‘Boundaries of interpretation’

Two photographers with two different subjects convene at new Avenue 9 Gallery exhibit

DUELING CAMERAS Photographers Ann Mitchell, left, and Susan Phillips take on two very different subjects.

DUELING CAMERAS Photographers Ann Mitchell, left, and Susan Phillips take on two very different subjects.

Photo By Tom Angel

Breaking and entering might be one theme that binds together the works of Ann Mitchell and Susan Phillips in their debut collaboration, Gardens & Graffiti. In Mitchell’s case, it was a necessary first step in her exploration of abandoned Los Angeles estates; for Phillips, it involved gaining acceptance into L.A. gangland territory.

Beyond that, the combination of these two worlds may seem incongruous. But to their mothers, Maria Phillips and Dolores Mitchell, the curators of Chico’s Avenue 9 Gallery, the partnership made perfect sense.

“To me, it just sounded like the most logical thing in the world, that there should be a show that combines gardens and graffiti. … Because it seemed to me that a garden and an urban landscape is a ground for human activity,” explains Maria Phillips, the mother of Susan, during a round-table discussion with the artists at the Gallery. “To me, the idea of the garden is something that grows and flowers and blooms and gives the human experience a natural form. And I see this graffiti, and the landscape where the graffiti grows, as much the same thing.”

On the garden side, Ann Mitchell’s photographs evoke the feeling of just having woken from an afternoon nap in the park: bits and pieces in focus, trees and earth bathed in a warm sepia glow. Her 12 images in this show were taken at the secluded Val Verde estate in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, one of the landmark designs of landscape architect Lockwood de Forest Jr.

In “Banyon Trees and Rake,” only a slice of the view shows crisp detail, and the titular rake is the sole evidence of human life. With “Master Bedroom (Bunny and Warren),” a shot taken inside the estate’s six-bedroom house, a large bed with a velvet headboard exudes a vague, unpleasant dustiness. Framed pictures of the deceased flank the bed on nightstands.

Mitchell’s work with gardens grew from a weariness of working for years in commercial photography. “When you’re doing studio photography, you spend 10 to 12 hours on a burger. And it’s not even edible.” Currently the head of the Long Beach City College Art and Photography Department, she moved away from the studio and started shooting architecture in Los Angeles, deserted structures that had begun the process of decay.

“Inside I’m really struck that these people are gone, they’re dead. As much as they had, during their life, it all comes down to the same thing, at the end: what’s left.”

This idea of examining the remnants of human activity also resonates with Susan Phillips, an anthropologist who uses her camera to delve into the meanings behind gang graffiti.

“It was a natural bridge for me to use photography as an entràe into gang culture, and it became part of how I connected with people and got some of my fieldwork done.”

Phillips, who heads the Center for California Cultural and Social Issues at Pitzer College, in Claremont, chose 15 color prints dealing with gang and hip-hop graffiti and tattoos taken from her book Wallbangin', Graffiti and Gangs in L.A.

In “Leo and Trigger: Perdóname Madre por mi Vida Loca,” the hands of an unseen person protectively cup the main figure’s eyes to hide his identity as he displays a chest tattoo of praying hands laced with words in Spanish. And in “Edgar Running,” a little boy speeds past what seems to be the number “29” in 8-foot-high letters. Although, of course, that isn’t really clear—like most of the written art, the words, let alone meanings, are difficult to decipher.

“There’s an intentionality that they want to be separate,” emphasizes Phillips. Whereas Mitchell’s work documents the isolation of the very rich, the graffiti of gang culture seems to say, “If you’re going to exclude us, we’re going to exclude you as well.”

“There may not be boundaries of walls and gates and entrances, but there are boundaries of interpretation," explains Phillips. "They are excluding you on purpose."