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ART REVIEWS : Robert Misrach: A Head in the Clouds

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the 12th of his ongoing “Desert Cantos,” Richard Misrach establishes himself as one of the most important photographers of the last 20 years.

The “Cantos” are a magnificent suite of color photographs of clouds floating through, streaking across and converging upon desert skies. They offer an exhaustive chronicle of the surprisingly varied landscape of the American desert--its space and scale, its highways and terrain, its prey and defilers.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 28, 1992 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 28, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 5 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong name-- A headline in Thursday’s Calendar incorrectly identified the first name of photographer Richard Misrach.

The images range in tone from early, self-consciously mysterious night scenes, illuminated by the dramatic light of the camera’s flash, to later, quietly searing images of the desert as wasteland: a drained swimming pool abandoned to the white light of the Salton Sea; pits filled with the stunted, legless and scarred bodies of animals who fell victim to atomic fallout in Sand Springs Valley; bullet-riddled copies of Playboy, found at the northwest corner of a nuclear test site in Nevada.

In his latest work at Jan Kesner Gallery, Misrach veers away sharply from such ecological and social critiques. The new photographs are simply images of cloud-filled skies. Breathtakingly beautiful are the ice blue and faint pink light of morning in the desert, as refined as a fete galante by Watteau; the suffocating orange of high noon and, as day turns into night, a curtain of the darkest black descending upon the last, riotous gasp of orange, pink, blue, white and yellow.

Like the new color photography of the 1970s, Misrach’s work is about the world viewed not as form, but as a shifting matrix of light and color. Whereas the work of Joel Meyerowitz, William Christenberry and William Eggleston is sometimes bogged down by its relentlessly vernacular imagery, Misrach strains toward an earlier tradition. His visions of clouds conjure the photographs of Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, wherein an intensely observed nature metamorphoses into a highly personal abstraction.

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To understand Misrach’s photographs, however, one must go back to the most important cloud images in the history of photography: Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents.” In the 1920s, Stieglitz produced hundreds of images by pointing his 4-by-5-inch Graflex camera up at the sky. The clouds’ dark blacks, silvery grays and glowing whites were carefully juxtaposed to become “equivalents” for human emotions: fear, hope, despair, elation.

Misrach tellingly subtitles his current series “Non-Equivalents.” He means to frustrate the metaphorical dimension of the photographic image, which Stieglitz courted so assiduously.

Like their anti-antecedents, the “Non-Equivalents” are deeply Romantic. They honor the intractable sublimity of nature. Yet, crucially, they eschew the sentimentality that has accrued over time to Stieglitz’s pioneering images. Misrach’s work celebrates the beauty of the real, of that which is there. They proclaim that photography no longer needs any justification beyond this.

Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea, (213) 938-6834, through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.

In Your Face: There is nothing coy about Dave Quick’s motorized assemblages at Ovsey Gallery. With the push of a button or the turn of a handle, they come at you.

Toy Christmas trees rattle and quake. Eyelash-curlers snap their metallic jaws. Tiny Coke bottles spin around a peeling globe. Plaster heads of Ronald Reagan rotate on their axes, idiot grins dissolving into a white blur.

If Quick is not exactly the Leonardo da Vinci of kinetic art (an honorific reserved for Swiss sculptor Jean Tingueley), then neither is he its Rube Goldberg. Manic logic and tinker-toy aesthetics aside, everything here works, to a prescribed end.

Quick-style nonsense has a definite social conscience. Among its targets are the Reagan library, the “Faberge Eighties,” CNN and the commodification of art. Most of his viewer-activated sculptures, cobbled together out of recycled circuitry and other people’s junk, are inspired by newspaper stories of the patently ludicrous sort.

There was, for example, the time President Bush invited former hostages Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland to light the national Christmas tree, but the switch stuck. Or, the time a looter of the Frederick’s of Hollywood Lingerie Museum felt guilty and returned Ava Gardner’s pilfered pantaloons to his minister. Or, the time a baseball hit by then-New York Yankee Dave Winfield struck a sea gull and he was arrested by police for animal abuse after the game.

