ART REVIEWS : Bernard Offers a Challenge to Reflex Viewing


Here’s the concept: You pick one movie for each year between 1954 and 1974 in which the landscape plays a major role--like “North by Northwest” and “Chinatown.” Then you get ahold of the production notes or the unit production manager to find out exactly where the film was shot. And then you go out there and take a photograph, making sure to retain the same width-to-height ratio viewers saw on the big screen.

That’s how Cindy Bernard put together “Ask the Dust,” a series of large-format color and black-and-white photographs. What’s the point? Well, in common with most of her fellow CalArts alumni, Bernard is concerned with undermining the reflexive way we look at images. During the last few years her photographs have shown us familiar objects camouflaged as abstract curiosities--like the patterns inside security envelopes or a swatch of dress fabric.

In this and another new photo series, she seems to be indicating how oddly malleable and transparent landscapes are. Given the accompanying film titles, the photographed scenes obligingly conjure up the mood of the film--even without the actors, and even if similar generic scenes appear in vastly different movies (like the Southwestern mesas in “The Searchers” and “Easy Rider”).


Bernard’s other series consists of 20 6-by-9-inch Cibachromes made from selected color slides taken between 1950 and 1979 by her grandfather, William Adams, during family vacations. The same types of views, the same affable poses of relatives and occasional miscalculations in composition, lighting or focus appear again and again, whether the ostensible subject is a palm-lined street in Hawaii, a covered bridge in Upstate New York or a Louisiana road bordered by a waterway.

In the end, Bernard seems to be telling us, shared experience is crucial in photography. If the dutifully recorded pleasant scenery in William Adams’ travel pictures means little to us, that’s because we didn’t come on the trip and can’t recall all the other things that happened--the experiences that aren’t shown in the photos. And if an image of a ribbon of highway cutting through Midwestern flatlands instantly recalls Cary Grant suavely escaping from a looming crop duster, well, that’s because our memories are programmed to spit out reams of auxiliary information on the basis of simple visual cues.

Richard Kuhlenschmidt Gallery, 1634 17th St., Santa Monica, to Oct. 27.

Portrait of the artist: A grab bag of works in various media by Jim Dine has a somewhat schizophrenic air, at once brashly theatrical and tensely introspective. But that’s not surprising in view of the double-edged nature of the artist’s work over the years.

Two recent sculptures are related to a trio of pseudo-Greek bronzes--headless kissing cousins of the Venus de Milo--that Dine made for a building site in New York. A “Bouquet” of 10 table-top Venuses share a single base. The slight differences in the heights of the clustered figures and the variations in their highly tactile modeling are reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois’ abstract sculptures of crowds--overwhelmingly alike, yet subtly different. Dine gives the oddly apt title, “The Columbia River,” to his stately 8-foot-tall Venuses with a fragmented, unfinished texture and a green patina.

Dine is accustomed to re-working single themes, like the hearts and bathrobes that dominated his paintings and prints for many years. He has a way of investing such themes with private associations utterly inscrutable to the viewer. In this instance, he seems to be rather desperately clutching at reassuring tokens of the glory days of art without providing any more wit or substance than a good title. It’s just too hard to buy the notion that sensitive craft will endow a tired theme with its own reason for being.

In the best of his mixed-media pieces, “Childhood, Second Version,” Dine evokes a dreamlike parade of partially superimposed images: a skull, an Indian sculpture, a wrapper-swathed female figure, a clown’s head and what appears to be the face of poet Charles Baudelaire. This unlikely cast clatters around happily in the imagination without really demanding further explanation.

But at the heart of the show are Dine’s self-portraits with eyes glinting fiercely behind reflecting glasses: metaphors for the action of seeing. In “Stone Cutter,” the familiar balding, thin-lipped head appears twice--glimpsed at one moment, then at another, as shifting light (or perhaps the mental shift from puzzlement to intuition) gives the eyes a slightly different focus.

BlumHelman, 916 Colorado Ave, Santa Monica, to Oct. 27.

Light and air: Janet Fish is one of the few watercolorists who get any respect in the “serious” art world, perhaps because she earned her stripes as a painter. She considers herself a “perceptual realist,” which seems to mean being able to infuse objects in a particular setting with a heightened sensitivity to the presence of light and air. In a new series of still lifes, Fish is at her dazzling best, tossing together pattern, reflection and atmospheric effects with lavish painterly freedom.

In Fish’s universe, tiny dramas derive from the jagged, reflective pieces of shattered objets d'art or the pattern-on-pattern play of reflections batted back and forth between a goldfish bowl and a flower vase. Both elaborate and banal objects are pressed into service for the quality of their surface effects or colors--vases with lustrous metallic glazes or Art Nouveau carving, Windex bottles, mottled fruit.

A whiff of the outdoors invigorates several of these scenes. “Blowing Curtains and Daffodils” palpably evokes the freshness of a spring morning, with thin, yellow-printed curtains flapping into a room, casting fleet shadows on a light-blue tablecloth and revealing the world outdoors as a distant blur of green.

The nature of Fish’s subject matter could be criticized for its insignificant, “suburban” quality, the nagging feeling that any of these images could be an illustration in Woman’s Day magazine. And yet, it seems unfair and unfeminist to criticize the artist for cultivating her own garden, as it were. If her images are unpretentiously domestic, they are achieved with a finesse that makes other watercolors look impossibly stiff and proper.

Linda Cathcart Gallery, 924 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, to Nov. 3.