The Main Museum / Los Angeles
In exquisite large-scale photographs, figures of hope, variously tinged with the pain of day-to-day reality, exude optimism, gazing upward and confidently looking straight at the camera and viewer. The portraits in Star Montana’s “I Dream of Los Angeles” punctuate the long history of the portrait and the portrait artist. In the style of the grand manner portrait, the sitters are ennobled through their insistent postures and the artist’s use of idyllic, “golden hour” lighting, when everything is washed with warm reds and yellows.
Southern California Impressionism used this same color palate and light to eulogize the bucolic landscape that skirted the growing city centers. Montana’s work shifts the focus and situates this painterly aesthetic squarely inside the city centers, infusing the same sublime romanticism into neighborhoods that are in varied stages of gentrification. She studies not only how the light hits her subjects, but also how it reflects off the concrete surfaces, building walls, public spaces, backyards and parks of these quickly changing areas. The images cement a vision of often overlooked parts of the city, and the artist’s own experiences there, allegorizing the present residents as vital contributors to the culture and history of Los Angeles.
Though most of the sitters are strangers to Montana, a felt sense of familiarity, comfort and affection emerges in the photographs. The interaction of subject to lens is vulnerable and intimate, a connecting thread from Montana’s earlier and sincerely personal work that documented her family through the process of her mother’s premature death. The tenderness that arises in the photographs suggests that each of these portraits is potentially a self-portrait; Montana connects herself to the sitter, as though, through shared experience they become proxies of her. The large-scale (32 x 40”) prints further impart a sense of intimacy with the subject, as they are viewed close to life-size. Yet more importantly, the size serves to assert the presence of each individual, ensuring a place for those who are currently being displaced.
Through establishing a site of unified strength, refuge and visibility for her subjects, Montana poses strategic questions to the history of the photographic portrait. She reverses and repurposes its use to create a visual collective identity of what was and was not the model citizen, and the practice of photographers who documented people, and the neighborhoods they lived in, from the perspective of an outsider and would-be-savior.
The photographic portrait has been a dogmatic object, a political object charged with the demonstration, right or wrong, of cultural import. Montana knowingly addresses this past, capturing her subjects not as objects of display, but in her own intimate and humanizing perspective of what it looks like to be American, Mexican American, Chicanx, Latinx, or an Angeleno from Boyle Heights. Through her personal and emotive approach, the photographs return to the idealism of the portrait as commemoration of those we love and as valiant reflections of our most noble selves. Additionally through the act of locating these subjects within the museum walls, a more visually accurate archive arises, reversing the psychological damage of not previously seeing one’s reflection within those spaces.