ART REVIEWS : Turning an Eye Toward Photographic Transformations

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Action/Performance and the Photograph" scans the contours of a momentous shift that transformed art in the 1960s and '70s and continues to reverberate today.

Including more than 300 images by more than 50 artists, this fascinating exhibition at two galleries, Jan Turner and Turner/Krull, ambitiously tracks one of the roles the camera played in Performance, Body Art and Conceptualism.

At once a medium for documenting events and an art form in its own right, photography recorded and contributed to the movement away from so-called pure painting and sculpture and toward messier definitions of art, in which politics and social issues freely intermingled with aesthetic concerns.

The show opens conservatively, with some European precedents from the early '60s. Marcel Duchamp wears a three-piece suit as he plays chess with a nude woman. Jean Tinguely, Christo and George Maciunas also use photography as a simple means for capturing an image and conveying information.

In the next room, a bunch of rambunctious Americans blow this approach wide open. Allan Kaprow's madcap "Happenings," Claes Oldenburg's joyfully juvenile tableaux, and Carolee Schneemann's naked, snake-filled explorations of the unconscious begin to treat photographs as integral elements of art.

By the '70s, artists like Vito Acconci, Eleanor Antin, Chris Burden, Lynda Benglis, Gordon Matta-Clark, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim and Hannah Wilke brought the camera so fully into their work that the resulting prints often eclipsed the significance of their transient performances. Responding to and exploiting the news media's capacity to reach a large audience with undeniable evidence of real events, they produced art with gripping, painful immediacy.

The Viennese Actionists--Gunther Brus, Herman Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler--staged scandalously orgiastic performances for the camera, raising their taste for the gruesome to an agonized, feverish pitch.

When such maneuvers began to seem heavy-handed, John Baldessari and William Wegman cut them down to size with sharp- witted humor. Their bemusing Conceptualism provides comic relief to an exhibition otherwise defined by gut-wrenching viscerality and grim seriousness.

The vital and exciting subject of "Action/Performance and the Photograph" merits a comprehensive museum survey. Jam-packed into two commercial galleries, it presents an excellent if sketchy overview of an exceptionally important strand of recent art.

* Jan Turner and Turner/Krull Galleries, 9006 Melrose Ave., (310) 271-4453, through Sept . 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Pieces of Weight: "Artificial Paradises" could also be called "Hell on Earth." Its eight weighty pieces by six substantial artists deliver aggression and turmoil with precision and purpose.

This smartly selected exhibition at Burnett Miller Gallery is a symbolic confrontation with violence, confinement and death. Its title would be a misnomer if it weren't for the vicious, often inhuman beauty that lurks beneath the surfaces of its otherwise disparate sculptures and painting.

Chris Burden's two rusted junk sculptures are pure war machines. Although they float in space like ethereal ideas, they threaten your body with physical pain. Made from saw blades, spikes, hooks, clamps, chains and other scavenged scraps of metal, they resemble the fantastic weaponry in the "Road Warrior."

When you see the tiny toy seamen or pilots that man them, their scale expands exponentially. These brutal tools for hand-to-hand combat become miniature models for giant fighting vehicles. The capacity for destruction takes on intergalactic proportions.

Carter Potter's stripped, skinned and wall-mounted couches take this otherworldly horror into the living room--into the domestic space where interpersonal conquests are sometimes played out through casual sex. Likewise, Nancy Rubins' whirlpool of tool kits gives gripping physical form to those moments when we lose control of even the simplest components of our lives.

Antony Gormley's stacked concrete cubes and Miroslaw Balka's abutted steel troughs possess the grimness and finality of coffins. Their air holes, however, suggest that they are cramped shelters for solitary occupants or cruel containers for torturing prisoners.

James Hayward's "Big House," a 14-foot-long painting, offers no escape from the psychological terror generated by the rest of the exhibition. His five red-and-black panels of perfectly smooth, light-swallowing paint are as impenetrable and tough as any of the relentlessly unforgiving sculptures.

"Artificial Paradises" assaults the barrier between this world and the next by vigorously demonstrating that beauty can be brutal.

* Burnett Miller Gallery, 964 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 874-4757, through July 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Material Skills: Last year, Tim Ebner shocked his viewers by exhibiting paintings of monsters, dragons and beasts. Over the past decade, he had built a considerable reputation showing slick, minimal abstractions masterfully fabricated from fiberglass, terrazzo and wood.

This year, a less dramatic but more rewarding surprise awaits the visitor to Rosamund Felsen Gallery. Ebner's new paintings, in oil and wax on canvas, begin to explore a territory loaded with potential. Although the 40-year-old artist's series is tentative, uneven and transitional, it is sustained by his skills with materials.

Ebner's best paintings consist of interlocking, multicolored disks made up of stripes, wedges and the patterns found on harlequin costumes. These designs lurked in the shadows of his monster images, where they seemed to be ghostly traces of his earlier works. Now they function like decorative stencils.

His handsome pictures often look like spinning wheels, whirling flowerpots or bouncing soccer balls. They also resemble 3-D targets, tumbling rings, icing-coated doughnuts and wacky honeycombs.

It's clear that Ebner knows how to paint. The problem is that he doesn't seem to know what to paint. Until he finds a subject that matches his skills as a craftsman, his images will be overshadowed by his facility with materials.

* Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 8525 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 652- 9172, through Aug. 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

A Last Gasp: Throughout the '20s, '30s and '40s, Forman Hanna (1882-1950) photographed the American Southwest in a romantic style that had been displaced by straight, avant-garde photography and socially conscious documentation. His soft-focused nudes, atmospheric landscapes and misty pictures of working cowboys and posing Indians are part of the last gasp of Pictorialism.

Nearly 30 vintage prints at Jan Kesner Gallery invite us to reconsider this approach. Since the teens, it has been dismissed for being amateurish, sentimental, and cliche-ridden--for sharing too much with Readers' Digest and Hallmark to be thought of as serious art.

Today, Hanna's photographs are beginning to enjoy a resurgence in interest. The scornful derision that was once poured upon them now appears to be unfairly overblown. Their delicate tonal gradations and unapologetically nostalgic viewpoints mesh with a budding celebration of contemporary, fin-de-siecle decadence.

Although Hanna's images were meant to be antidotes to the cold calculations of modern life, their touching visions of vanishing innocence now look like postmodern forays into exquisite sensuality, bold artifice and outright theatricality.

Flagrantly sentimental, they are little-known harbingers of current art forms that prefer the comforts of the past to the uncertainties of the future.

* Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 938-6834, through Aug. 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Friday July 23, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 6 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction Exhibition-- A caption in Thursday's art review column incorrectly identified the gallery showing photographs by Chris Burden. The location is the Jan Turner Gallery.
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