The first time you lay eyes on a Stan Douglas photograph, it can be confusing. One, for example, depicts a scene at the racetrack, with a crowd dressed in suits and fedoras plucked from the 1950s. Yet the photo—its sumptuous colors, its extreme detail, its cinematic quality—looks new. Is it a reproduced image, a la appropriation-master Richard Prince, or is it something else entirely?
“I am interested in events, in a philosophical way” says Douglas, who shot that retro-looking photo, “Hastings Park, 16 July 1955,” in 2008. The photograph was part of a project called “Humor, Irony, and the Law,” in which Douglas re-staged moments of political unrest in his native city of Vancouver. “I am interested in events that rupture something so profoundly that they make you challenge the way you think about the world.”
For his latest project, “Disco Angola,” on view through April 28 at the David Zwiner Gallery in New York City, Douglas focuses on two important, yet very different, moments in the 1970s: the disco scene in New York City and the liberation movement in Angola, Africa. “Both were utopian,” explains the 54-year-old artist. “One was about independence from Portuguese rule and colonization…the other was an escape from the danger and grime of urban life.” Of course, neither utopia was realized: Angola gained independence in 1975 but subsequently suffered a decades-long civil war, while disco—which mixed Latin, R&B and African music, creating a sort of ideal soundtrack for a multicultural society—would become co-opted by the mainstream, draining it of all its exotic, heady rebellion. And there’s a certain sadness underlying Douglas’ images: a couple, the woman wearing a pink Halston-esque halter gown, the man in a mint green leisure suit, sit in a seedy discoteque, unsure and self-conscious; a young African woman in a bright green jumpsuit standing, stoic, against a painted mural that says “Struggle continues. Victory certain.”
The photos—eight of them, all large and in glorious color—were shot in California, using an entire movie crew, which gives them their beautiful hyper-reality. (Fun fact: the costume adviser for “Disco Angola” also worked on Will Farrell’s hilarious ‘70s flick Anchorman.) That remove—the juxtaposition between the messiness of life in the real world, whether on the dance floor or on the front lines—is what makes Douglas’ photos so challenging. “You look at them and you think of how these people didn’t accept things the way they were,” says Douglas. And though he cites the Arab Spring in the Middle East as a parallel to his Angola photos, he’s hard-pressed to find signs of rebellion and cultural life in the West. “Nowadays, it’s not about moving forward,” he laments, “it’s just about recycling.”