Fred Lonidier, a photographer from San Diego was called to testify in a 1981 lawsuit against Aztec Bus Lines. He had to explain the financials of his art business. His testimony was to explain some photos he took of striking bus drivers in order to determine if the strikers had prevented access to a bus depot. Lonidier answered that he hadn’t been paid by Aztec and that all expenses were his own. He said, “I am not involved in a commercial venture in a simple sense.” I’m an artist. My work rarely sells. It’s either in a gallery or in a museum . Rarely does anyone buy a photograph from my studio.
These occasions are now less common than in 1981. Lonidier’s work has been a varied and unique collection of work over the past five decades. He was primarily a participant-observer of North American labor struggles. This work has been featured in numerous Kunsthallen galleries over the past decade. It is a far cry away from the libraries and union halls where he used to exhibit (a fact that is often repeated in press releases and bios of his new urbane venues). While it’s not that anyone would begrudge him his recent embrace of the art world, it is difficult to overlook a dissonance between content and context, between images and workers organizing and a market that depicts their adversaries.
Lonidier recited his testimony in the multi-panel phototext installation AZTEC VS A.T.U. 1309: Long Ago In A Faraway Galaxy (1996), included in his recent exhibition at Michael Benevento in Los Angeles, a career sampler that comprised mostly lesser-known or never-before-exhibited works. 18 prints of the striking workers are accompanied by panels of blown up text from the artist’s testimony, which is embellished with graphic design, including highlighted passages and circled phrases, faces and lines linking bits of text and images. It’s like proof that annotations are written in a funny faux-handwritten font. Lonidier also calls his own testimony into doubt elsewhere: So I say! An explanation of a specific picture is amended. He seems to enjoy the staid courtroom interview, with questions about his position relative the subjects and how we can determine what a photograph actually shows or means. This echos the bugs of photoconceptualism.
Lonidier used this photo-text format to examine workplace injuries and the ravages NAFTA. Anecdotal examples are shown here: 3Art Talks (1975) he recounts, among other things, his attempt to take a photograph at a Lee Friedlander lecture. Before Lonidier was accused of forgetting to remove the lens cap, he sent a contact sheet that included a black frame and the backside of a baldhead. He has a charmingly casual and even artless approach towards image, design, language. This anti-, or amateur aesthetic can be seen as a tool to demystify the type of imagery that was used by many students and teachers at University of California, San Diego in early 1970s. Lonidier was among the group, having received his MFA in 1972 and joining the faculty in 1972. He also included Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, and Allan Sekula. They were inspired by feminist and anti-war movements and sought to reconcile Conceptualism’s criticism of image production and distribution.
Lonidier revisits his vast archive to record student activism and an atmosphere conducive to experimentation in those early days of San Diego. This is the other major body of work featured in this show. Female Photograph Resistance II (2022) is more intimate and focuses on an unnamed subject, who seems to be Lonidier’s girlfriend. We see her in class installing a show, lying on the bed and using the toilet. Intertitles tell the story of the power dynamic between artist and muse. Lonidier’s art demonstrates a strong instinct to allow for irony and folly, while also demonstrating serious political commitment.
Lonidier’s humor is remarkable because it is at odds with the expectations and because his work is, perhaps despite itself, also quite tragic. His career coincided with a sustained bipartisan attack against American workers and the destruction of the labor movement that he has represented. Since the 1970s, union membership has declined. This has increased the inequalities of wealth and income that have been so beneficial to the market for contemporary arts and the institutions that support them.