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BC Space: Mything in Action


The following history of BC Space Gallery, Laguna Beach is an excerpt from BC Space: Mything in Action, a catalog by Grand Central Press. The catalog accompanies an exhibition of the same name at Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center, through April 11.

 

The exhibition, Reflections by an Armchair Arteologist, Photographic Retrospective by Mark Chamberlain, is at Soka University through May 14.

 

Photographer/curator Edward Steichen wrote in 1955, referring to the Museum of Modern Art, exhibition The Family of Man, "The exhibition…demonstrates that the art of photography is a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and explaining man to man."

 

In spite of that show’s success and selected photography exhibitions in a few visionary museums and galleries, photography was commonly perceived as an adjunct to other art forms, Mark Chamberlain, BC Space Gallery co-founder, explains.


By the early 1970s, museums and universities recognized the growing allure of photography as art. Yet few art galleries would exhibit this medium in the front room. Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield resolved to help change this state of affairs. They opened BC Space in Laguna Beach, "both to generate income and to provide the tools needed to explore our own photographic art," Chamberlain says. "With proceeds from these activities, we were free to exhibit contemporary work based solely on merit, not salability."


Today, this contemporary fine art photography gallery, one of the longest running venues of its kind nationwide, has dramatically influenced our appreciation for photographic art.


Viet Nam's Influence

 

In the late 1960s, images from Viet Nam published around the world transformed our understanding of photography as art. "Think of the naked little girl running with napalm burning her skin," Chamberlain explains. "The power and poignancy of that and other images touched the human psyche in dramatic ways and helped change the course of history." 

 

Mark Chamberlain’s military tour during the Viet Nam War changed his life's trajectory, from owning the family business to becoming a photographer, gallery owner, curator, and creator of large multimedia events.


He grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and received an exemplary college education with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in business administration. In February 1967, only two days after receiving his master’s, he was drafted into the army. Narrowly avoiding jungle duty in Viet Nam, he ultimately served a one-year tour in South Korea. Often citing the Chinese concept that crisis presents opportunity, he views that military experience as a turning point. While not engaged in active combat, Chamberlain spent time with soldiers transitioning back from Viet Nam, regarding them as "broken people whose lives were changed forever."


"While stationed overseas, I picked up a camera primarily to keep my sanity and provide an outlet beyond the more common practices of drinking, whoring, and gambling. I also took classes in the Korean language and history and (very fortuitously) found a photography instructor attached to the military crafts program who saw talent in my work. Mr. Chae became a real mentor, teaching me darkroom techniques and forcing me to examine the deeper meanings in my photographs." Chamberlain often roamed the cities and countryside, conversing with the people while photographing their lifestyles.


"Returning home, I could not find the threads of my previous path, yet I had a growing desire to find an outlet for this newfound passion." In 1969, he packed up his MG Midget and headed to Los Angeles, aspiring to open a photographic art gallery.


When those plans fell through, he relocated to Laguna Beach, a community that seemed "like a safer haven than L.A., with a canyon road that reminded me of the Midwest." Along with photography, he supported himself as a housepainter, carpenter, electrician, and general handyman, developing skills he later employed to construct BC Space.


Creating BC Space

 

Jerry Burchfield was born in Chicago and grew up in San Diego with an illustrator/artist father who encouraged his son's studies in photography. While Jerry was deferred from the draft, he was deeply affected by the war and the maelstrom of antiwar protests. As a young man with a rebellious streak, he was on a quest to find deeper meaning for his life's work. In 1971, while attending college and working at a commercial photo studio, Burchfield met Chamberlain, discovering a brother/comrade who shared his enthusiasm for photography as fine art.


Burchfield recalled, "I met Mark when he was querying submissions for the Laguna Beach Winter Festival of Arts. We exhibited the first photographs ever at the Festival, including our own images, works by local photographers of merit, and prints by deceased Laguna notables such as Paul Outerbridge and William Mortensen."

 

Within two years of their meeting, Burchfield and Chamberlain decided to go into partnership. They raised funds, located the proper equipment, devised a business plan and officially opened BC (coined from their initials) Photography and Custom Lab Services on April 1, 1973.


In that 1,000-square-foot space (with expansion capabilities), Chamberlain and Burchfield initially shot and processed film for commercial clients. But they soon focused on shooting and printing for other galleries, museums, and artists.


They also presented informal photography exhibitions displaying a wide range of work, many infused with political, social and environmental messages. As word of their innovative shows spread throughout the region, BC exhibitions became standing-room-only events.


"Artist friends told us we were crazy to start a business like this in Laguna," Burchfield said, "and that we needed to be in Los Angeles where the action was. But we liked our cheap rent, working near the beach, and our upstairs studio space, a former Masonic Lodge that Mark stumbled onto."


