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La Cienega Area

Quick, what do Southern California artist John Baldessari and 18th-Century English clergyman Laurence Sterne have in common? A similar sense of absurdity, it would seem. Baldessari’s trademark manipulations of “found” black-and-white photographs slyly worm their way into the text of Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” in a new edition (of 400 three-volume sets) published by Arion Press in San Francisco.

The rambling account of an eccentric family, considered a seminal English novel, it is written in a style studded with free associations ripe for the plucking. A photograph shows two nude women with big colored dots plastered over their faces romping on a huge rock that looks like a nose (thanks to Baldessari’s judicious outlining in red). The text reads: “ ‘Tut! tut!’ said the stranger. ‘I have been at the promontory of noses and have got me one of the goodliest and jolliest.’ ”

Elsewhere, the artist’s visual treatment incorporates not only elements of a particular phrase but echoes of ideas found elsewhere on the page; no doubt a closer reading would stumble upon other, more devious foolery.

Clegg and Guttmann are a young pair of German artists living in New York who do cynical updates on traditional painting genres (landscape, still life and portraiture) in large-format Cibachrome photographs. Their pieces-de-resistance are formal portraits of unsmiling wealthy people seen against corporate or blue-chip art-gallery backgrounds. At Merrill Lynch, the red walls gleam with bloody intensity; at Sidney Janis Gallery, a small army of Giacometti sculptures casts huge shadows and a cluster of frames appear to contain no visible paintings.

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“The Art Foundation"--with soberly attired sitters (one is Henry Hopkins, director of the Frederick Weisman Collection) whose carefully posed hands form a graceful pattern--is somewhat reminiscent of Franz Hals’ “The Women Regents of the Old Men’s Home at Haarlem” of 1664, but with a latter-day hollowness replacing the old women’s otherworldly severity.

In their book of still lifes, Clegg and Guttmann ring a few changes on 17th-Century memento mori. A lifesize image of periodical index shelves stocked with the flimsy blue Readers’ Guide supplements and fat volumes dating back to the 1930s and ‘50s has a rather pathetic air in this increasingly specialized and computerized age. (Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., to Dec. 23.)


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