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ART REVIEWS : Feitelson’s Serene and Anxious Forms

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Feminine curves slither through the figurative and abstract works of Lorser Feitelson, one of Southern California’s seminal modernists. A modest survey of his paintings and graphic work at Tobey C. Moss Gallery reveals his suave handling of line and fascination with the image of woman as tantalizer and nurturer through six decades of stylistic change.

Feitelson was born in Savannah, Ga., in 1898 and reared in New York. He was mostly self-taught. Galvanized by the European art he saw in the Armory Show of 1913, he made several trips to Paris during the ‘20s to check out the scene. In “Two Figures: Kinetic Organization” (1919-20), repeated concentric silhouettes in vivid colors give a proto-Art Deco look to a pair of Jazz Age flappers with elongated torsos, perky breasts and licks of spit curl.

After working through a Neoclassic style indebted to Picasso and Andre Derain--and lavish in depictions of the statuesque female form--Feitelson found his voice as a Surrealist in the early ‘30s. By then he was living in Los Angeles, and Europe was far away.

In place of the irrationalist dream imagery of the European Surrealists, Feitelson’s orderly, contemplative scenes of female nudes and symbolic objects--eggs, the moon, pieces of fruit--were serene symbols of a sensual and fecund universe.

In the ‘40s, the artist started playing with what he called “Magical Forms.” At first they retained a Surrealist aura, as in the giant abstract “male” and “female” shapes that dominate a desolate landscape at dusk in “Tree Form.”

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Eventually, these eccentric forms became bold, flat silhouettes that locked into solid-colored fields. Aggressively pointed shapes in precarious balance and the restless competitiveness between the shapes and the equally vivid “negative space” around them evoke the anxieties of the postwar era.

“Magical Space Forms” of 1961 is indeed magical in its tension-filled construction of looming, oblique black forms on a white ground. These five monoliths touch each other only at two points, evoking contradictory qualities of mass and weightlessness--and a corresponding sense of the vulnerability of the universe.

During the last decades of his life (he died in 1978), Feitelson reduced his forms into ever-more-streamlined contours--shapely ribbons of color that glide through the air with space age velocity. In an untitled painting from 1971, a vertical line of bright blue rimmed in rust red and peach briefly curls in on itself--the sexual imagery and tension is unmistakable--before rushing off the gleaming white expanse of the canvas.

“Lorser Feitelson: The Organic Line 1916-1977,” at Tobey C. Moss Gallery, 7321 Beverly Blvd., to Oct. 31.

The Human Comedy: The idea of presenting Diane Arbus’ photographs of the unbeautiful people in tandem with flattery-be-damned portraits by four well-known photographers who preceded her was born of necessity--not enough Arbus images were available to fill the gallery.

But the resulting parallels and differences give the exhibit a depth of field infrequently seen in gallery photo shows and reaffirm how disturbing and provocative the world of Arbus’ subjects--our world--really is.

German photographer August Sander, who wrote that he wanted to present “only the honest truth about our time and people,” embarked in the 1920s on a project of individually documenting representatives of the different walks of life--from circus performers to politicians--represented in his native Germany.

If the unsmiling farm children Sander photographed in the Westerwald in 1913--arrayed stiffly with their playthings: a doll, a whip, a toy horse, a dog--look strange to us, that’s because today’s children are old hands at the ritual of photography, and they live in a casual world where adult concerns have filtered through the cloistered innocence of the childhood represented here. And back then, nobody was urged to smile for the birdie.

Brassai (born Gyula Halesz in Hungary) photographed the night life of Paris during the 1920s and ‘30s. His camera lingered on lovers and strangers, all enveloped in the mystique of going out on the town in search of a good time. However pensive or awkward individuals may appear no one seems grotesque or pitiable.

In the work of Viennese emigre photographer Lisette Model, who was Arbus’ teacher, New York in the 1940s and ‘50s is full of people who may not have been fashion plates--folks with jowls, flab, smeared lipstick, gnomelike bodies--but who clearly retained the zestful independence of urban dwellers back when New York was still a liveable place for the middle class.

Tabloid photographer Weegee (ne Arthur Fellig; his nom de camera was derived from his knack for turning up when something criminal was going down, as if he had access to a Ouija board) was Johnny-on-the-spot in New York for murders, fires and general mayhem. In one image, a skinny transvestite raises his skirt in a “cheesecake” pose while he and his more frightened-looking buddies are hauled away in a paddy wagon.

But Arbus removed the sideshow aspect as well as the soothing aura of universal brotherhood and bonhomie. Returning to the posed format Sander favored--under radically different cultural circumstances of media sophistication, social mobility and moral uncertainty--she made images that are at once uncomfortably confrontational and devoid of helpful answers.

“Diane Arbus: Her Artistic Lineage” at Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., to Oct. 13.


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