"This was a time of great change," Chamberlain adds. "We were affected by the ongoing war and the undercurrent of protests. You could say that BC Space was forged in the cauldron of that contentious time period."


It is easy to visualize Burchfield and Chamberlain in 1973, their combined vision, insightful natures, penchant for working and playing hard, and their attractive, bohemian looks. They were a natural pair, destined to help change the prevailing perceptions of photography while addressing societal concerns in their art.


Aggressively Contemporary Work

 

Burchfield and Chamberlain built adjacent darkrooms to process and print for clients as well as for themselves. They often shouted through the wall between the rooms while working, until Mark cut a hole in the wall and hung a black curtain over it. They had many intense dialogues across that confessional black hole…about art, the environment, and their own artwork.


Soon BC was mounting monthly photography exhibitions, some attended by hundreds of people, many gaining coverage by local and national media. They gradually expanded the venue to 2,400 square feet, renaming it "BC Space" to reflect the open-ended character of their ambitions.

 

Burchfield explained, "We were a pioneering entity showing aggressively contemporary work by some of the most innovative photographers in the country. We ignored the tourist tradition of most Laguna galleries. As our audience was mainly artists and enthusiasts, not collectors, we often spent more money on exhibits than we took in."


In 1981, BC Space held their "Photography Auction Exhibition," published an extensive catalogue, and formally hung 245 works by little-known to famous photographers, including Ansel Adams, John Divola, and Brett Weston. They received great media attention, took in $18,000, but had spent everything on the show, a formal catalogue, and remodeling the space to accommodate the exhibition.


In 1982, artist Sheila Pinkel created Thermonuclear Garden in the newly expanded gallery space. The installation consisted of information sheets, maps, artworks, and take-out food containers listing major manufacturers selling weapons to foreign countries. The show attracted hundreds of viewers and extensive press, and subsequently evolved into 11 additional shows exhibited across the country. Pinkel was the first of several artists who lived at BC while building artworks there.


BC Space took another big plunge in 1983, purchasing a high-end Cibachrome print processor to create color images with vibrancy and archival qualities to meet museum standards. Photographic artists, many adding color to their palette, began commissioning BC to print their images. Chamberlain explains, "Unlike most custom labs, we had better understanding of their needs and goals and could speak their language."


In 1984, the Orange County Register commissioned BC Space to print their photographs of the Los Angeles Olympics. Employing Cibachrome, BC processed the prints and matted the images to museum standards, creating the work for which the Register won the Pulitzer Prize.


As BC Space grew in vision, complexity of exhibitions, and size, several hundred people joined its evolution. These employees, volunteers, and artists helped construct the space, mount the shows, display work, and even perform there. The Space became a multidisciplinary venue, encompassing all visual media, including film and performance arts.

 

Laguna Canyon Project

 

The Laguna Canyon Project, a satellite BC venture, was a photographic documentation of the Canyon Road, the main access route to Laguna Beach and the Pacific Ocean from inland Orange County. "We wanted to document changes of the Canyon over time to create a broader awareness of regional and global environmental issues," Chamberlain says.


In 1984, the Project's Time Machine for Moving Stills displayed a 516-foot-long continuous photograph of sequential shots of the road. Chamberlain elaborates, "Larry Gill and I designed and built the device with assistance from several artist and engineer friends. The Time Machine gave a real presence to the Project, attracting the interest of museums throughout the country. We finally pulled the plug on it, since we needed to get on to other phases."

 

In 1988, Chamberlain wrote in Journal of Orange County Studies, "Local residents see the Canyon as a greenbelt buffer, while others view it as virgin territory ripe for development. But we felt it imperative to call into question prevailing conceptions of progress. We used photography, video, sculpture, performance, installations, and collaborative events to address these concerns."


The Project's largest and most dramatic Phase was The Tell photomural, constructed in 1989, seven miles into the canyon, across from the Irvine Company's proposed massive Laguna Laurel Housing Project.


The Tell

 

The name "Tell" comes from the archeological term for a mound of artifacts from prior civilizations, buried over by natural elements. A Tell was cited in James Michener’s best-selling 1965 book, The Source, which deals with the evolution of civilization.

 

The Tell photomural was built as a small mountain, composed of hundreds of thousands of photographs, reflective of the people who donated their images. It grew to 636 feet long and ranged from 36 feet high, dwindling down to the ground, undulating across the landscape, and diving back into the hillside. The installation resembled the voluptuous nature of the surrounding canyons, echoing a female figure in its shape, while its stylized Easter Island head was its physical and philosophical foundation.


People from across the country donated countless personal photographs. Several hundred volunteers helped build the installation and glued the pictures onto the framework, weaving the photos together like pixels in a pointillist painting by density, color, content, and type of material, and positioning specific storylines on the chakra points of the larger body of the mural. The stories related numerous tales of man, woman, and the land.


