Review

Artist Brian Weil's work focuses on a 'World' few ever see

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic
Retrospective in Santa Monica focuses on artist Brian Weil's photographic images from the margins of society

Brian Weil is best remembered for having been instrumental in founding New York City's first needle-exchange program for intravenous drug users in the late 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was exploding. He was also an artist of some note, and his archive is now at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

"Brian Weil, 1979-95: Being in the World," a traveling retrospective organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, is now at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. It presents a Chicago-born, New York-based artist of distinctive intellect and determined skill, if modest artistic achievement. Weil was not prolific, partly because of the lengthy immersion he undertook once a subject was chosen and partly because he died young. A certain sameness marks the five bodies of work on view.

At least indirectly, the assembled photographs show why that needle-exchange program was such a resounding success.

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Critics of the plan did frown and tut-tut, firm in the conviction that moral condemnation and self-righteous hauteur were more effective responses to the ravages of addiction than providing clean needles. They were proved wrong.

In 2004, the World Health Organization reported that such programs reduce HIV infection substantially. The organization further confirmed that not only are the programs cost effective, but they show no convincing evidence of any major, unintended negative consequences. Once rare, similar programs are now common.

Weil, who died at 41 in 1996, never saw that report. He didn't need to.

As an artist, he focused his attention on people who function on conventional society's margins, and he set moralizing aside. The retrospective is pointedly subtitled "Being in the World," and moralizing merely clouds acute perceptions of the self, the spirit and the body.

The survey's three dozen works primarily feature pictures of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and the Catskills, murder victims in Miami, participants in unconventional sexual activities, AIDS activists in the streets and sex workers in Bangkok nightclubs. Sometimes the people Weil pictured in his photographs are individuals otherwise seldom seen. Elsewhere they are mostly anonymous minority groups.

Inspired by transgender participants at an annual convention in the Midwest, Weil also made a multi-channel video documentary about the transition of Susan, a plainspoken former U.S. Army Special Ops veteran. (In one interview, she explains that she came to regard her penis as "a birth defect.") His camera goes inside the surgical operating suite, where the view is not for the squeamish, as well as into Susan's recovery room and, much later, into her living room.

The transgender project spanned three years. That was typical of the full absorption Weil brought to his choice of subjects.

A mid-1980s self-portrait in the form of a contact-sheet shows him in the full beard and modest clothing of a Hasidim — the artist was, in fact, a thoroughly secular Jew, far at the other end of the religious spectrum — which he adopted during the two years he worked photographing insular Hasidic communities. The 12 images show him mostly from the waist up. Look closely, though, and you discover he is not wearing pants.

Not a rude joke, the ostensible "wardrobe malfunction" instead comes across as a simple, very subtle act of self-exposure. These snapshots say that Weil is neither attempting a subterfuge nor enacting some self-delusional effort to "pass." Coupled with that declaration of self-awareness, the beard and clothing are a sincere gesture of mutual respect — for the Hasidim and for himself.

(Incidentally, this print of Weil's contact sheet, although shot nearly 30 years ago, was made posthumously, just prior to the retrospective. The artist never saw it.)

The Hasidim series includes the show's most visually compelling pictures. Except for the videos of Susan, all of Weil's work is black and white. The hazy pictures of Hasidic men, women and children are infused with a silvery, almost otherworldly glow.

Full-length figures are posed frontally, singly or in pairs. The kind of formal photographs found in a high-school yearbook are crossed with a form pioneered in German artist August Sander's celebrated "People of the 20th Century," an exhaustive typology of humanity begun in 1911.

But there's a twist.

Weil's subjects stand in front of a supposedly neutral background — a blanket or sheet pinned to a clothesline — the way a professional model might be photographed in front of a white studio backdrop. But Weil pulled the camera back, so that the drape does not fill the frame.

A generic outdoor landscape unfurls behind it. The artist framed the Hasidim within a visually enclosed space, the secular world opening up around it.

Weil further framed the images with a thick, asymmetrical black border. It acknowledges the fragmentary, partial and aestheticized reality of all photographs. His work is nothing if not expansively thought-through.

The camera is a peculiar device that brings one closer to its subject as it simultaneously pushes one away. Parsing that quality of photographic artifice is central to Weil's art. Often he negotiated the contradiction in an inventive way.

Images from his series of couples engaged in unconventional sex, brutally slain victims of violent crime, sex workers and political activists were not made with a still camera. Rather, Weil selected single frames of Super-8 movie film and printed those.

The movie stills possess an unposed casualness. Most are grainy, blurred, beaten up and shrouded. Many suggest peep-show glimpses. Stylistically, something disreputable is implied.

That disrepute can refer to the social stigma imposed on the photographic subject, such as the stain cruelly conferred on people infected with HIV in the terrified 1980s. It can also be more equivocal.

Take a gritty picture of crisply marching soldiers in Zimbabwe, one of many countries where Weil traveled. It carries a tragic documentary title: "Zimbabwe Army, 30 Percent HIV Positive." Immediately you wonder "Which ones?" — until the absurdity of the question just as suddenly intervenes.

The same ambiguity radiates from the "Miami Crime" pictures, which can be very hard to look at. With the cooperation of police, Weil rode with detectives on nearly four dozen 16-hour shifts over the course of two years, witnessing the aftermath of close to 60 murders. (Perhaps coincidentally, he began the series a year after NBC launched the phenomenally popular, documentary-style crime drama "Hill Street Blues.") The settings are invariably shabby and forlorn, conditions heightened by Weil's grungy stylistic technique.

The result, though, is a slowly evolving sense of compassion.

A figure sprawled on a sidewalk, his head and arm pushed up against the base of a palm tree and shirt pulled open against the Miami heat, is surrounded by the motionless feet of three men who observe him. An empty expanse of concrete sidewalk fills the entire lower half of the picture, becoming the space in which a viewer is invited to join the visual inspection.

There is no way for us to know the situation in which the death occurred, but occur it did. Hoodlum, passerby, shopkeeper, crack-dealer, man out walking his dog — is this the criminal or the victim?

Dead men tell no tales. Weil does not sensationalize the scene, the way a tabloid photographer like Weegee would. His corpse is only a person. Finally, that's all we need to know.

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