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ART REVIEW : Photos Give Big Picture and Small Slices of France

Times Staff Writer

An exhibit at Cypress College presents recent work by a photographer whose name is likely to zoom into focus in the Orange County art world during the coming months. As exhibition consultant for Security Pacific’s Gallery at the Plaza in Costa Mesa (opening in March), Mark Johnstone will join the select group of folks whose knowledge and taste help determine what kind of art we get to see.

Although Johnstone’s photographs have been shown at several Orange County locations in recent years--and his “Bare Facts, Sly Humor” at the Irvine Fine Arts Center earlier this fall gave us a taste of his curatorial outlook--this is a particularly good moment to check out his current approach to the medium.

“France: A Stage, a Photograph"--on view through Nov. 23--is part of a project he began 4 years ago, involving images of old and new sights in Paris, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

Johnstone explains rather grandly in a statement that the goal of the project is “to notate the evolution of Western civilization.” History lives on in the art and architecture of Paris, he says, whereas graffiti, advertising and the activities of people in public places are signs of the transitory nature of contemporary culture. He deliberately arranges his black-and-white photographs to show both aspects of the city--creating what he calls “a complex of contemplations” and “a single big picture.”

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In candid photographs bursting with the variegated expressions of crowds and loners wrapped up in their separate activities, Johnstone captures Parisians in motion and at rest. They relax in cafes, rush down the street, wait beneath giant billboards for the Metro, mingle at a cemetery, peer at ancient art in the Louvre and lose themselves in an impromptu street performance occurring out of the camera’s range.

Interwoven with these images are more formally composed shots of eternally static Parisians--classical statuary, church carvings and stone memorials--created in other historical epochs.

The photographer’s take on the evolution of Western Civ in Paris is somewhat hard to decipher. Sometimes he seems to imply a gap between the graciousness and noble sentiments that bygone eras have left the world and the crass, self-absorbed, easily distracted nature of Parisians in the ‘80s.

Yet on the whole, he seems open-minded. If a bust on a marble pedestal suited one era’s notion of worshipful portraiture, graffiti portraits of Che Guevara and Mao stamped on city walls are simply up-to-date variants. And if a sidewalk artist outside the Louvre hopes to attract spare change from tourists with a garish copy of the “Mona Lisa,” that is at least a tribute to the longevity of a cultural icon.

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Such thoughtful work as this is just the ticket for a college gallery. The only thing missing: labels for student (and other) viewers unfamiliar with Paris that explain where each photo was taken.

“France: A Stage, a Photograph” remains on view through Nov. 23 at the Cypress College Photography Gallery, Technical Education I Building, 9200 Valley View St., Cypress. Hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to noon Friday. Admission is free. Information: (714) 826-4511.


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