The backyard swimming pool can be an object of desire or a sign of suburban sterility, an icon of the good life or a symbol of its demise. The Palm Springs Art Museum’s new show, “Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography,” looks at these contradictions and provides a revealing peek at this fixture of Southern California life, one that dots the landscape but nonetheless often remains hidden from view.
The photographs, taken from 1945 to 1982, are just plain fun to look at — the exquisite skill of the photographers, pretty bodies in pretty settings, recognizable pieces of recent cultural history. But a closer look uncovers a much more thought-provoking exhibition.
“I had been wanting for a really long time to do a show that looked at cultural geography,” the idea that place is not just its physical coordinates but also “the ideology that makes up people’s imagination of a place,” said Daniell Cornell, senior curator.
Life seems perfect in the 1970 photograph “Poolside Gossip” taken by Slim Aarons — from the pose of a lounging woman and her flip hairdo, to the glassy blue of the generous-sized pool, to the purples and blues of the mountain view.
The group of partygoers in “We Don’t Have to Conform,” a 1971 photograph shown at top by Bill Owens, practically screams Southern California stereotypes. Seven people, drinks in hand, sit in a hot tub with their feet raised at the center, touching, forming a leg tepee.
But “Abandoned Pool,” taken in Perris Valley by Loretta Ayeroff just three years later, turns the symbolism on its head, making the “pool a symbol of everything that that was wrong,” a despairing, empty place, plagued by water shortages. Joe Deal’s “Backyard Diamond Bar” is a 1980 photograph of a lawn planted in a kidney pool shape, surrounded by crowded, haphazardly cared-for lots.
“The pool is such a defining element,” Cornell said, and as the suburbs became a symbol of failure, an isolating trap particularly for women, the swimming pool takes on a different role.
But there is a resilient twist in the story as a group of boys finds those empty pools. Craig Stecyk’s work shows the boys skateboarding in them.
The exhibition also traces “a great period of experimenting in photography,” how the medium moved from an architect’s working tool to fine art, such as the 1947 Julius Shulman photo of Raymond Loewy’s Palm Springs home, Cornell said. There are other, often intersecting, streams too: celebrities, including Esther Williams, Rock Hudson and Marilyn Monroe; the notion of physical desire; and architecture and landscape.
Included among the 140 images — some on display for the first time — are photographs by Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, David Hockney and Diane Arbus.
The exhibition ends with Hockney’s gorgeously painted pool. His Polaroids, on display for the first time since 1982, delineate the transition to Postmodernism and, Cornell said, suggest life in a fragmented world.
“Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography” runs through May 27 at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs; (760) 322-4800. It is part of Pacific Standard Time, the arts initiative that also includes “Breaking Ground: Chinese American Architects in Los Angeles,” running until June 3 at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles; and the ceramics show “Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price and Peter Voulkos,” running until April 8 at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery of Scripps College in Claremont.