Family Photos the Grist for Variations on 'Last Supper'

Times Staff Writer

"One of you shall betray me."

Will it be the bearded man in the sweater? One of the children? The guy in the leather jacket holding the bottle of wine?

"Last Supper Version 4.0" is a color mural by Antoinette Geldun of members of her family. The mountainous dark figure near the closed curtains (Geldun herself, in disguise) looms like an Antichrist over a parody of a meal, with its packages of unprepared food and dish washing liquid. The piece is part of an installation by Geldun at UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery, devoted to variations on the Last Supper theme.

"Last Supper 3.50" is Geldun's hand-colored enlargement of a photograph of stiff and serious Old Country people, sitting around a table covered with an embroidered cloth. The people are Geldun's Polish relatives.

She doesn't know whether the moment they were celebrating was an occasion of some kind, or a farewell party. In any case, this photographic portrait creates a kind of symbolic life for the people in it, heightened by Geldun's selective added coloring. Was that woman in the center betrayed, maybe by that man in the darkened jacket? Who were these people to each other? What private dramas seethed beneath that decorous scene?

Geldun is a 43-year-old studio art graduate student at UCI. Long interested in family picture albums, she recently realized she could mine them for her own photographic work.

She was intrigued that her family always hired a professional photographer to document important family occasions--baptisms, weddings, burials--and then had them blown up into big, hand-colored enlargements, framed in carved wood.

She began to scrutinize these images, enjoying "an escape to the romanticism of the past."

"Rituals," an installation she did last year, incorporated family photos of various vintages that document the sacramental road of Catholic life: baptism, communion, marriage and extreme unction, the last rites for the dying.

"I have a lot of suicides in my family, and I never thought of using them in my art--and then it just all came (pouring) out. . . ." She pointed to a burial photograph of her grandmother, who had committed suicide. "These (photographs) were really frightening when I first took them out of the developer. I couldn't even look at them. I turned them over. But later on I thought they were really beautiful.

"The way we package death now in this country, people look like they're alive, and they're painted with rosy cheeks. This was just the woman and the family, carrying the body and walking down to the graveside."

Intense and serious, Geldun started her photography career with the patient efforts of a medieval apprentice, working in photo labs "and learning my way." Eventually, she began teaching at the Laguna Beach College of Art (now the Art Institute of Southern California). Five years ago, at 38, she felt a need to fill in the gaps in her own education.

She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Cal State Fullerton (where she wrote a thesis on the significance of the family photo album). Then, she wanted the further credential of a master of fine arts degree, and enrolled at UCI.

Geldun says she has delighted in the "freedom to do everything" that UCI offers, as well as a greater physical proximity to other artists working in painting and sculpture. "Everything," for her, came to mean turning from "straight" photography to further exploration of the social history encapsulated in her family albums. Much of her current work involves copying and enlarging these "found" images, and assembling them into gallery-filling installations.

The current installation also includes photographs of Old Master paintings on the Last Supper theme, views of the Passion Play enacted by residents of Oberammergau, West Germany, and a video of "little clips of rituals that have to do with the Last Supper--setting the table, blessing the table--taken over a period of six months in my house."

Geldun looks forward to her first European visit this summer, a grant-funded trip to shoot Leonardo da Vinci's famous fresco as well as other works of art for her continued exploration of the Last Supper theme.

Meanwhile, she is collecting old albums from other households, with an eye toward future installations.

"One (album) is from a '30s vacation to Yellowstone and it's so funny because my husband and I go to Yellowstone and (photograph) the very same places. You know, the car in front of elevation so-and-so. And we're standing in exactly the same way. The style of shooting hasn't changed very much at all."

Antoinette Geldun's "The Last Supper" is being shown today only from noon to 5 p.m. at the Fine Arts Gallery, UC Irvine. Information: (714) 856-6610.

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