicentennial)” (1970), silver gelatin prints, 8.25 x 10.25 inches each

The exhibition’s loosely chronological arrangement of photographs and photo-collages from 1970 to 1997 maps the evolution of his work and the aesthetic and thematic threads that connect it. The series A Few Choice Words, one of three works from 1970, starts the show on a pedantic note: redacted ads for a Time-Life photography book series are juxtaposed with the redacted text, all generic ad copy. If nothing else, they show Steinmetz finding his footing through cultural theory. (A 1973 self-portrait of Steinmetz reading Barthes, included in his 2018 show at the gallery, would be a clever complement.) 

“He No Longer Felt Comfortable in Competitive Situations,” from 1970, also layers text and image: two feet clad in white socks straddle a pair of dirty Adidas gym shoes, enclosing them like parenthesis, above the title’s text. Yet, despite the nondescript subject matter, its quizzical character and formal elegance are early signs of the subtle humor, intelligence, and sheer velvety richness that would come to characterize his photographs, even as he homed in on the quotidian and mundane.

Phel Steinmetz, from the series Public Utterances (1979), silver gelatin print, 11 x 14 inches
Phel Steinmetz, from the series The Malls (1973/75), 12 mounted prints on board, 7 x 9.5 inches each

On the opposite wall, the diptych “Early one smoggy morning” (1976) pairs a stretch of tree-lined road with a TV set announcing Gerald Ford’s presidential candidacy. Together, the two works outline the exhibition’s overarching motifs: Steinmetz’s talent for producing nuanced exposition through shrewd compositions and unremarkable snippets of American culture, the latter exemplified by the 1979 series Public Utterances — photos of bumper stickers on cars, with slogans that range from the patriotic and conservative to the pacifist and subversive (i.e., “America, you look better than ever”; “Don’t Vote! It only encourages them”; “Unborn babies are people”; “No Nukes”).

The relationship between culture and the environment becomes more pointed in three untitled photographic works that he worked on from 1970 to ’80: for instance, in “Untitled (Development Site),” composed of two black and white prints sutured at the center, a pair of tire tracks from a tractor silhouetted on the horizon snakes up the center of the image, bisecting a field of what looks like a stretch of lifeless desert. Dating from the moment that the United States was transitioning from Jimmy Carter’s soft liberalism to Ronald Reagan’s hard-right politics, these three works encapsulate the country’s changing cultural landscape — particularly in “Untitled (Parking Cross),” whose titular cross, designating a parking space, can be viewed as a ground-level “X marks the spot” for the convergence of predatory capitalism and fundamentalist evangelicalism. This confluence of economic imperialism and conservative Christianity, cast as a kind of invasive species on the natural landscape, also marks a starting point for the US that leads, catastrophically, to today.

Phel Steinmetz, “Untitled (Parking Cross)” (1970-1980), silver gelatin prints mounted on matte board and hinged, 12 5/8 x 9.75 inches

Two 1990s photo collages in the last room (the show’s only color works) expand on the compositional experiments and environmental themes that Steinmetz invokes in his earlier images, but here they come across as less evidentiary than elegiac. In “Grass and Pines Stonewall Peak, Cuyamaca” (1991), four photos piece together a portrait of verdant nature in the mountains east of San Diego. More than in the 1970-80 collages, the black edges of the overlapping frames and slight tilt of the prints, resulting in minor misalignments, emphasize the photographic object as much as the imagery. 

In this way, the piece calls attention to the scene as a moment in the past. In a sense, it’s a melancholic way to end. But Steinmetz approaches the pristine landscape gently and reassembles its photographic fragments with utmost care — a precarious balance that becomes a statement of its own.

Phel Steinmetz, “Grass and Pines Stonewall Peak, Cuyamaca” (1991), photo collage of 4 chromogenic prints mounted on matte board, 15.5 x 37 inches

Phel Steinmetz continues at Michael Benevento (3712 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, California) through April 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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