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ART REVIEWS : Mann Captures the Images of Childhood

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sally Mann’s photographs of her three, pre-teen - age kids vividly describe what it’s like to be a child. In a dozen black-and- white pictures at G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, contradictions run wild.

Playful games of dress-up contrast with touching images of absolute unself-consciousness. A solitary child’s rich fantasy life reverberates against utter alienation. A little girl’s absorption in the present plays off another’s isolation from the world, which appears to be an inhospitable, adult place that is impossible to join and futile to try to escape.

Many of the emotions that accompany and define childhood are given crisp visual form in Mann’s accomplished photographs. The bliss of sleep, the pain of fisticuffs, the fear of rejection, the comfort of a warm lap and the self-consuming rage over nothing in particular take shape in her highly perceptive, carefully composed and meticulously printed images.

Mann’s art also offers a sensitive study of what it’s like to be a mother. The expanded subject of her exquisite family pictures is her own evolving relationship with Emmett, Jessie and Virginia, accompanied by all the expectations and trepidation a mother brings to the lives of her kids.

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The intimacy shared between Mann and her children is clearest in “The New Mothers,” which depicts her daughters taking their dolls for a walk. Having just had their role-playing interrupted by their nosy, intrusive mother, the older girl throws a powerfully contemptuous and prematurely jaded look back at Mann. Jessie’s expression and body language seem to say, “Cut the dumb fantasy stuff, Mom. We’ve got more important things to do than be your cute little playthings.”

Mann’s strongest photographs lack the saccharine sentimentality that sometimes suffuses her sweet, overly romanticized and painstakingly staged images. The pictures that emphasize the autonomy of the kids and the unbridgeable distance that separates their interior lives from their mother’s control are the most psychologically charged. “Damaged Child,” “Jessie at Six” and “At the Preacher’s House” are exemplary.

Not surprisingly, they open the issue of the innate sexuality of children. Mann’s most memorable photographs fly in the face of the outdated adult fantasy that pre-pubescent kids are angelic, asexual creatures. These images are remarkable because they beautifully demonstrate that being pure and innocent has nothing to do with being sexless.

An undertow of animal sensuality tugs at “Hayhook,” in which a group of adults is oblivious to the nude girl using the hook as a trapeze. Mann’s pictures, in which her nude children strike grown-up poses, recall the role reversals in “The New Mothers.” Her precocious kids imitate adults not to be more like us, but to emphasize that their own world is no more naive or sheltered than ours.

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* G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, 908 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-5558, through Sept. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *

Urban Diversions: “The Green Show,” a hit-or-miss group exhibition at the Bradbury Building (which occasionally hosts exhibits) proposes that art is like a city park. Both provide momentary respite from the hustle-and-bustle of downtown life, injecting some natural color and a bit of cultivated landscaping into an environment of smog, steel, glass and concrete.

Wendy Adest, Lynn Aldrich and Laura Cooper use plants to make temporary sculptures. Adest’s two, 60-foot strips of wheat grass border a path that runs from the lobby to the rear courtyard. Her miniature hedges entice passersby to depart from their walk to the parking structure and to relax among the other, color-coordinated works.

Doug Hammett’s labyrinth of creamy cake frosting slathered over stretcher bars echoes the idea that falling off-track--or getting lost--is as worthwhile as traveling directly to your destination. His aggressively decorative icing smells as good as it looks.

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The show’s most mesmerizing works short-circuit your ability to locate their surfaces. Pae White’s thick, shiny slab of forest green plexiglass laid on the floor pulls your body toward its illusory depths. Fandra Chang’s multi-part, multilayered screen print maddeningly prevents you from knowing where one plane ends and the next begins.

Neither subtle nor reticent, John Millei’s “Wall Flower” is a juicy offshoot of culture’s collision with nature. His compact painting looks like a cross between Warhol’s silk-screened floral arrangements and a colorful submarine’s propellers.

Julian Goldwhite, Nick Taggart and Paul Tzanetopoulos each contribute quirky, playful pieces, while the paintings, sculptures and photographs by Richard Haga, Daniel Marlos, Steve Roden and Barbara Strasen are too illustrative to be engaging.

In curating the show for Myth, a Los Angeles artists’ collective, Wendy Adest and Dagmar Demming wisely did not attempt to compete with the Bradbury Building’s magnificent interior, whose ornate metalwork, handsome balustrades and exposed elevators are splendid works of art themselves. This summery show plays along with Art Nouveau’s love of artifice, mixing nature and culture in tasteful hybrids.

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* Bradbury Building, 304 S. Broadway, Biddy Mason Park Entrance, (213) 222-0013, through Aug. 20. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. *

Subtle Pleasures: Maturity and freshness dovetail in a group exhibition at Kiyo Higashi Gallery. The show’s checklist, a grab bag of gallery regulars and one newcomer, sounds like more-of-the-same but provides a few little twists to make the familiar look different.

Larry Bell, who designed the gallery, is represented by one of his trademark glass cubes from 1967. Measuring only four inches on a side, it’s more precious, jewel-like and endearing than his typical high-tech conflations of opacity, transparency, shifting reflections and penetrating clarity.

A series of 18 wide-angle photographs of Bell’s friends playing poker humorously casts the formal issues for which his sculptures are known in terms of a card game: Bluffing and luck raise the same questions about illusions and reality that Bell’s semitranslucent works address.

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Lies Kraal’s modestly scaled, powdery blue painting is the high point of the show. Its deep azure surface seems to burn into the gallery wall and to emblazon itself on your retinas. Like an after-image, Kraal’s potent monochrome commands your attention by appearing to dematerialize before your eyes.

Two strong paintings on wood by New York-based Michael Rouillard mark his L.A. debut. Like Kraal’s time-consuming abstraction, Rouillard’s bare images forgo eye-grabbing theatrics in favor of slow visual seduction. Their quiet pleasures accumulate--and intensify--over time.

Max Cole’s dark painting is a densely knitted web of thousands of threadlike brush strokes. Its palpable tension contrasts radically with William Dwyer’s open steel bands, welded to form an empty, 3-D grid. This odd pair of hard-edge abstractions rounds out a standard summer show in which slight surprises satisfy.

* Kiyo Higashi Gallery, 8332 Melrose Ave., (213) 655-2482, through Aug. 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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