Mimi Plumb’s ‘White Sky’ captures the East Bay of the 1970s

A neverland of bright light, barren surroundings and wandering youth

By Max Blue

Special to The Examiner

When I was 12, my family moved from Mendocino to Napa, trading ocean for river, redwood trees for scorched grass. My early teenage years in Napa were set against a backdrop of golden hills, single-story homes and a sense of vacancy that made every day feel like summer vacation. Not the up-all-night-dangling-your-ankles-in-the-pool kind of summer vacation either. This was that feeling of restlessness you get on days when the sun seems to never set, and my memories of those years appear bleached by the inland heat as I drifted beneath the big, blue sky. Or, as Mimi Plumb remembers it in her photographs, the white sky.

Plumb was born in Berkeley in 1953 and grew up in Walnut Creek, graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1970s and returning for a master’s degree in fine arts in 1986. But a decade before that, Plumb photographed the East Bay of her youth. These pictures, shot between 1972 and 1977 during Plumb’s late teens and early twenties, are the subject of her monograph “The White Sky” (Stanley/Barker, 2020) and a solo show of the same title on view at Robert Koch Gallery, featuring 23 black-and-white pigment prints selected from the series.

“The starkness of the landscape hurt my eyes,” Plumb writes, capturing an experience similar to my own. “The low brown hills coated with dry grass, scratching my ankles, fox tails caught in my socks. I was always looking for a place to hide from the bright, white sky.” Plumb’s photographs show more of the sky itself than her hiding places, depicting an inability to escape from the oppressive landscape. Most of the photographs focus on the landscape, regularly populated by Plumb’s peers and children significantly younger, with few adults present.

Plumb’s East Bay is a Neverland in which these children and young people explore their barren surroundings, pedal bicycles, shoot guns and smoke cigarettes. A ragtag foursome stands around in “Boys and Tires,” 1976, a photograph taken in Sears Point in which the entire composition is consumed by scrap rubber. The kids here are among Plumb’s youngest subjects, little siblings or the future generation of Plumb and her own crew. As well as showing her social group, the work hints at Plumb’s artistic lineage. “Couple at the Gas Station,” 1972, riffs on Ed Ruscha’s classic screen print “Standard Station,” 1966, which shows a gas station at a dramatic angle, bisecting the blue and orange sky. Plumb’s black-and-white take on the composition shows a more head-on angle of a Standard station, against the white sky, and foregrounds a car in which a couple appears unnecessarily cramped beside each other.

This isn’t Janet Delaney’s vision of the Bay Area — gritty and urban documents of San Francisco in the ‘70s and ‘80s — nor is it Todd Hido’s suburban nightscapes of lit windows in cul-de-sac homes. Plumb’s aesthetic is closer to the depictions of adolescence by Larry Clark: a portrait of suburban-verging-on-rural youth culture. Unlike Clark’s preoccupation with dysfunctional teenage relationships, the disquiet in Plumb’s pictures is about the effect of the environment on the kids growing up in it, the eerie stillness that produces a certain strain of teenage disaffection. A shining example is “Two Girls at the Festival,” 1975, in which one teenage girl slouches on the grass posing with a lit cigarette, her face twisted in a mischievous grin, while the other is a blur of motion, in mid-leap towards the edge of the frame.

Plumb does toss in a few haunting house shots, like “White House,” and “Pleasant Hill,” both 1975, which are formally intriguing documentations of suburban architecture, but more powerful are the pictures where the setting is activated by the addition of a character. “Girl in Window,” 1976, shows the side of a house and the junk in the yard — discarded appliances, a kid’s bike — a little girl pulling the blinds open to peer out at the viewer. “Mark in Terra Linda,” also 1976, shows the subject standing in front of a nondescript single-story home on an even blander residential block, hip-cocked and blowing smoke past his dark sunglasses, the posture of quintessential ‘70s cool a calculated affront to his uninspired surroundings.

The barrenness of the landscape and the psychological effect Plumb describes are encapsulated in “Lake Nicasio,” 1976, which shows a figure lying face-down on the cracked, desert-like earth. It’s a bored, living room carpet belly flop, only in this case the floor is the dried-up river bed: if Plumb was unable to find a hiding place, here the subject is seen having given up. Another conceptual keynote is “Lawn Chair in the Pool,” 1976, which resounds with the feeling of estrangement the photographs capture. The picture shows a lawn chair floating underwater, a tight enough composition that the surface of the water could easily be mistaken for a lake or river. The lawn chair here feels like a metaphor for the experience of childhood as we get further and further away from it; submerged and gently forgotten, save for a few glimpses corroding and distorted beneath the surface of memory.

Something photographs do is show things the way they were at a particular moment in time, the subtler implication being that the thing in the picture will never be that way again: People age; buildings are torn down; natural landscapes corrode. What’s eerie about Plumb’s document of the East Bay is just how little it appears to have changed in 40-plus years. I regularly return to the setting of my early adolescence, and whenever I do I feel that languid aimlessness creeping up on me again. Seeing “The White Sky” had the same effect, inducing a familiar feeling of estrangement. There will always be kids in Neverland, but we eventually do grow up. It’s the land itself that seems to stay the same.

IF YOU GO: Mimi Plumb’s ‘The White Sky’

Where: Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary St., fifth floor, S.F.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; with abbreviated hours available by appointment; closes Dec. 23

Contact: (415) 421-0122, kochgallery.com

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