Ted VanCleave’s abstract, architectural
photographs of Los Angeles depict a fantastical, futuristic vision of
urban landscape. Forceful lines and curves of cement soar across skies
saturated with expressionistic colors. The vertiginous angles, blocks of
solid color, and disorienting geometry create a picture space wherein
solid forms become pure abstraction. Only an occasional reference to the
surrounding environment or the colors of the natural world remind us that
this is Los Angeles, a real place, as reinterpreted by VanCleave’s
It is not surprising that VanCleave’s background
is in painting. He has worked extensively with various mediums of paint as
well as pastels and mixed media. His affinity for bold color combining
attests to his years of experience working as an abstract painter.
VanCleave uses photography to selectively capture certain visual facts
that he then transforms according to his mind’s eye. Though Los Angles is
well known for its sun-drenched light and the magical colors of
Technicolor Hollywood, VanCleave depicts the city with a palette uniquely
his own. He uses an adventurous range of color to successfully make orange
skies and bright red skyscrapers seem a natural phenomenon within the
context of his overall vision.
VanCleave moved from painting to photography
because of the ease with which he could record visual elements from the
outside world. Photography is a natural extension of his vision across a
different medium, a rendering tool that allows him to quickly pull
information from his environment into a form that he can then manipulate
and expand into something almost entirely removed from its original
source. VanCleave has not painted since making the transition to
photography, and now creates are almost exclusively with his camera.
Structure: The Los Angles Series is an ongoing project that he has
been working on for the past year.
VanCleave has a complex relationship with Los
Angeles: he feels both positive and negative emotions for the city. He
grew up in rural Indiana and later lived in San Francisco. He moved to Los
Angeles five years ago and says he did not have an immediate affinity for
the city. “When I arrived in the Los Angeles I missed the beauty of San
Francisco and only saw the endless ugly strip malls and boring houses that
make up a large part of Los Angeles. Gradually I decided to seek out the
allure of Los Angeles and started taking notice of its hidden
architectural gems.” His work does not unconditionally glorify Los Angles
but instead uses images of the city as a template upon which he builds his
own vision of urban beauty.
While VanCleave’s interpretive vision of Los
Angeles is its own artistic fiction, the familiar qualities of Los Angles
are undeniably present in this series. The modernist architecture, the 50s
and 60s elements of design, and a certain soulless chill despite the
sunshine, are all qualities for which Los Angeles is well known. As
VanCleave remarks “It feels like a city of isolation, where you have to
drive everywhere and no one walks more than two blocks at a stretch. It is
the world’s largest suburb.”
Noticeably absent from the series is any
reference to a person or human form. As a result the buildings and
monumental forms appear much grander than human scale. VanCleave
emphasizes this disparity of scale with extreme perspectives and dizzying
angles. Some forms seem too heavy to be floating across the sky, too
powerful to have been created by man, and too strange to be functional.
The buildings take on a life of their own, like lumbering dinosaurs of
technology, suggesting that the urban environment that man has created may
someday consume him. Any hints of the natural world are dwarfed by their
sheer mass; diminutive trees and patches of sky recede in both perspective
and importance. What sky we can see, peeking though constrained passages
as a reminder of earth and atmosphere, has been transformed from its
natural blue to a range of artificially manipulated colors.
The lack of a human reference point also lends
itself to anthropomorphic readings of the abstracted buildings. Certain
structures take on personality traits, seeming to suggest emotions, and
even resemble parts of the human body. Configurations of walls, archways,
and flyovers can be interpreted as folded angles of the human torso. Some
buildings seem to speak out through enigmatic bits of crumbling text.
Others confront sinewy rows of California palm trees with a threatening
stance. Detached forms loom and arch through a futuristic-retro ghost town
illuminated by a post-apocalyptic range of surreal colors.
VanCleave does not consider himself an
architectural photographer. His goal is to find forms that inspire him,
that can provide the lines and mass he uses to spin off into abstraction.
He does not aim to portray the buildings at their finest, or to document
them in a realistic fashion. While he borrows the physical facts from
architecture for the structure in his photographs, many of the buildings
in his photographs would be unrecognizable to residents of Los Angeles.
Structure: The Los Angeles Series is not a documentary study of Los
Angeles’ architecture, but it is surely a vision of the city made by an
artist who has searched deeply for its visual essence. Perhaps this is the
same backdrop that, over 60 years ago, inspired author Ayn Rand to choose
architecture as the theme for her novel The Fountainhead. An
immigrant from Russia, Rand developed her vision of heroic individualism
amidst the modernist environs of Los Angeles. In a similar way Ted
VanCleave, who also arrived with the eyes of an outsider, has a take on
the city and architecture of Los Angeles that reflects both a personal
outlook and the cultural climate of his era.
Text by Heather Snider
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