The Tell became the site of numerous demonstrations, as well as receiving coverage from CNN, Life magazine, and other national and local media. "On November 11, 1989, we coordinated with environmental groups to host a Walk and Demonstration to the mural. It was attended by an estimated 11,000 people," Chamberlain explains. "As a consequence, the land was released for public acquisition. The Canyon is now a key part of the Laguna Wilderness Park."


"Those rambling darkroom dialogues with Jerry over what we could do to protect a valuable piece of countryside evolved into a project that actually helped preserve that land," Chamberlain adds. "Although encroachment is still a threat, the road and its surrounding hills are designated to remain undeveloped forever."


The Tell was taken down for storage in 1990. While most sections were destroyed in the Laguna wildfire of 1993, it became a part of local folklore. One wall-size photograph documenting The Tell is incorporated into the Nix Interpretive Center (across from the installation site), the gateway to the 6,200-acre Laguna Wilderness Park.


Agonizing Breakup

 

Jerry Burchfield passed away on September 11, 2009. A few months before his passing, he talked about the painful breakup of his business partnership with Chamberlain in 1987 (even though he continued supporting BC projects). "We tried to represent artists whose work we admired, but as artists ourselves, not sales people, we sold very little. Everything changed when I became a parent and financial reality hit home. We struggled over how to make BC Space more lucrative, but everything we came up with would have ruined it.

 

"I left the gallery to better support my family and child, turning to full-time teaching [utilizing a master of fine art degree earned while at BC]. It was the most agonizing decision I have ever dealt with." In time, teaching gave Burchfield a new perspective, as he mentored numerous photographers toward more creative expression.

 

"In BC fashion, we exhibited The Art of the Matter about the breakup; (it was) an evolving, expanding dialogue on the role of the artist in American society. We have remained great friends and continue to collaborate on art projects...and Mark kept the B in BC Space."

 

Expanded Perspectives


After Chamberlain assumed sole ownership of BC Space, he gradually expanded the gallery's perspectives, exhibiting other visual and performance media on an equal footing with photography. "Ideas and issues expressed through art became more important to me than just one medium," he explains. "Besides, photography had gained its place in the art world."


He continues to explore issues: art as an expression of our deepest yearnings; the shamelessness of healthy sexuality; societal evolution; politics and economics; the defamation of native peoples; the hell and hypocrisy of war; and environmental concerns.


BC Space exhibitions since 1988 include Inside Out (1988), about mental illness; Just War (1991), about the first Gulf War; Cities of Chance, LA/NY (1998), contrasting coastal life styles; Pretty Lies, Dirty Truths (2002), opening two months before the second Gulf War; For Shame (2004), a reaction to a politician’s prohibition of nudity in art; Come Hell and High Water (2007), a scathing photographic essay on Hurricane Katrina; and My Father’s Party is Busted, opening before the 2008 Presidential election.

 

The Legacy Project

 

Burchfield and Chamberlain’s extensive documentation of Laguna Canyon led naturally to their involvement with the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and to the future of the base's 4,700 contiguous undeveloped acres in Irvine, California.


In 1993, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the decommissioning of that air base by the end of the nineties. A major political battle immediately ensued around the fate of the air station's extensive space. One faction favored turning it into an international airport. Chamberlain and Burchfield along with a huge contingent of Orange County residents and other environmentalists wanted it to become a park to serve the public good.


Burchfield and Chamberlain renewed their art activism, a hallmark of their combined efforts for many years, expressing their desire that the proposed park would connect with the Laguna Wilderness Park, providing a natural corridor from the San Bernardino Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.


In 2005, the Orange County Great Park proponents finally prevailed and construction was slated for its transformation.


In 2002, before that decision was reached, Burchfield gained permission to escort a Cypress College photography class to the base. Chamberlain and Cypress instructors Rob Johnson and Clayton Spada joined them.


"We felt like archeologists entering a ghost town when we first explored the air station," Burchfield commented. "While prowling the base and shooting the officers' homes, backyards, and playgrounds, we had a strong sense of the families who had lived there. We saw barbecues, furniture, and children's shoes, and could almost hear the sounds of the people who had worked and played there. Our images from that time period depict a hallowed past and a presence of life."


Subsequently, fellow photographers Jacques Garnier and Doug McCulloh were invited to join the undertaking, which was renamed The Legacy Project and dedicated to documenting the evolution of the Great Park over the next decade.

 

The six Project members have already amassed hundreds of thousands of photographs of homes, schools, churches, theaters, and playgrounds of the city within a city, which had been occupied by Marines and their families since the early 1940s. The photographers have also shot runways, hangars, and distant mountain ranges of the shuttered base to document its transition into a park.


Future plans for the Orange County Great Park are diverse and expansive. One proposal, as part of the Park's art program, is to erect a long-overdue permanent monument to The Tell, artistically combining the Laguna Wilderness land with the Great Park directly to the northeast.


