Jessica Lange: unseen, is on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts until May 19, 1649 El Prado, San Diego, 619-238-7559; mopa.org
Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges have two things in common, photography and King Kong. My favorite Lange movie is Blue Sky, where she plays the self-involved, sexually restless Army wife of Tommy Lee Jones. Jeff Bridges is so steady that it’s hard to name one stand-out performance, though his sweet-and-sour roles in The Fabulous Baker Boys and American Hero are peerless, and let us not forget the dizzed jauntiness of the Dude.
Lange’s first role was the damsel in the 1976 remake of King Kong, Bridges playing opposite her. It’s memorable now only for its substitution of the World Trade Center Towers for the Empire State Building. After being displayed in a hideous public performance, Kong breaks loose on a rampage to find the fair Dwan (Lange), who is being protected by the paleontologist Prescott (Bridges). Kong heads to Lower Manhattan because it reminds him of his habitat on Skull Island, and the towers let the filmmakers stage a new kind of action: instead of clinging like a steeplejack to the Empire State spire, swatting airplanes, the newer, bigger Kong leaps from one tower to the other, though the original posters showed him straddling them, which never happens.
The bit of trivia useful to me here is that the tender, exquisite Lange (poor Kong didn’t stand a chance) and Bridges (looking, as actors do when playing scientists, like a squeal toy) are also serious photographers. Several years ago, the Museum of Photographic Arts hosted a traveling exhibition of Bridges’s pictures, all taken on movie sets. Now MOPA is showing a selection of Lange’s work, which gives no clue that its author works in movies. Bridges’s images have a Gee-wow-look-it! enthusiasm for the mechanical magic of the movies. Lange’s have nothing to do with cinema, they’re more recondite and discrete; they make us aware that she’s trying to find and show us something in a self-consciously artful way.
The first thing you notice in Lange’s photographs is the quality and positioning of light. Bridges’s images are high-gloss and transparent, Lange’s are blotty, opaque, and congested with darkness. She can turn light into a substance. A stone statue sitting atop a grave in a Roman cemetery has lost its head, but the white light that strikes the sheared-off plane looks like milky matter rising from within. A woman sitting in a church pew in Finland is nearly washed out by bleachy sunlight falling through a huge clerestory vault; it’s a slightly shopworn moment of enlightenment except for the arresting warp in the scene: the revenant — a faint outline of a human figure on the wall beneath the window.
Lange likes abraded, roughed-up textures. Some pictures look as if they’ve been rubbed with ground-up graphite. She often shoots (with a film-loading Leica) at low speeds in available light, so the contents of any image may look imperfectly defined. She’s absolutely at ease with ambiguity. Her whites have a lot of gray stirred in, her blacks are ashy, and her textures are granulated, open-pored, or pebbled. You want to run your hand across the paper to feel the uneven surfaces. As if to contribute to their unfinished, raw look, she exhibits the uncropped images so that the paper edges show. I respect the purity of intent: the edges become part of the dramatic irregularity of her work. But the effect also pulls the pictures toward an affectation of artlessness. She says her pictures are simply acts of seeing and that confronting those acts is all she requires of us, and therefore, the exhibited images have no identifying labels. It gives the pictures a literary, “thing itself” aura that feels to me unnecessarily coy, though I know coyness isn’t the intent.
Lange’s imagery isn’t documentary. Her model is Robert Frank, and, like him, she wants to find in reality’s visual stream an unscripted jolt of feeling and awareness. Technically she borrows from Frank’s penumbral moodiness, and her work has his kind of cultivated imperfection: point of view is often angular; the contents aren’t crisp and determined but smoky and amorphous; and very few pictures are posed. When her technical boldness and emotional readiness are really cooking, Lange is capable of amazing instants. In her most exciting image, shot from a sidewalk, a pit bull’s snaggle-toothed muzzle leans over the edge of a roof, framed by phone wires. The dog’s terrifying, looming presence has an indefinably mythic force: it’s an image of a menacing, inescapable “watcher.”
Lange loves motion and mysterious activity; the open-grained wash and blur of action make her images seem anxious, impatient to catch the world as it moves around and past us. She’s attracted by spectacles and entertainments, and she has an unquestioning respect for the strange, the inexplicable, the uncanny. In my favorite photo, a rickety amusement-park ride — a Tilt-a-Whirl, I think — lurks in a blustery chaos of smeared and jiggling lights: the ride’s attendant is running past as if panicked. It’s an image of manic life and dramatizes a world tipsy with energy. She also has a keen feeling for children and social ritual. In one unsettling image, a young girl solemnly holds in her extended arms, like an offering, a snake. (She looks like a priestess trainee.) In another, two young lovers lie in the grass as if in a movie romance, watched over by a sign: CHERRY CHILL. The slyest, most sensuous picture is a detail of a woman’s foot slipping into a shoe: the sensuousness is sharpened by the elided contours and misted definition, and the instant seems one brief bit in an unfinished narrative.
She also has a special feeling for the blending of sacred and profane and has made an interesting essay on an annual festival in Chiapas that celebrates the so-called Nameless Days. In the Mayan calendar, a year is 360 days long; the 5 leftover, nameless days (called also the Lost Days), are considered an unstable, unlucky time: the world goes topsy-turvy, the spirit world abruptly intrudes on familiar daily reality, and dire underworld spirits menace normal life. In observance of this fateful time, some people stay shut in their houses, some don’t bathe or wash their hair, and no one dares commence a new enterprise. Lange’s images show us celebrants dressed as monkeys and wolves; some wear animal-skeleton costumes; some cross-dress. A picture of a wolf-human clutching a baby doll stopped me with its comic dread. Mexico has inspired Lange’s best work. Another series features the folks and entertainments (like that Tilt-a-Whirl) of a traveling carnival: shy, young dancing girls in tacky costumes; locals gathered around a game of chance; and an empty, acidly lit old-style shooting gallery that looks like a sad, abandoned movie set.
The Nameless Days is one kind of ceremonial. A village dance night outdoors is another, and Lange’s pictures of older couples dancing are a delicate, sober study of the life of the affections. These 60-somethings still use dance as an instrument of romance and intimacy. And to see them really clearly you have to get intimate with them, with the pictures, I mean, because they don’t snap into focus unless we get right up on top of them. It matters that they are all older people. Once on top of them, you feel human and pictorial energy as one bundle of sensation. Lange, in effect, is using her camera to draw us close enough to join the dance of time passing. ■