John S. Rabe Sees It For Us All

Bermudez Projects
Mar 9, 2021 5:15AM

It is 20 years now since a tall, deep-voiced young man named John S. Rabe rolled into Los Angeles from the northern Midwest with the primary goal of telling and showing us things we didn’t even begin to know about our own amazing city.

For a decade, Rabe’s Off-Ramp show on 89.3 KPCC was the shining gem of Southland public radio, showing via sound LA’s gritty, its sublime and sometimes its astonishing marvels and treasures. But more recently, Rabe has, with startling success, jumped from the audio to the visual, from the airwaves to the streets, to an actinic survey and reinterpretation of the images and artifacts that surround us all every day.

Rabe asserts that, while he’s been a proficient amateur photographer most of his life, it was the coming of the Apple iPhone that brought him new horizons in picture making. And at the beginning, it was the Hipstamatic app that permitted a vast range of pseudo-retro photographic effects. His first major show, The Vast Wasteland Project, at Bermudez Projects’ downtown Los Angeles gallery in 2011 was a veritable catalog of modern mankind’s essential focus point of the last 60 years – the television set, itself once a peak of modern technology; now abandoned, battered and forsaken in our back yards, street corners and alleyways. A very few glowed with fitful life, and one actual Kennedy-era Philco kept on replaying 1961 FCC Chair Newton Minow’s famous anti-TV diatribe of nearly 60 years ago, which concluded: “Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”


John S. Rabe, Untitled 1614, 2010. Digital photographic print on Fujifilm paper. 5 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Untitled 2905, 2010. Digital photographic prints on Fujifilm paper. 5 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Untitled 0036, 2010. Digital photographic prints on Fujifilm paper. 5 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Untitled 3001, 2010. Digital photographic prints on Fujifilm paper. 5 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

“What began as a metaphor for programming has become a physical reality in LA’s streets and alleys,” said Rabe of his supersaturated selection of senescent video-set portraits. Which is also a virtuoso exemplary display of Rabe’s skill of elevating and flaunting in our faces what most of the rest of us ignore.

Rabe, who moved on to other photo-processing apps that offered more versatility, calls himself a “journalist and an artist...I take in information, process it and spit it back in a form that makes it comprehensible to the public." He adds, “I want them to see all of a sudden that people were throwing away perfectly good television sets,” many of them assembled with the lost craftsmanship of an earlier era.

John S. Rabe, Biker No. 1, 2012. Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Biker No. 4, 2012. Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Biker No. 3, 2012. Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Biker No. , 2012. Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

That kind of craftsmanship is mirrored in the way Rabe produces his pictures. He says he usually blows up his photos big – “approximately 16 by 24 inches” and prints them as giclees on watercolor paper, giving them a painterly look. This also makes them adaptable to display, whether as telephone-pole posters or as works the size of altar pieces. He says that his electronic processing heightens the appearance of “layers of chipping paint; the years of grime, the wrinkles.”

John S. Rabe, Artists are Dangerous! (Yolanda Gonzalez), 2020, Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 21 x 15 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Artists are Dangerous! (Emmanuel Crespo), 2020, Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 21 x 15 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Artists are Dangerous! (Leticia Maldon), 2020, Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 21 x 15 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

In all of his work, Rabe wants to show us the persistent presence of our recent history, and to stress that “recent history is still our history.”


John S. Rabe, Shuttle Back, 2012. Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

And that history is perhaps also seen in the stately absurdity of the retired Space Shuttle trundling across sunset acres of residential Inglewood towards its new earthbound home at the California Science Center. (Rabe says: “The crowd’s euphoria still brings me to tears when I think of that day’’). Or the slow caravan of sexy, sinewy youths drifting down Beverly Boulevard on their bicycles displayed in his second solo show, Acid Free. Or an LAPD helicopter fixed low in the sky overhead. Rabe often sees the present LA as “post-apocalyptic,” and his subjects fixed in a frozen infinity like the characters in a 1950s Philip K. Dick story. But this is exactly where we live our lives now.

John S. Rabe, Red Chopper, 2018-2019. Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Plane Trees, 2012. Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 20 x 20 inches Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Orange Chopper, 2018-2019. Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

John S. Rabe, Golden Chopper, 2012. Limited edition archival pigment print on watercolor paper. 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bermudez Projects, Los Angeles.

Bermudez Projects