While Owen Gump’s black and white photographs appear in the formal tradition of American landscape photography, his artistic strategy also incorporates elements of topographic and culture-historical analysis. The artist uses these techniques to investigate recent human interventions in landscapes, most of which are not recognizable as being man-made. This search for remnants of
human activity reveals Gump’s questioning of sociologically motivated transformations of nature, while also jogging our cultural perceptions by presenting landscape as the materialisation of memory.
The photographs in the exhibition were made last year on the former Spahn Movie Ranch in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. From the 1940s to the 1960s, this area served as a filming location for numerous Western-themed television and movie productions. From August 1968 to January 1969, the property was also the residence of Charles Manson and his followers before being destroyed by wildfire in 1970.
Consisting of both single photographs and diptychs, this recent body of work includes close-up shots of boulders that appear to stand like silent, contemporary witnesses in addition to wider views of paths, vegetation and scrubby desert hillsides dotted with rock formations. While the area’s former use as a movie ranch is barely recognizable – the buildings are gone and the roads overgrown – the photographs show the expansion of suburban Los Angeles and its uncontrolled sprawl into the surrounding country. Once a site for projection and the construction of collective desires, anxieties, illusions and histories – of a symbolic landscape now part of our cultural knowledge, simultaneously real and unreal – the place now has lost its function as a heterotopia. Today, Spahn Ranch simply mirrors the structural change of the region and not the unconscious visions and desires of the region’s inhabitants. It would appear that Charles Manson’s appropriation of a movie ranch had already foreshadowed
reality catching up with utopia: even if for him the ranch was a place of self-presentation and a means to materialise his heinous visions, his crimes marked the end of the 1960s insofar as these years stood for an idealistic time of peace and freedom.
Owen Gump’s diptychs re-open this lost heterotopic space. Framed together in one frame, the diptychs in their form are reminiscent of double-page spreads in an illustrated book. They combine two images that are indeterminately similar. There are pairs consisting of a tree and a hillside, of two paths, scrublands or of two rocks; each appearing as a wrong reflection of the other, similar and dissimilar at the same time like non-identical doppelgangers. Other combinations reveal a gap: the viewer anticipates a coherent view but a missing part fails to complete the imagined picture. This fracture mirrors man’s intervention in a pristine landscape where traces of his intervention remain like scars even after his departure, while simultaneously opening new spaces for association within the viewer’s mind.