These pictures have a certain textured thingness, thanks to the environment-reliant process of their creation; their splattered, layered dyes; and their pronounced, albeit largely symbolic thickness, formed by multiple photographic negatives and exposures. As the writer and curator Brian Wallis notes in an essay that accompanies the new monograph, Kali’s work could be seen as part of a broader West Coast tradition, which treated the art of photography not simply as image-making but as object-making, as well. (Wallis notes the similarities between Kali’s œuvre and that of canonical California artists such as Robert Heinecken, Ed Ruscha, and Wallace Berman; the latter, with his interest in proto-psychedelic, hodgepodge collage work, seems to me the most apt comparison.) But Kali’s approach was idiosyncratic, mostly housebound, and, apparently, largely self-taught. More than anything, her images—intensely colorful, mysterious, quasi-Surrealist—bring to my mind the dark sensuality of European Expressionist painting: Kirchner’s green and yellow and orange faces; Munch’s torrid vistas, hovering somewhere between the earthly and the hellish.
Among the cache of works discovered after Kali’s death are images that she took in the early two-thousands, while living alone in the Pacific Palisades. In her later years, she became increasingly obsessed with U.F.O.s, and multiple video cameras were trained around her property, shooting the night sky. The prints included in the show are captures she took while playing back the tapes, presumably in order to analyze them further. These images are mostly black and white and gray, with none of the vibrancy of her earlier work, but they emit a similar vibrational pitch: orbs and flashes and bursts layered over a landscape to create a kind of sensate, breathing portrait. Kali might have taken these photographs while sequestered in her home, yet they are still able to contain the heavens.