Fine art photography, still a relative youngster in the art world after all these years, has, like a restless youth, taken its ongoing search for identity in stride. Experimenting and stretching traditions come with the territory anyway, especially at a time when the technology of image-making is changing so rapidly.
That searching tendency is the real subject of the aptly named exhibition "Photo-Synthesis" at the Finegood Gallery. Each of the nine photographers showing here, in different ways and different degrees, veers in a stylistic direction away from photography's presumably reportorial function.
Often, the motive is to find abstraction lurking within the realm of the everyday. Jerry Kornfeld's "Aspen Hieroglyphics" is a close-up black-and-white image, focusing on the inherent dark and light interplay of patterns found in tree bark. Yitzhak Dalel's "Penguins" is a closely cropped depiction of black and white umbrellas, slyly conveying the impression of the title.
Dalel is unabashedly playful, as when he shows a narrow vertical shot of some unexplained barrels and chains and calls it "Thread and Thimbles." "Georgia O." evokes Georgia O'Keeffe's floral sensibility, but with arcs and folds of metal objects--machinery or sculpture? We're not given enough context to be sure.
With his photo-monoprints, Steven Peckman goes all the way into an imaginary visual realm of his own devising. Large panels in the "Silence" series draw on chemical manipulations to create a murky and enigmatic space that we can't quite account for. Hints of crumpled material and porous tissue lead us to read into these works a sense of biological investigation or travels into inner space.
John Dugan plays with expectations in a different way, setting up odd tableaux in which matters of scale and context are cleverly confused. Images with a tiny pyramid, tubes on a carpet that suggest silos, wheat stalks with a little umbrella-like swizzle stick add up to a mildly subversive imagination at work. Eleanor Davidorf's aesthetic conceit has to do with the way her manipulated Polaroids suggest the looser expressive qualities of painting rather than the sharply detailing nature of photography in the normal sense.
Marvin Rand looks no further than the inherent intrigue of buildings for his artistic material. With a highly selective eye for composition and a rich sense of color, Rand's "Architecture" series of photographs is powerful for its directness. He plays up the dizzy spiral of a stairwell or the oddly balanced cropping of a window, with its austere rhythm of lines, reminding us of a constructivist painting.
Architecture plays a very different role in Martin Schapiro's shots of dilapidated, rustic structures in sparse, natural settings. These buildings appear as unassuming human casings in remote landscapes, humbled by the surrounding forces of nature. Melodie Kleinman too finds poetry at the juncture of natural settings and human structures: "Caesaria Aqueduct" is a view beneath an arched bridge, with the upper left of the picture overexposed to underscore the aridity of its Middle Eastern setting.
The "straight man" of the show, relatively speaking, is Burns C. Steele, whose color-drenched images from various global spots, from Australia to Kenya, make for a micro-travelogue. The work is strong enough on its own familiar terms but seems out of place in this exhibition, largely based on photography that sidesteps tradition and embraces individuality.
That said, it's a fairly mild-mannered show, which finds artists gently tugging at norms instead of thrashing wildly at them.
* "Photo-Synthesis," through March 8 at the Finegood Gallery, West Valley Jewish Community Center, 22622 Vanowen St. in West Hills. Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; (818) 587-3218.
Looking Back, Defigured Art: Ruth Sharff Rossman, who has a retrospective show of paintings and drawings at the Platt Gallery, calls her work "a form of romantic expressionism." That's close enough a description of art that teeters, sometimes precariously, between figurative and abstract modes.
Rossman's work here deploys various means of distorting reality and disfiguring figures, though never in a brutal or overbearing way. "Dangling Figures" depicts children on a jungle gym, transformed into studies in amorphous shape. The subjects of "Woman With Rooster," the best work here, are rendered with an intuitively loose style, blurring details and encouraging impressionistic readings.
Quaint anachronism rears its head with her images of '60s-era go-go dancers, viewed in the gaudy but contagious frenzy of soul music dance shows on televisions, and here seen in a kinetic whir of imagery, tied to a vague sexual energy.
On a far less frivolous subject, she also shows "Family Group at Auschwitz," in which figures are dehumanized, transformed into ghosts with featureless faces. In her "Park Bench Series," figures are reduced to white in surreal, serene contexts, as if frozen into sculptures in sanitized garden environs.
The point of this work, apparently, is that there are many ways, and many reasons, to swath figures in schemes of abstraction. Enclosed are several of them.
* "Ruth Rossman: A Retrospective," through March 18 at the Platt Gallery, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive. Sun.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; (310) 476-9777, Ext. 203.