Photographer invites walls and windows to tell their stories

By Bridgette M. Redman

Captured from within derelict structures in the California desert, these carefully framed vistas are akin to visual short stories.

A desert isn’t nearly as empty as the image the word often conjures.

Los Angeles artist Osceola Refetoff captures the richness of deserts and the spaces that people have abandoned. His series, “It’s a Mess Without You,” which he began in 2013, has garnered much recognition and rewards.

Several selections from that series are being displayed in an exhibition called “If These Walls Could Talk” at the Von Lintel Gallery through August 14. It is helping to inaugurate Von Lintel’s new space in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station.

“The Von Lintel Gallery is a dream come true,” Refetoff said. “I’ve loved that program for as long as I’ve known it. (Gallery founder and director Tarrah Von Lintel) reached out to me last year and I was just over the moon. She is incredibly supportive of work you need to see in person.”

While the work is shared online, Refetoff said the exhibition is designed to be seen live and that Bergamot Station is an amazing location to do just that — one with lots of parking and open air. He loves going there not only to display his own exhibitions but as an art collector who can visit many galleries at the same time.

“It is a very different experience to see the work in person in a carefully curated environment where they are contextualized,” Refetoff said. “I’m excited for people to see the website, but I would encourage people to come down to Bergamot and see the other stuff there.”

He loves the contrast of living in one of the country’s most densely populated urban areas with an expansive desert territory adjacent to it.

“To me, the desert is always a very uplifting thing,” Refetoff said. “I love to be in these empty spaces because they are a great counterpart to my urban existence. It is an amazing resource. The idea that these spaces exist is important for people’s mental well-being.”

Works capture abandoned vistas as they exist

Refetoff is committed to exploring the modern desert in his work. He searches for abandoned buildings and what can be seen through their windows. He explains that he used to be an outdoor adventurer who would frequently spend his vacations in Mammoth. Then, at some point, he became more interested in taking photographs of the trip.
While many art photographers stage their works, Refetoff wants to capture things as they are with his contribution being angles and lighting.

“My practice is entirely opportunistic,” Refetoff said. “I’m exceptionally careful about not introducing any elements that aren’t there. I just leave everything as I see it. It is not composited.”

Sometimes his pieces will capture graffiti such as “You are my dirty needle” or “It’s a mess without you.”
“I can’t tell you who spray painted the message,” Refetoff said. “I’m sort of exploring it the way I see it, the way someone looking at it would, not knowing much about the people who were there before.”

When he enters the space, he spends time contemplating who might have lived there and what brought them to abandon the house forever. While he acknowledges that these questions are unknowable to some extent, he feels a connection to them.

“I feel I am standing in their shoes,” Refetoff said. “Some are over kitchen sinks where someone stood for hundreds of hours. I have no idea who they are, but I feel I know them.”
Some of the spaces he returns to many times, but he is also constantly exploring new places. While he admits he is technically trespassing, he says he tries to treat the space with respect not only in the way he portrays them, but also in how he interacts with it. He is careful to leave the environment as he finds it.
“I’m a temporary traveler to the space and I capture a moment in time,” Refetoff said.

He has to be in the space to figure out how he is going to portray it. He concentrates on the views outside of windows and is constantly seeking ways to make them different and interesting. Sometimes that has to do with deciding the angle — will he shoot the window straight on or at an angle? Nor does he know what he will capture outside the window until his camera is set up and he is ready to press the shutter.

“It is honest,” Refetoff said. “I’m not shaping the vision of what is out there.”

Lockdowns bring new empathy to works focused on windows

While the work began long before the pandemic, its meaning has become shaped by the way the world has changed and what people had to do for more than a year.
“In a nod to the last year and a half, when most of us spent more time indoors, looking out through windows, dreaming of a different reality, we are proud to present some favorites from Osceola Refetoff’s acclaimed window series ‘It’s a Mess Without You,’” Von Lintel said. “Captured from within derelict structures in the California desert, these carefully framed vistas are akin to visual short stories. These desert communities came and left, leaving behind remnants and dreams which Refetoff interprets for us with his discerning viewfinder.”
Refetoff, who spent part of the pandemic outfitting his car to make photographic journeys easier, said that his open walls series captured a lot of attention last year because everyone was in their home looking out the window.

“One of the interesting things is how the meaning of work that exists changes in the course of time,” Refetoff said. “This window series has people looking out a window and it has evolved to our current circumstances which captures people’s imagination.”
Refetoff said he was able to continue his work throughout the pandemic because a lot of what he does involves naturally occurring social distancing and solitude.

Works expand viewpoints of deserts and windows

Refetoff hopes people walk away from his exhibition thinking about two things — the desert and windows.
He acknowledges that most people think of the desert as being empty and it can appear that way if you are just driving through it, but once you spend time in it, that viewpoint changes.

“It is full of more subtle things,” Refetoff said. “As you spend some time out in the desert, you realize it is not empty. It’s the opposite of empty. There are much more subtle things that you need to take a second to experience.”

He also pointed out that people have been looking out windows for many centuries and artists have long painted vistas through windows.
“I think it is a very compelling perspective,” Refetoff said. “It frames the subject in a similar way that the actual frame does. In regard to the desert, if you just take a photo of the natural view, it is so expansive that it is hard to have a sense of scale. I think the windows provide a sort of optical, specific narrative. They are carefully crafted as far as the point of view.”