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Reflecting on Life’s Darker Side

TIMES ART CRITIC

A common expectation for works of art is that they inject vibrancy and life into inert material. Amy Adler’s art goes the other way, however, and that turns out to be not necessarily a bad thing. In a somewhat mixed Focus Series exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the bloodless morbidity of her best photographs is positively unnerving.

The show includes 11 works (some feature groups of between three and eight photographs), most made in 1996 and 1997 by the 32-year-old L.A.-based artist. The earliest is a single image titled “After Sherrie Levine,” which announces a fundamental source for Adler’s artistic trajectory.

Sherrie Levine is a New York-based artist who gained initial prominence in the 1980s by taking pictures of existing photographs made by other artists--mostly pictures that reside in the public domain. Her reproductions questioned such traditional artistic values as authenticity and originality. She threw a feminist monkey wrench into presumptions that men are originators while women reproduce.

Adler’s “After Sherrie Levine” is based on Levine’s photograph of a classic Edward Weston photograph showing the nude torso of his young son. The difference is this: Rather than photograph Weston’s photograph, as Levine did, Adler made a pencil drawing of the Weston (or perhaps Levine’s copy of the Weston), thus inserting the individual hand of the artist into the sequence of borrowings. Then, she photographed her drawing, which was subsequently destroyed.

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The end result is a singular photograph of a lost drawing of a famous photograph based on an unexpected idea by Levine. Conceptually, it’s easy to vanish within this dizzying hall of mirrors. The ancestry of the picture you are looking at is self-evident, yet somehow oddly inaccessible.

The most compelling feature of Adler’s art is visual, though, where something peculiar happens. Drawings are often the most direct representation of the evolving twists and turns of artistic thought--from brain to hand to paper, as it were. But not here. In Adler’s work, drawing is like a fly trapped forever in the amber of photography. Calculated, disconnected, mechanical--the artist’s hand feels fossilized and remote.

This feeling of unavailable distance can work well with the most common subject of Adler’s art, which is childhood (especially her own). The most haunting work in the show is a 1996 suite of five--what shall we call them?--"photo-drawings” of the artist as a young girl. An almost creepy sense of loss, far more potent than in ordinary snapshots of the past, permeates this work.

Nothing of evident consequence is shown happening in the five pictures, which portray Adler in the typical style of summer vacation snapshots: sitting on a swing, lazing in a wagon, seated with her head in her hand and her elbow on her knee. Drawn in what appears to be red crayon, then photographed, the images exude a deathly vulnerability.

It’s hard to know just where this awful sensation comes from, but it may have something to do with the dissonance that arises between a photographic snapshot, which is instantaneous, and a drawing, which is labored over and thus inevitably filled with the traces of time. “What Happened to Amy?"--as the suite is titled--proffers an obsessive rumination over the unknowable mysteries of an ordinary past. A viewer’s own half-remembered experience and long-suppressed emotional losses start peeking around the edges of Adler’s art.

In addition to the precedent of Levine’s work, Adler’s photo-drawings recall Mike Kelley’s 1989 series, “Reconstructed History.” Youth and adolescence have also been prime subjects for Kelley’s art, and in “Reconstructed History” he made drawings (usually scatological doodles) on reproductions of famous people or events found in standard high school history textbooks; then, he photographed the result and destroyed the original drawings.

In her most recent work, Adler has taken the process one step further. Lately she has been using simple computer technology to insert her drawn self-portraits into photographic spaces. A technique that might be called cyber-collage, it adds a strange (and as yet not always fully resolved) edge of dislocation to Adler’s otherwise bloodless art.

The principal exception is a very disturbing picture titled “Ace” (1997), in which the androgynous young figure is seen from behind kneeling on the floor, with bright red shorts pulled down around her ankles. (The red shorts, blue shirt and whiteness of the pale skin make for a mordant all-Americanness.) It’s a pose of extreme vulnerability, marked by expectations of punishment and the likelihood of shame.

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The figure’s partially hidden face peers over her shoulder, catching a viewer’s eye. Otherwise unanchored in space against a flat white field, the drawn figure has been given what appears to be a computer-generated, pitch-black shadow along its left contour, creating a dramatic context.

The black shadow gives the already vulnerable figure a visual shove forward, pushing her into an uncomfortably close foreground plane. The shadow’s spectral starkness against the white field surrounds the figure with a sense of glaring light, as if a deer caught in the headlights.

The queasy morbidity of this picture startles. Eyeing the carcass of our fantasies about the blissful innocence of youth, Adler’s best work circles like a vulture.

* Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Feb. 14. Closed Mondays and New Year’s Day.

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