PHOTO REVIEW : New Gallery Gives Exposure to S.D. Talent

San Diego County Arts Writer

Not since the Photography Gallery in La Jolla closed and the Gallery Store in Hillcrest ceased showing local and vintage photography six years ago has a local art dealer displayed the superior photographic images encountered at the new Photo West/Brad Lemery Gallery.

Lemery, who was an art dealer in New York, moved to San Diego a year ago. Realizing that San Diego had no photography gallery, he opened Photo West last month at 944 G St.

The first show in this snug, upstairs gallery (Suite 205) features the art of Eric Blau, a little-known but talented San Diegan. Blau endows still lifes and male and female images with exceptionally soft and muted tones. The images call to mind earlier works by photographers Edward Weston and, perhaps, Alfred Stieglitz.

Vintage photographs and photogravures, including Paul Strand's 1930s-vintage Mexican portfolio and the early Indian temple images of Samuel Bourne, hang in the rear of the gallery.

Call it courage. Call it foolhardiness. Call it a love of art.

Photography "is my main love and what I'm dealing in," Lemery said. "With the Museum of Photographic Arts here, people are getting into it more. It seemed like a good idea."

Lemery does not kid himself about expecting to break even from gallery sales. He plans to pay the gallery's overhead costs out of his existing private dealings with individual collectors, museums and corporations around the nation.

Blau's current studio work differs sharply from the sensitive portraits of the terminally and seriously ill that he made a few years ago. Those powerful images, made in the subjects' homes, will be published by NewSage Press in July as the book, "Common Heroes."

But Blau's black-and-white studio images are no less powerful and seem to resonate with his earlier experience with illness and death. Blau has imbued the photographs with a profound stillness and a sense of life's tenuous hold on time and of death's inalterable approach.

In one image, two athletic-looking men, 20 to 30 years apart in age, face the camera. By posing the younger man with his muscular chest bared, Blau allows us to gauge the effects of time on the two men.

In several photographs, Blau has dressed and positioned his subjects so that their clothes blend with the background. The subjects seem to be disappearing.

An ostensibly healthy man in a white coat, no shirt, string tie and white pants stands before a whitewashed wall. An ornate walking cane leaning against the wall is a symbol of his unseen infirmity. With the exception of his bare skin and wrinkles in the jacket, there is little to distinguish the man from the wall.

Blau manipulates his camera angles deftly, in one instance giving a jarring bird's-eye view of the still life, "Breakfast at Manny Farber's." Set against a pale background, the image has a dryness to it, quietly composed of a cup, spoon and tiny bottle with fragile flowers splayed out of the top.

The photographs in this exhibit were underwritten in part by a Polaroid Corp. grant, which allowed Blau to experiment with a new chemical solution when developing his prints to produce the mottled textures on view.

The mottling adds softness and vulnerability in many of the images. In one of the stronger images, a woman in a black gown, with her hand spread over her abdomen, grasps at the folds in her dress. Although the image is vertical, Blau frames it horizontally, making a compelling photograph of the delicate, almost helpless gesture.

Not all of the images are equally successful. Despite its lovely softness, one photograph of a woman wearing a robe, seen from the side, does not escape the cliched look of tourist paintings of Southwestern Indians.

For a different look at Blau, visit the Spectrum Gallery downstairs in the same complex. On display are a series of seductive photographs of sand dunes. Blau captures the undulating swirls and ripples with almost geometric formality.

However, it is the Photo West exhibit that reveals Blau as an artistic force to follow. Here we see a keen intelligence at work, always managing the scenes for maximum effect.

The Photo West/Brad Lemery Gallery exhibit continues at 944 G St., Suite 205, through May 17. Hours are 11 a.m.- 7 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday.

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