Review: An absorbing look at the hands of artists

Review: An absorbing look at the hands of artists
"The Artists' Hands Continuum" by Rena Small, at Angles Gallery (detail) (Courtesy Angles Gallery)

It's true that since Duchamp, at least, art has become as much an act of will as a product of the hand--and in some cases, only so, pure idea. The rise of the cerebral as generative force is part of what makes Rena Small's photographic portraiture project so powerful.

Thirty years ago, Small, based in L.A., started to make pictures of artists' hands, and she continues still. All 248 pictures from her series to date are presented in a continuous grid at Angles. The show, a collaboration with Hinge Modern, is at once a who's-who chronicle of many of the great sensibilities of our time (writers and musicians in addition to visual artists) and also a tribute to hands as essential instruments and manifestations of identity.


Small shoots in black and white, often laying a dark cloth over the subject's body to isolate the hands as sculptural, expressive forms. Occasionally, an artist's face appears within the frame. Sometimes the hands are shown busy at work. There is no formula, which keeps the series fresh.

In one image, Christo's hands, pale as plaster, rest one inside the other. In another, his hands mingle and marry with those of his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, mimicking the indivisibility of their efforts. Rodney McMillian's hands move in a balletic blur. Elizabeth Murray stretches hers forward in a gesture of offering. Mike Kelley points to an age spot.

Portraits traditionally focus on faces because, in part, eyes are portals to the soul, to the mind. They are the part that looks back, that answers when we ask who's there. Small's work makes compellingly clear that hands also do the knocking, and also open the door.

Angles Gallery, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 396-5019, through April 12. Closed Sunday and Monday.