Oil Is History, photographs by Horace Bristol and Louise Marler. At the East/West Gallery, through September 10.
Reviewed by Brett Leigh Dicks In drawing together a series of nostalgic black-and-white photographic prints from the archives of Horace Bristol and a selection of more contemporary color offerings by Louise Marler, the East/West Gallery presents two distinct photographic treatments that reflect on the decline of fossil fuel. Presented by Energy Independence Now, Oil Is History is the inaugural exhibition for this emerging Eastside gallery. The gallery has carefully culled Horace Bristol’s broad visual legacy to present a historical examination of the oil industry in its heyday. In ironic contrast to the energy crisis we currently find ourselves in, Bristol’s classical approach to his subject projects an innocent romanticism.
The intensity of Bristol’s work resides in its reflective beauty. In one image, a line of wooden oil derricks traces the path of the railway line through Carpinteria. The vigor of this image magnificently captures the inherent enthusiasm associated with the tapping of what, in 1933, seemed like an endless resource. In Bristol’s world, wooden towers rise silhouetted against the sky, jetties and platforms stand astride a caressing sea, and reflections embrace an oil sump. These venerable offerings stand as powerful symbols to an age that is now passing away before our very eyes. The photographer’s graceful vision is further enhanced by its implementation. Deep shadows and piercing highlights characterized the printed execution, bringing a sense of otherworldliness to Bristol’s work.
In Louise Marler’s contemporary vision of the world of oil, derelict automobiles lay in various states of rusty decay. The subtle tonal range of her color prints gorgeously captures the essence of what were once bastions of progress and fashion. These marooned beasts now lie in desolate waste. Cars that were once revered classics are now neglected relics. While the images themselves are beautifully seen and executed, for this viewer, their elaborate framing overwhelms the prints.
Such an approach to presentation might have worked in another setting but, in conjunction with the poignant starkness of Bristol’s elegantly presented work, Marler’s contributions come off as somewhat kitschy. Adjacent to the show there are other photos by Horace Bristol. One of the real treasures from this selection is an image of a scuffle from within a Japanese Shinto Shrine. A mass of entwined bodies in blurred skirmish aptly conveys a sense of overwhelming chaos. With the promise of a greater exploration of Bristol’s considerable visual legacy in a pending exhibition, one senses this stylish gallery space will quickly prove itself a Santa Barbara staple.