ART REVIEWS : Dater's Ambivalent Black-and-Whites

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the Municipal Art Gallery, a large exhibition of Judy Dater's photographs makes a bid for posterity. It works, sort of. Dater's work of the last 25 years is revealed to be so uneven--sly and banal, timely and dated--that it's provocative.

Though the focus of the exhibition is her recent assembled narratives and computer-generated images, these do not represent Dater at her best. Too long on message and too enraptured by technology, they lack the impact of the artist's distilled meditations on the representation and self-presentation of women.

Dater has long used her own body to wrestle with the hyper-presence of the female nude in the history of photography. One image depicting a minuscule Dater posed against the salt flats of Utah recalls Harry Callahan's photographs of his wife, Eleanor, dwarfed by the elements. Another portrait conjures Edward Weston's female nudes (un)dressed up as abstract forms.

Yet the interest of these black-and-white works--certainly Dater's best-known--is not their vigilance, but their ambivalence. Dater is protective of the female body, terrorized by it and in love with it.

That the body in question is so often Dater's own aligns her project with that of feminist artists of the 1970s, like Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneemann. In later work, Dater goes in for more elaborate costume dramas, in which she enacts stereotypical female roles: the beleaguered housewife, the caged bird, the pampered mistress. These lusciously colored images recall the work of Cindy Sherman, though Dater's penchant for stand-up humor can be uncommonly grating, especially once the comparison to Sherman is made.

One still must admire Dater's bravery. She is unafraid to depict her aging body, to deal with her sexuality and to dwell on her fears.

Probably the most interesting photograph in the exhibition, a self-portrait of 1982, is unabashedly, even gleefully pathetic. It depicts the artist in a party dress, standing barefoot in a pool, holding on to a huge Bugs Bunny doll, as if it alone could save her. Jammed up toward the top of the frame, tiny in relation to the chlorinated blue water that threatens to engulf her, the woman in the photograph is in fact saved by her sense of humor--an insatiable attraction to the vast ridiculousness that is going to get her, and the rest of us, in any case.

* Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Franklin Ave., (213) 485-4581, through June 18. Closed Mondays.

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Curatives: Emilio Cueto's small, black-and-white monochromes at Newspace Gallery are curatives for those who would believe the genre exhausted.

This is not because they open up hitherto uncharted spaces of contemplation, as did Kasimir Malevich's famous white-on-white painting of 1918. Nor is it because they document a seemingly insatiable desire to invest painting with metaphysical significance (not to mention the desire to invest in painting), as did Stephen Prina's "Monochrome Paintings" of 1989.

Rather, the Cuban-born Cueto's paintings are notable because they demonstrate the ways in which even the slightest shift in hue, pressure of the brush or trick of the light can become a source of visual pleasure and the catalyst for a metaphor.

Like most monochrome paintings, these images are composed of layers of different colors. Some reveal areas of underpainting such that they appear sickly, greenish around the gills. Others look woefully at odds with themselves, opaque in the center and translucent at the edges, tinged a consumptive blue.

With impressive delicacy, Cueto cultivates the sense that something is going on underneath the top coat of paint. The white paintings feel like motel window-shades, behind which shadows of sinister events linger. Or they seem to be swathed in makeup, underneath which one can perceive the various blemishes and imperfections that give away the pretense of a pristine surface.

The thick, slick surfaces of the black paintings are as taut as skins of rubber, tightly stretched across a geometric form. These conjure a striptease, while evading the coyness for which they might have been destined.

Like all of Cueto's paintings, they fail the purity test and revel in that failure. Shockingly direct in their rejection of transcendence and cynicism, these monochromes are uncommonly sophisticated.

* Newspace, 5241 Melrose Ave., (213) 469-9353, through June 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Expatriate: Seton Smith has spent the last 10 years living in Paris. This comes as little surprise, because her blurred, color photographs at Shoshana Wayne gallery of interiors filled with heavy velvet drapes, crystal chandeliers, Louis XIV chaises and gilded mirrors evoke the neurotic fascination with aristocratic decadence of French filmmakers Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais.

Like these auteurs, Smith enjoys a romantic palette, a way with malaise, a taste for ennui and a tendency toward vagueness. This latter tendency extends to the vaguely deconstructive thrust of the images, which were taken not in private houses but in museum period-rooms in Bordeaux, Berlin and London, where fetishized objects are always welcome.

By taking on the museum, Smith cues us that her subject is the look : its myriad incarnations, the desire it enacts, the spell it holds over those persons and things caught in its path.

Smith cultivates fuzziness and strives for the deliberately awkward frame, shattering the museum's lush tableaux into irrecoverable bits. Here is yet another way of announcing that vision itself is under scrutiny.

The tactic isn't particularly novel. In fact, fuzziness is in vogue these days, as the success of Uta Barth, Jack Pierson or Felix Gonzalez-Torres indicates. Smith's work would be unexceptional if it weren't for the way her photographs strike a distinctly feminine note.

What this means is difficult to say. It is not that the objects suggest a female presence or a particularly feminine desire for domesticated splendor. Instead, the very quality of the look itself is feminine.

That look is non-proprietary and completely unconcerned by that fact. It skims the surface, blinks lazily, then blithely turns the corner. Smith's photographs of things do not speak of acts of possession. Instead, they murmur about the complexities of self-possession--a far more interesting proposition.

* Shoshana Wayne, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through July 1. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Gardening: Stephen Greene's first solo exhibition took place in 1947, and his experience permeates the lyric abstractions he is currently showing at Ruth Bachofner Gallery.

Greene has never achieved the renown of his teacher, Philip Guston, nor of his student, Frank Stella. Perhaps this is because his work, though accomplished and sure, lacks the bravado that so often anticipates fame.

For Greene, however, grandstanding might well be anathema. For four decades, he has been inspired by a single thing: the garden. Though the reference point is often obscured, his paintings boast the lush forms and play of textures that characterize nature's multifarious moods--and seduces accordingly.

The movement of the brush is the thing: its slow meander, insecure stutter, petulant swing, confident sweep. Greene juxtaposes such disparate gestures in order to create elliptical narratives. The most interesting are the punctuation marks: a jolt of electric blue, sandwiched between parallel columns of black in "Night Encounter," or a dotted curve of color that shyly echoes the form lying beside it, like a mirror reflection held at a safe distance.

Greene is a skilled colorist who has little use for primary tones. He favors the oblique: blues, grays, mauves and purples, which seem to segue into one another or, elsewhere, to be startled awake by a burst of yellow or orange.

Color, rather than form, is used to articulate space. If this is by no means a revelation, it is nonetheless a strategy this artist has yet to exhaust.

* Ruth Bachofner Gallery, 2046 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 829-3300, through July 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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