A great crowd, last night, at the Soka University Art Gallery for the opening of Laguna Beach-based artist Mark Chamberlain's "Reflections of an Armchair Arteologist"--a retrospective that covers several decades of his work. It's a fine celebration of a long career dedicated not only to the art of the camera--his principal medium--but also to large-scale murals and installations, works in collage and assemblage, and collaborative works involving not only his associate, Jerry Burchfield but also, in one notable instance, an entire community.
"Arteologist" is Chamberlain's neat neologism, which aptly describes the way he works. His curious eye impels him to "dig" with his camera into the reality that surrounds him, whether natural or cultural. Acutely aware of the passage of time, his pictures seek passionately to preserve momentary events before they are gone, to mark the occasion of their passing, or sometimes to draw attention to their transition as they wither and die. He is fascinated by "Fossils"--the title of a long series of photographs which document, with sometimes ironic amusement and sometimes gentle sadness, the phenomena that characterize this moment of our American civilization--a gas station, a neon sign, a billboard--with the wise understanding that they are very soon, in the great sweep of time, destined to be things of the past.
Finding the beauty in everyday reality, Chamberlain brings his meticulous craftsmanship to the creation of images that convey that reality in its smallest, most intimate detail. His pictures engage us not only in the phenomena his keen eye selects, but in the enduring mystery of their presence in the world. In his assemblage work--not widely represented in this exhibition--that same fascination with the mystery and temporality of objects leads him to extricate them from their original, mostly superannuated context, and invent for them a new, often whimsical new life in art.
It's this same embrace of the world's reality, I believe, that leads this artist to his broader concerns for the natural environment and for a more harmonious co-existence with the planet. He has been a fierce leader in the defense of the natural surroundings of the small jewel of a city in Southern California where he has lived and worked for many years, against the predatory assaults of suburban developments and the highways built to service them. Included in the exhibition is extensive documentation of The Tell ...
... a huge collaborative photomural project built in part as a community statement in defense of the Laguna Canyon, against plans for yet another new Orange County housing tract. Long protected from all the suburban sprawl by its "green belt" of wilderness land, Laguna Beach is a unique community increasingly hemmed in by commercial real estate interests, and its citizens are engaged in continuing vigilance and activism to maintain its integrity.
The walls of "The Tell" were plastered with family photographs and memorabilia brought in by hundreds of such people in a demonstration of solidarity and communal dedication to a sustainable civic future. "The Tell" itself--its title is a reference to the trove of an archeological dig--was thus a meeting place of past, present and future, a celebration of what is now and a fraught vision of the "fossil" that it might become. (The building of the 73 toll road, also the target of protests by Chamberlain and the town's community, was seen as another step in this direction.)
Chamberlain's activism, as Lagunatics well know, has not been restricted to environmental and civic concerns. His gallery, BC Space, has also long been a feature of the Laguna Beach landscape. Modest in scale--though not in vision--and almost anonymous in its lack of store-front appeal, this gallery has provided continuing, active support for artists of the region; not those "beach artists", I hasten to add, whose work attracts the eye of summer tourists, but serious working artists devoted, for the most part, to the kinds of issues that Chamberlain addresses. I tend to see it as yet another realization of the artist's vision, an act of aesthetic generosity that extends his embrace of what he loves.
Kudos to Soka University, then, for this act of recognition, which is at once well-deserved and timely. We are rapidly reaching crisis point in what we are pleased to think of as our culture, and a great deal of the art we generate is toothless mainstream stuff. Chamberlain reminds us that it's possible for an artist to have a social conscience, and to participate, as an artist, in the preservation of the best of what we have.