ART REVIEWS : 'The Eye and the Ear': Scores or Art?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since the 11th Century, the conventions for noting pitch have been standardized, based on a one-to-one correspondence between symbol and sound.

In the mid-20th Century, standard notation was shaken by the seemingly perverse conventions of "indeterminate music," as made by John Cage. Cage insisted that sounds be permitted to "be themselves, rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments." His musical scores thus stressed chance, their character continually determined anew by those who would interpret them.

Several of Cage's scores--along with others by colleagues Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff--are featured in "The Eye and the Ear," a small but sharply focused exhibition of 20th-Century music-notation curated by Nancy Perloff at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities. Bracketed on one end by examples of early Modernist experimentation and, on the other, by the work of Cage's Fluxus inheritors, the direction Cage took in the 1950s is sited within a historical context.

This provocative exhibition, however, is not purely historical. Among its multiple subjects are the slippages between the general rule and the specific example, the interplay between art and text, and the whole messy, Postmodern debate over authorship.

The works in the show are derived from the archive of pianist David Tudor, which the Getty acquired in 1993. Tudor's own realizations for the piano solo in Cage's "Concert for Piano and Orchestra" are on view. Contained in black binder notebooks so that the internal sequencing could be changed at will, these beg the question of how to distinguish between composer and performer, when the latter--by the dictate of the former--is constantly reformulating the composition.

Even more interesting is the question of how these works function visually. Brown's "Four Systems" resembles a computer punch card, with its abrupt, start-and-stop rhythm of horizontal dashes. Wolff's scores resemble complex chemistry problems inscribed on blackboards. Dick Higgins' "Sparks for Piano" seems to track a galaxy of shooting stars. And Ben Patterson's "Variations for Double-Bass" looks like a flow chart at a corporate board meeting, all words, arrows and force lines.

Are these scores masquerading as art objects, or art objects masquerading as scores? To what extent are they purely metaphorical?

Although there is a sound component to "The Eye and the Ear," the primary emphasis is on the look. Since the privileging of the visual is a hallmark of Modernism, this is perfectly logical. So, is this kind of public exhibition a logical, indeed vital outgrowth of the Getty's increasingly privatized, scholarly imperative.

* The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 7th Floor, 401 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 348-9811. Closed Sunday.

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Soldiers' Stories: Two bodies of work by New York-based photographer David Levinthal--his first and his most recent--are now on view at Craig Krull Gallery. In both "Hitler Moves East," a black-and-white series created in 1977 in collaboration with Garry Trudeau, and "Mein Kampf," a narrative cycle of color photographs produced last year, Levinthal uses toy soldiers to enact tableaux that are historical--or purport to be.

Levinthal employs a familiar Postmodern strategy to engage with familiar, Postmodern issues: the veracity of the photograph, the myth of authenticity, the mass-mediated shadings of truth. Where Levinthal departs from the expected is in his particular subject matter, which is both volatile and intensely fragile.

In the earlier series, Levinthal apes the look of slightly yellowed, wire-service photographs. These are, by and large, action shots--approaching soldiers, explosions, figures caught in rubble--with elaborate backgrounds and convincing-looking dolls, blurred and seen from the back so as to propel the illusion. They comment, among other things, upon little boys' fascination with war games.

The current series is quite different. Levinthal jacks up the artifice with lurid colors, baroque lighting and theatrical compositions, and the toy soldiers' plastic faces are very much in evidence. He emphasizes the importance Hitler placed upon spectacle and underscores the choreographed violence that characterized the Nazi universe.

The images in "Mein Kampf" are also far more confrontational. Rather than somewhat anonymous battle scenes, here is something as hideously suggestive as a child in a railway car and as stark as a nude body being pushed into a crematory oven.

Levinthal flirts with Susan Sontag's notion of "fascinating fascism," the unspeakable seduction of black leather, ritualized barbarity and so on. But he seems reluctant to push her argument to its limits, opting for something that seems safer but is in fact far more dangerous. His agenda is to chastise us for becoming inured to the shock value of documentary images of the Holocaust and for placing faith in any photograph as an accurate document.

Questionable, however, is the use of Holocaust imagery (however blatantly falsified) as the locus of such theoretical politicking, especially at a moment when increasing numbers of people are only too happy to agree that photographs pertaining to Nazi atrocities are nothing but a pack of lies.

* Craig Krull Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410, through April 15. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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London's Women: At Bennett Roberts Fine Art, Laura London's large, color photographs of women are seductive, wistful, witty, cool and romantic. They are, in short, not unpleasingly unresolved.

A woman in curlers stares at the camera as if caught, though her only offense seems to be that the strap of her slip is twisted. A woman wearing frosted eye shadow and false lashes lies on a green shag rug, smoking a cigarette with palpable insouciance. Another woman, her eyes wide open and her face dramatically spot-lit, looks as if she were dead.

London's points of reference are many, and they fluctuate from photograph to photograph. Some images boast the saturated colors and slick compositions of commercial photography; others, the faded tones and willed anomie of Antonioni's New Wave films, and still others the tawdry realism of Nan Goldin.

Cindy Sherman, however, seems to have been pivotal for London, as she has been for many younger artists investigating both performance and femininity. Like Sherman, London knows that attention to details is crucial.

Her work is precisely observed. She also has a fine eye for casting. Yet, whereas Sherman elides the myriad perversities of nostalgia, London is visibly caught up in them.

London's tendency to glamorize is not, in itself, a drawback. It makes for a very compelling body of images. But it is probably symptomatic of a certain lack of discipline, and thus requires caution.

* Bennett Roberts Fine Art, 1718 S. Carmelina Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 657-1101, through April 8. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Glitter and Gold: Victor Raphael's "Getty Photographs" at the Santa Monica College Photography Gallery are not the finest examples of his work, though many are charming nonetheless.

Raphael takes Polaroid photographs and then embellishes them with gold, silver and copper leaf. In his best work--a series of shooting stars, spiral nebulae and other astronomical phenomena taken directly off the television screen, for example--Raphael plays up the constrained tones of cheap Polaroid prints and the extraordinary shimmer of precious metals to create an unsettling effect.

Here, the subject is the pseudo-antique architecture of Malibu's J. Paul Getty Museum. The Getty is a perfect spot to explore the instantaneous, and the ersatz, fictionalized history and historicized fiction.

Instead, Raphael gets a bit too caught up in beauty. The museum's long, peristyle pool catches his eye, and much of the show is occupied with images of ripples of water, highlighted by streaks of gold and silver leaf. These altered photographs approach decorative abstractions, and on that level are somewhat pleasing. But they seem purposeless in the context of this artist's larger body of work.

More interesting are those images that exploit the Getty's magnificent pretensions and extravagant acts of fakery. These include a deadpan shot of a garage door, its elaborate floral relief embellished with flecks of copper leaf--a decaying masterpiece, to be sure--and a shot of the famous and still-contested Getty Kouros, silhouetted against a background of multicolored golds and silvers--a cash-and-carry masterpiece, or so Raphael wickedly seems to imply.

* Santa Monica College Photography Gallery, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 452-9289, through April 7.

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