A woman in a long skirt spins dervishly against a mauve background while a wooden sculptural lamp in the shape of an embracing couple dominates the foreground. A man with two faces simultaneously laughs and cries behind a potted houseplant. The scene of a one-night stand is recorded in minute detail in the Polaroids left by a bed. Two clay women battle over a chintzy trophy. This is just the entryway of Burning Down the House at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, a show featuring the work of Ellen Brooks, Jo Ann Callis, and Eileen Cowin—three California artists active since the 1970s whose work combines photography, dramatic staging, and storytelling techniques in order to contemplate or deconstruct traditional narratives involving familial relationships and gender roles.
Jo Ann Callis’ work is both silent and violent. She sets a calm scene in a domestic space and upsets it with dramatic lighting or a blur of motion. In one alarming image, Hands on Ankles (1796–77), a woman stands on a dining-room chair in designer pumps—we can see her only from the knee down—as a man’s hands grab her ankles through the chair back, from behind. This may be the most literal of her photographs, a rare interaction between two figures depicting the power struggle inherent in domestic life and the complicated relationships between men and women. Salt, Pepper, Fire (1980) is an odd table setting with salt, pepper, black coffee, and a flaming plate. The salt and pepper shakers are our protagonists, lit to be the bystanders witnessing this inexplicable fire; the smoke rising from the fire resembles a bird in flight. Callis is a master of manipulating light for dramatic effect; her photographs use light so skillfully and unnaturally that they could be paintings.