Quick’s 3-D rehash of the power hitter’s saga is particularly impressive: The viewer hits a switch and a small Dave doll circles across a field of gears, rotors and springs, then strikes a baseball three times the size of his head. The baseball, hanging off a wire, sails toward and hits a papier-mache bird, which flips upside down as a Monopoly card flips right-side up, instructing Dave to go directly to jail, and not to pass Go.

Children will like this work because it moves and makes noise. Adults will like it because it’s clever without being smug. I like it because it’s gleefully absurd, blessedly unpretentious and insists upon nothing except that art can be made out of anything.

Ovsey Gallery, 170 S. La Brea, (213) 935-1883, through Dec. 19. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Go Figure: Roseline Delisle’s elegant porcelain vessels at Garth Clark Gallery are metaphors waiting to happen. If you think about it long enough, these striped forms in black, white and cobalt start to resemble all manner of things: oversized chess pieces, perfume bottles, missiles, architectural structures.

Yet, with their long, curving bases, truncated conical tops and smaller, spherical crowns (which come with and without exquisitely intricate finials), what they most strongly recall is the figure.

Some conjure the capricious, graphic look of the harlequin. Others are more serious. In their strict geometry, limited range of colors and quasi-military bearing, what these uncannily suggest are Vavara Stepanova’s drawings for Russian Constructivist costumes, all similar in design, but each differentiated by varied linear patterns.

Stepanova, however, would have been horrified by the fact that Delisle’s vessels aren’t really vessels, but anti-utilitarian objects. Painstakingly composed of up to eight separate pieces each, they cannot be used to hold anything except the rapidly proliferating metaphors they generate.

As aesthetic forms, they’re structured around a number of oppositions: profile versus surface; vertical thrust versus horizontal stripe; order versus whimsy; color versus form. Perhaps most important, what they do is take another opposition--art versus craft--and skewer it with wit and shocking grace.

Garth Clark Gallery, 170 S. La Brea, (213) 939-2189, through Dec. 2. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Premises, Premises: As if it weren’t already hard enough to organize a survey-style show, Cirrus Gallery has come up with a decidedly baroque twist: Ask a group of writers, curators and collectors to choose artists who interest them; then, ask some of those artists to select another artist whose work they admire; finally, expect the whole thing to magically hold together as a picture of new California art.

“I to Eye II” (a follow-up to “I to Eye,” held at Cirrus in December, 1989) is a curious exhibition, mostly because it works in spite of a contradictory, even troubling set of premises. Its attempts at inclusion are rather feeble. Doesn’t such a show reconfirm the art world’s cliquish nature? And what about the mercantile pall hanging over all this? Since when do we expect heavily invested collectors to make unbiased judgments about “interesting” young artists?

What this exhibition makes clear, however, is that things are never any different. There is no such thing as curatorial objectivity, no matter who or how many are doing the curating. There is always something at stake other than the lofty ideal of art for art’s sake. So we are left to accept the state of things, and to think about the work.

Much of it has been seen before: Carter Potter’s wonderful transparent “paintings,” made out of interlaced strips of discarded 35 millimeter film (selected by curator Bruce Davis); Ellen T. Birrell’s quirky homages to the mixed metaphor (picked by writer-curator Marilu Knode); Leonard Seagal’s mutated, onanistic horn (chosen by artist John Millei).

Particularly stunning is dealer Sue Spaid’s choice: Angie Bray’s “Afterwords,” an arrangement of eight, thin, wooden shelves, each lined with ash-filled black eggshells. “Afterwords” comments on an old superstition that says if you put salt and water on ashes, things will grow. Beautiful and resonant, it conjures life, death and the persistence of hope.

Trudie Reiss’ five small paintings (selected by artist-dealer Rory Devine) of a nude woman--pale, recumbent, with long, flowing hair--function as a sort of nasty counter-text. Painted with the barest minimum of dry, crumbling pigment, these possible self-portraits are anti-seductive and stubbornly solipsistic. They close the door on everyone but themselves. Try to wedge your foot in anyway; they’re the most challenging artworks in an interesting but decidedly uneven show.

Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., (213) 680-3473, through Jan. 2. Closed Sunday and Monday.


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