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ART REVIEWS : Hollywood Lives: Shattering Myths From the ‘50s : Photographer Sid Avery helped manufacture wholesome images for movie stars. An exhibit of his portraits helps sort out fact from fiction.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Living in the age of full disclosure and ambushing paparazzi , one forgets that Hollywood was once protected by a system of image-control high powered enough for the White House. And, as a photographer for the Saturday Evening Post during the somnambulistic ‘50s, Sid Avery played an important role in helping manufacture the bizarre myth that was Hollywood during that goofy decade. Collected in a recently published book, “Hollywood at Home,” Avery’s work, on view through Saturday at the Jan Turner Gallery in West Hollywood, is essentially an essay on the values and aspirations of middle-class America when it was shrouded in a fog of naivete.

Movie stars lived the way everybody else wanted to live then, and the homes, cars, clothing and leisure activities of the famous were regarded as a blueprint for the perfect life. Stars reiterated this misguided assumption by making sure that the face they showed to their public was always beautifully groomed, smiling and accommodating.

Composed of movie stills and publicity photos shot to accompany upbeat magazine profiles, the show features a good deal of previously unpublished work, all of it rivetingly weird. Avery favored “anecdotal photography,” and his pictures often depict the gods and goddesses of Hollywood impersonating average people by performing humdrum activities--washing their cars, cooking breakfast, gabbing on the phone. Despite the fact that they’re engaged in activities, these people seem curiously inert--and, recent history having yanked many of their skeletons out of the closet, several of them seem wildly hypocritical.

We see doting daddy Bing Crosby with the brood of children we now know he disciplined unmercifully. Rock Hudson turns up wrapped in a towel, hair still dripping from the shower, cast as the all-American, heterosexual stud. Dean Martin relaxes in a hotel room, a big bottle of booze close at hand. Booze, of course, was harmless for Dean because it was a sanctioned part of his wild-and-crazy-guy persona--for him it was supposed to be a mere prop rather than a life-threatening addiction.

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The repression and relentless control exercised in these images imbues them with a curious sexual charge, and in fact, the work is largely about secrecy and social taboos. At a glance, Avery’s dated brand of stylized realism seems comical; however, there’s also something diabolic in its hysterical wholesomeness. Avery, of course, can’t be held accountable for this--he was just a photographer making a living. Nonetheless, his pictures espouse a kind of fiction that borders on conspiracy.

8000 Melrose Ave., to Dec. 1.

The City Speaks: When photographer John Gutmann arrived in America from his native Germany in 1933, the first thing that caught his attention was the English language. He noticed it everywhere--on billboards and signs, scratched in graffiti on buildings, at newsstands, blinking in neon at night, tattooed on the arms of sailors in bars--and he took the vernacular of the streets as the central subject in his work. In a survey of Gutmann’s work spanning 56 years (1934-89) on view at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Hollywood through Jan. 12, we see that though Gutmann traveled far and wide, his fascination with the written word accompanied him wherever he went. Including images shot in Calcutta, Hollywood, New Orleans, San Francisco and Nevada, the show doubles as a crash course in a commonly understood, universal public shorthand.

Before being driven out of Germany by the Nazis, Gutmann had been teaching art and painting, but arriving in America during the Depression and needing a trade, he bought a camera and trained himself as a photojournalist. The only painterly aspect of his photos, however, is the way they present people almost purely as compositional elements; Gutmann’s subjects are usually caught unaware, rarely look directly into the camera and are often mere shapes in a larger collage of shapes.

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A rough, verite flavor evocative of Robert Frank runs through Gutmann’s work, which falls into two categories; black-and-white exterior views shot from a polite distance, and close-ups of letters or cryptic fragments of signs framed so that they exude the quality of iconic, urgent messages a la Jenny Holzer. A resident of San Francisco since 1933, Gutmann has a soft spot for comically over-the-top street advertisements and businesses, and his shots of the early days of L.A.'s car culture should be of particular interest to Angelenos. During the ‘30s, cars held the promise of mobility and freedom and hadn’t yet devolved into the isolating cells they’ve become today. Gutmann’s images of L.A.'s first drive-in movies and restaurants have a buoyant innocence that’s quite winning.

Also on view are photographs by New York artist Marcus Leatherdale that conduct a mannered and theatrical exploration of eroticism and gender. Leatherdale is a prominent figure on New York’s underground club circuit, and his Grand Guignol tableaux are a rather tepid blend of Robert Mapplethorpe, Caravaggio and Ken Russell. Skulls, nude men in provocative poses and Harlequin garb abound. Leatherdale cites Renaissance paintings of martyred saints as his primary influence (he’s intrigued by the erotic overtones), but the style of decadance he’s distilled from that source is infantile and obvious.

148 N. La Brea, to Jan.12.

Still Life With String: Like Robert Cumming and James Casebere, New York photographer Zeke Berman operates midway between sculpture and photography; like those artists, Berman creates three-dimensional objects and tableaux that exist solely to be photographed. A fractured variation of the still-life genre designed to explore ideas of gravity, density and mass, Berman’s work--which goes on view today at the Jan Kesner Gallery in Hollywood-- exudes a piercing, painful clarity evocative of the writing of German dramatist Peter Handke. As with Handke, Berman’s aesthetic is rooted in an unsettling blend of opulence and deprivation.

Trained as a sculptor, Berman fashions tableaux from low materials--broken furniture, string, wax, wire, twigs--then positions them in front of black velvet drapery and takes a richly detailed black-and-white photograph of his handiwork. Including works dating from 1983 to 1990, the show finds him fashioning strange, quirky forms for early pieces (a glass jar sprouting a wire, a man-made spider web), and evolving in an increasingly minimal, geometric direction; recent works have the refined purity of Brice Marden grids. There’s a bit of Penn & Teller to Berman too--he likes to pull off optical tricks--and his latest conceptual equations involve elaborate networks of string, some of which is painted white. The painted string jumps to the foreground of the picture plane and appears to be floating.

164 N. La Brea, to Jan. 5.


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