The Great Picture


In July 2006, The Legacy Project created The Great Picture, the world's largest photograph. Project members plus 400 volunteers, other artists, and engineers converted a jet maintenance hangar into a Camera Obscura (a camera first used centuries ago) and made their exposure through a 6-millimeter pinhole lens onto a single seamless muslin canvas that was coated with emulsion. They spent 35 minutes capturing the black-and-white negative image, then processed the photograph in an Olympic-pool-size developing tray constructed on site.

 

The resulting 3,375-square-foot photo is 3 stories high by 11 stories wide and portrays the control tower structures and tarmac of the former air base with the San Joaquin Hills as a backdrop. This heart of the air station is designated to be a central region of the Great Park.


In 2007, The Guinness Book of Records certified the Project's Camera Obscura as the largest ever recorded. The Great Picture has been exhibited in two venues, featured in several hundred publications, and will travel to China in January 2011.

 

Gallery Ambience

 

In downtown Laguna, a Frisbee’s throw from the ocean, there’s an innocuous steel door with a discreet sign. Open that 85-year-old door, climb a steep, narrow stairway to a large, bright entryway lined with artworks. Walk into two well-lit galleries, the second with a skylight and black ceiling. Continue into a large open area, the combined studio/entertainment/performance area. Accoutrements include a small stage from the original Masonic Hall, a first-rate sound system, a projection screen, and large glass doors facing a quiet lane.

 

When Mark Chamberlain is alone, shooting and printing images, BC Space is a sanctuary and respite from the boutique-, gallery-, and restaurant-lined street below. The tall, slender, professorial proprietor, accompanied by his blue heeler, Po, graciously welcomes clients, artists, and friends who often stop by. Engage Mark in conversation and you’ll witness his expansive knowledge, confidence, and wit. One favored discussion topic is the philosophy of inventor Buckminster Fuller.

 

When BC has an art opening, poetry reading, folk concert, or play, the space fills up with people of all ages, races, and backgrounds, most delighted to be part of this vibrant scene.


One recent opening featured a comprehensive tribute to Jerry Burchfield’s photographic artwork. Early on, extensive work with Cibachrome inspired him to investigate the role of color in his own photographs. He experimented extensively with camera-less color images called "photograms," later creating one-of-a-kind "Lumen Prints," which documented plant life in Amazon rainforests and Florida’s tropical environs. Developed in sunlight using extended exposure times, these magnificent images that he called Primal Images and Understory have been exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum, documented in two books, and shown around the country.


Looking Forward

 

BC Space is not a foundation and does not solicit donations to support its escalating rent and cost of exhibitions. Located in a commercial area on Forest Avenue, Mark Chamberlain continues to support the gallery through his Photographic Art Services. Within that space, he devotes much of his time to working as a mentor, curator of the work of others, and creator of multimedia events.

 

Here, he also explores his personal artwork, free of the need for commercial conformity. "Years ago, I learned that the camera is just another tool to create art." He has used that powerful tool for decades, exploring its endless possibilities, creating River Tales, Dream Sequences, Future Fossils, and other series. He has taught in several colleges, attributing his vast knowledge of photography and its history to the need to teach it.


Chamberlain calls himself "an arteologist," an artist exploring life unfettered by conventional concerns. "While actively engaged in the present, shooting pictures or curating, I am often referencing the past and hope my work will allude to the future."


Today, BC remains firmly ensconced in the building in which it was launched. It has kept pace with the dramatic changes from film to digital image making, while also presenting exhibitions of painting, sculpture, installations, and video, as well as film, music, theatre, and dance events.

 

For Mark Chamberlain, BC Space—presenting innovative and courageous work that often challenges the status quo—is his passion, his bliss, and perhaps his mistress.

 

BC Space History by Liz Goldner, Contemporary Art Dialogue

 

BC Space: Mything in Action, through to April 11, Tue- Sun 11 AM-4 PM, Fri & Sat 11 AM-7 PM, curated by Andrea Harris-McGee and Mike McGee, highlights the 37-year history of BC Space, featuring work by 45 artists. (The show is dedicated to Jerry Burchfield who passed away from cancer on September 11, 2009. Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, CA 92701, 714-567-7233. Soft Opening, April 6, 2010, 7-10 PM, Closing Reception, April 3, 2010, 7-10 PM.

 

Reflections by an Armchair Arteologist, photographic retrospective by Mark Chamberlain, through May 14, M-F 9 AM-5 PM includes Time Machine for Moving Stills and excerpts from Dubuque Passages, Future Fossils Looking for 2000, The Laguna Canyon Project and The Legacy Project, Soka University of America, Founders Hall Art Gallery, 1 University Drive, Aliso Viejo, CA 92565, 949-480-4237.

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