Times Art Writer

It's too soon to tell if Robert Longo's huge drawings of "Men in the Cities" will survive their popularity, but so far they haven't faded with overexposure. Every time his contorted figures crop up in an exhibition, I grumble, "Not that again," and drive off to see them.

I have yet to be disappointed; if anything, these stylish young men (and women) who seem to be reeling from the impact of some unseen force get more interesting. That's partly because, as they say in artspeak, "They can be read on many levels."

The level currently being examined at the University Art Museum of Cal State Long Beach-- where nine major "Men in the Cities" pieces are on exhibit, to April 20--is the "sequential nature" of the drawings. That may be an appropriate subject for student papers, but it's no reason to drive to Long Beach. In fact, the design-conscious way that the New York artist has chosen to join his provocative images in triptychs may be the least interesting thing about them.

No matter how you line them up or construct a narrative around them, these are portraits of isolation. They bear repeated viewing primarily because they are startlingly potent images of urban alienation, loaded with shady meanings. The "Men in the Cities" have been analyzed up one side and down the other (and even proclaimed fascistic), but nothing dilutes their visual impact.

It doesn't even hurt to learn that the subjects have posed on Longo's studio roof, overreacting to loud noises, to being pummeled with tennis balls or to being strung up by ropes. He has photographed his long-suffering friends lurching backward, collapsing forward or sprawled on invisible pavement.

After enlarging the pictures through a projector, he and an artist assistant draw them in sizes ranging from three-quarter scale to larger than life-size. In the process, Longo often dramatizes poses and always standardizes attire into quite formal, black-and-white clothing.

The idea for this work came, in 1975, from a still image in R. W. Fassbinder's film "The American Soldier."

About four years passed before Longo turned the vision of a man shot in the back into a monumental series of elegant drawings. He churned out about 60 "Men in the Cities" between 1979 and 1982 and, though he has gone on to other things, one recent work suggests that the idea still interests him.

There has been much discussion on whether Longo's "Men" are dancing or dying. They are probably doing both--or either, if you define the dance as agonized and the death as theatrical. The subjects look as if they had been struck, but the violence in these pictures is bloodless and so stylish that you don't rush out to help the victims.

There's no clear-cut criminal case here, no evidence, weapons or assessable damage. All you have to go on are the people, their clothes, their stances and expressions, and even those suggest types, not individuals. The subjects are slim, attractive urbanites who might be young executives. Their clothing is traditional and rather dated, more a uniform or a badge of belonging than a mode of self-expression.

No personalities shine through these drawings and that's part of what's eerie about them. Longo takes off on the Hollywood way of death, but his slick, illustrator style turns the work into a comment on mass-media images and the anonymity of people in an urban society.

Like photographer Richard Avedon, he skewers subjects on stark, white backgrounds, but instead of baring their every blemish, Longo glosses them over. If they are part of the human family, the family must have turned into puppets or twitching robots.

It's quite easy to read these figures as marionettes, manipulated by strings in a vacuum, but they also seem to exist in a dream state.

"White Riot," the only work that combines several figures in a single drawing, reinforces this reading. The figures writhe in close combat, but their eyes are closed and one woman seems to be peacefully sleeping. The struggle on the artist's mind isn't physical; it's emotional and intellectual.

Longo will discuss his work and show videotapes of his performance pieces and other projects at 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Studio Theatre on campus. Reservations: (21) 498-5526.

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