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The New Yorker: The Singular Work of a California Photographer, Unearthed

Joan Archibald, a Long Island wife and mother of two, was tired of her life as a suburban homemaker. It was 1962, a year before the publication of “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking feminist study, in which she gave a name to housewifely ennui, arguing that “it is no longer possible to ignore that voice, to dismiss the desperation of so many American women,” but Archibald was ahead of the curve. She filed for divorce, sent her kids to live with her mother, and hit the road, ending up across the country, in Malibu, where, still young and attractive and often bikini-clad, she threw herself into the beach-party scene. By 1964, she had moved to Palm Springs, purchasing the former house of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, where her children joined her each summer. Perhaps to signify leaving her old life behind, and in keeping with the era’s burgeoning curiosity about and appropriation of Eastern culture, she changed her name to the mononym “Kali,” the name of the Hindu goddess of death and time.

We don’t have many details about Kali’s early years in California, but we do know that, by the mid-to-late sixties, she was taking a photography class at the College of the Desert, a junior college not far from her house, and had begun to hone her own photographic practice. Los Angeles and its environs had a thriving art scene, but Kali worked in isolation: although she had shed many of the conventionalities of the domestic space that she had left behind on the East Coast, she still pursued her photography within the home, and, for the most part, did not share her work publicly. Her considerable œuvre was only rediscovered by her daughter, Susan, in 2016, three years before Kali died, at the age of eighty-seven. (The images were then sorted and catalogued by Susan’s ex-husband, the photographer Len Prince.) It will soon be available for perusal in a handsome four-volume monograph, and selections of her work are also on show at the Staley-Wise Gallery, in SoHo.

Both the exhibition and the book are mostly focussed on pictures that Kali made between 1968 and 1973 by employing a technique that she named Artography. Using black-and-white film, she would take portraits, mostly of her daughter and her young friends (though an occasional likeness of a cat sometimes crops up), and also images of the surrounding California landscape. Then she’d develop the prints in her master bathroom turned darkroom, often employing experimental printing techniques, such as multiple exposures, sandwiched negatives, and high-contrast developing. Finally, she would go to her back-yard pool, that standby of SoCal leisure—which became, in her hands, a site of messy productivity, an outsized witch’s cauldron that she’d fill with a variety of dyes, streaking the prints in vibrant colors such as lime green, violet, and orange, and, later, treating them with spray paints and with varied natural elements, such as sand, sawdust, dirt, and bugs. In another, adjacent body of work, made between 1970 and 1973, she shot Polaroids using several exposures, often layering landscape and portraiture onto one another in a single image, to create a baroque visual filigree similar to that achieved in her dye-treated pictures.

The colors in many of Kali’s images seem to shimmer, as if pulsing with their own internal heartbeat. In “Marge-Clown, Palm Springs, CA, 1968”, a woman’s face is rendered nearly abstract: her eyes turquoise blobs, her smile a shocking crimson smear, her orange visage disappearing into a watery sea of mottled blue. “Young Boy, Palm Springs, CA, 1968” features a floppy-haired teen’s head rendered in sepia tones and superimposed on by a transmission tower painted a slash of bright, electrified blue. In “Su One Eye, Palm Springs, CA, 1970,” a lattice of flowers and leaves is layered over the portrait of a fair-haired woman, her head dripping red against a greenish-blue penumbra. There are also landscapes: a Maine grassland in graduated green, blue, and yellow, with a splash of pink; a cypress in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, lifting its branches against a blue terrain overlaid with a woman’s face, her eyes dark and staring from above.

These pictures have a certain textured thingness, thanks to the environment-reliant process of their creation; their splattered, layered dyes; and their pronounced, albeit largely symbolic thickness, formed by multiple photographic negatives and exposures. As the writer and curator Brian Wallis notes in an essay that accompanies the new monograph, Kali’s work could be seen as part of a broader West Coast tradition, which treated the art of photography not simply as image-making but as object-making, as well. (Wallis notes the similarities between Kali’s œuvre and that of canonical California artists such as Robert Heinecken, Ed Ruscha, and Wallace Berman; the latter, with his interest in proto-psychedelic, hodgepodge collage work, seems to me the most apt comparison.) But Kali’s approach was idiosyncratic, mostly housebound, and, apparently, largely self-taught. More than anything, her images—intensely colorful, mysterious, quasi-Surrealist—bring to my mind the dark sensuality of European Expressionist painting: Kirchner’s green and yellow and orange faces; Munch’s torrid vistas, hovering somewhere between the earthly and the hellish.

Among the cache of works discovered after Kali’s death are images that she took in the early two-thousands, while living alone in the Pacific Palisades. In her later years, she became increasingly obsessed with U.F.O.s, and multiple video cameras were trained around her property, shooting the night sky. The prints included in the show are captures she took while playing back the tapes, presumably in order to analyze them further. These images are mostly black and white and gray, with none of the vibrancy of her earlier work, but they emit a similar vibrational pitch: orbs and flashes and bursts layered over a landscape to create a kind of sensate, breathing portrait. Kali might have taken these photographs while sequestered in her home, yet they are still able to contain the heavens.

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