by Heather Cassell
American industry takes form in artistic expression this week with the San Francisco debut of fine art photographer Susan Mikula’s American Device: Recent Photographs, opening at the George Lawson Gallery today (Thurs., Feb. 25). The exhibit follows a successful New York exhibit of sic transit, and Bearings, an exhibit of her work in Provincetown, MA, earlier last fall.
Mikula, 51, a former accountant and the partner of openly lesbian MSNBC political commentator and Bay Area native Rachel Maddow, traded her calculator for her camera nearly a year ago to pursue her fine art photography career full-time.
“It feels great,” said Mikula, an accomplished photographer whose work has exhibited throughout the US since 1998. She never imagined the whirlwind 2009 turned into. “That’s sort of beyond my wildest dreams to be coming off all of that stuff, and to go into San Francisco.”
A lover of “all of the historical forms of photography,” Mikula particularly connects with its struggle for recognition as a fine art. She inherited her appreciation of photography from her father.
“My dad had an incredible eye in photography and briefly worked in documentary and wedding photography while he was learning how to be a pilot,” said Mikula. “Even now, photography suffers a little bit as sort of the poor cousin of painting.” She is fascinated by the obscure, the offbeat outsider, the mystical, and the effects and passage of time and light.
American Device continues Mikula’s decade-long exploration of America’s fringe and the tradition of American folk art. “I don’t think that the only people who make art are artists,” she said.
“These are places that many people think of as a blight on our country,” she said about photographing industrial areas in Long Beach, CA, and along Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico during the dead heat of Summer 2009.
“These are places that people do not think are beautiful, but there is something really beautifully American and wonderful about these places, and not just from an object point of view. These are places that still make jobs and products, a livelihood of our country.”
Mikula is passionate about supporting living, working artists. While she has a profound reverence for the history of photography – her favorite classic photographers are Margaret Cameron and Ralph Eugene Meatyard – she prefers to buy art from working artists. Some of Mikula’s favorite contemporary photographers are Hiroshi Sugimoto and Sally Mann.
“It’s important to support art to keep it moving. When you buy a piece of art from someone who is living now, making their living as an artist, it lets that person move forward. It’s almost like an investment in the future of art, in the future of the good health of art.”
Mikula not only finds the beauty in places and objects that are the infrastructure of our nation, but she produces her work on 1970s Polaroid cameras using soon-to-be-extinct SX-70 film, and prints on American-made archival paper using archival inkjet ink.
“I love, love my Polaroids.” Mikula credits Polaroid as an important part of American history and the “democratization of photography.” She plans on using the cameras and film that she scavenges for in thrift stores and yard sales “until they pry them out of my hands.” The age of the unexposed film and the personality of the old cameras add to Mikula’s art, she said.
“They are to me the very beginning of America’s complete love affair with the instantaneous,” said Mikula, who is beginning to work with wetplate collodion and tintype, the earliest forms of instantaneous photography developed in the 19th century.
An open reception for American Device takes place Thurs., Feb. 25, 5:30 p.m., at the George Lawson Gallery, 49 Geary St., SF, and shows through March 27. Gallery hours are Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.rfprfp.com or www.susanmikula.com.