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.Christina Fernandez Double-Exposes at SJ Museum of Art Exhibit

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When Christina Fernandez was a studio art major at UCLA, she tried to get out of a required photography class. “It was a misconception about what photography was and that it didn’t fit in with what I was doing at the time with my painting and drawing and printmaking,” she said.

Decades later, Fernandez’s first monographic museum exhibition opens this week at the San José Museum of Art. Multiple Exposures, on view through Sept. 22, is a survey of her work but prominently features Fernandez’s photography, her primary medium.

“When I took that photography class, I realized photography was painting with light and that it was just another tool to use for artistic expression,” Fernandez explained in a recent phone interview.

Multiple Exposures is on display across three galleries on the top floor of the museum. Viewers familiar with her work will recognize several photo series but the survey also includes archival material and the installation Untitled Farmworkers (1989/1994/2024). “I was completely thrilled by that [inclusion] because it broadens the idea of my work,” she said.

Untitled Farmworkers is an expansive plot of dirt with white index cards embedded and arranged in rows, not unlike a cemetery. Fernandez explained that originally the work was part performative, where she planted the cards into the rectangle of dirt. The cards document some of the struggles farm workers face while they’re on the job, such as pesticide-related injuries and heatstroke. The index cards create a tombstone effect but Fernandez adds that they also represent “the sowing of seeds.”

Christina Fernandez, Untitled Multiple Exposure #8 (Modotti), 1999. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Luisotti, Los Angeles

The name of the exhibit is taken from her photographic series Untitled Multiple Exposure. Fernandez found depictions of indigenous women taken by Mexican photographers or photographers who lived in Mexico. She zoomed in on the subjects, vertically, and then superimposed her ghostly image within the frame. “I rewound the film, reloaded it and then took pictures of myself in the studio interacting with the images,” she explained. “The latent image that is yet undeveloped, that’s a term called multiple exposure.”

Over the course of her artistic practice, Fernandez has, for the most part, switched to a digital camera. “Photography is a technological medium. As photographers, we embrace whatever technologies that we can use,” she said. Although she does miss the pre-digital elements of mystery and chance that led to “really interesting imagery.” Digital photography, she said, produces more predictable outcomes.

One of her series, Lavanderia (2002), is particularly mesmerizing. When I was young, as my mother was driving us to the laundromat, a car sideswiped us and we moved around in our own spin cycle, shocked but mostly unharmed. The melodrama of that moment has stayed with me for decades. Fernandez’s imagery evokes that strange limbo of spending and killing time at public laundromats.

“The light emanating at night from these laundromats is really interesting,” she said. “A lot of different light sources are competing. We’ve got fluorescent lights and street lights. As the light reflects off of the washing machines—they’re stainless steel or painted with enamel—the formica counters and graffiti, it’s really beautiful.”

Fernandez set up a large format view camera that takes about twenty minutes to set up. “It’s not an active camera,” she explained. “It’s really important to frame up the space within this rectangle and let whatever is happening inside the laundromat be the action rather than the camera angle.”

Lavanderia, Fernandez adds, doesn’t show people staring at their smartphones. “You do not catch people staring off into space anymore because they’re thinking about something.” Boredom has been replaced by our addiction to constant stimulation.

Christina Fernandez, Lavanderia #4, 2002. Archival pigment print, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Luisotti, Los Angeles.

The rise of social media photography, however, hasn’t deterred Fernandez from moving forward with her practice. She also continues to teach photography courses as an associate professor at Cerritos College in Southern California. Whether it was Polaroids, instamatic cameras or an infinite number of selfies, none of these technological advances have interfered with her “educated eye.”

“Your average person picking up a camera phone hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about composition,” Fernandez said. “It’s more about what they want people to perceive or see. People who have studied photography invest in knowing how to use the camera for the purposes of artistic expression.”

Christina Fernandez: Multiple Exposures, June 7–September 22, 2024. San José Museum of Art, 110 South Market St., San José. The museum is open Thursday-Sunday. Opening reception June 7 (First Friday) from 6 to 9pm with live music; free admission.

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