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Portraits That Go Way Beyond Face Value

TIMES ART CRITIC

There’s something simple and elegant about Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg’s portraits, which are on view in a strong exhibition organized by independent curator Aleim Johnson at the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies. She uses her camera as a modest yet powerful tool with which to shift the sitters’ context, which in turn makes us see them in a new way.

The original context couldn’t be more clouded, conflicted and highly charged. As recounted in a perceptive, no-nonsense catalog essay by writer and photographer Carla Williams, Lixenberg spent a month in 1993 going daily to Imperial Courts in Watts to observe and photograph the residents there. The second trial of the police officers accused in the brutal beating of Rodney King was underway. Imperial Courts, one of the largest federal housing projects in the city, had been inundated with mass media using the site as a reference point.

In Lixenberg’s pictures, none of that is evident. Instead, she approaches her subjects almost in the manner of typological photographers like August Sander, Bernd and Hilla Becher or Judy Fiskin. A fairly strict, Minimalist-inspired format is repeated in every photograph, regardless of the sitter, while the complex personal exigencies of individual identity are left almost entirely to surface elements, such as clothing, hair, jewelry and body decoration and stance. (Formally, the pictures also recall the 1970s portrait paintings of Barkley L. Hendricks, which aren’t well-known.)

All 18 photographs are black-and-white, vertically oriented, 40 inches high and 30 inches wide. Typically the subjects are posed frontally and shown three-quarter length, and they dominate the frame. Backgrounds are blank, blurred or used mainly to reinforce the picture’s planar grid, rather than to locate the sitter in a socially or psychologically telling environment.

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Employing a 4-by-5 view camera mounted on a tripod, Lixenberg makes her figures iconic. Their placement in the composition emphasizes the geometric framing edges of the photograph: the sinuous line of DJ’s back splits his picture in two, top to bottom; the top of Mona’s head cuts hers vertically in half; a sharp diagonal slide is created by Coco’s thrusting elbows and protruding, pregnant belly, and by Toussaint’s stretched-out body on a folding chair; a cascading pattern of curves--playground rings, big hoop earrings, voluptuous breasts--marks the figure called J50.

Ironically, this emphasis on qualities of photographic artifice sweeps away all of the psychosocial clutter that inevitably stands between oneself and people whose public representation has been largely determined by the requirements of mass media. During the police brutality trial, psychological and sociological issues were front and center. Lixenberg--whose celebrity portraits have been widely published--here gets as far away as possible from familiar formats of photojournalism and documentary expose, or the related ones of black-and-white street photography. Her old-fashioned view camera and tripod are the antithesis of action-news equipment, and in the difference lies--well, difference. The result is a beautiful series of riveting images.

In the small rear gallery, a second group of eight color portraits of individual women fares less well. Taken last year at an Indiana homeless shelter, they reiterate the general format of the Imperial Courts photographs. The use of color, though, tends to make the pictures bland. In today’s image-saturated environment, black-and-white signals dislocation from the norm, while color implies transparency and truth. Photographers such as Thomas Struth and Sharon Lockhart exploit Cibachrome slickness to set their color pictures apart, but Lixenberg’s softly muted images look like rather ordinary color portraits simply enlarged.

* Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, 6518 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 466-6232, through June 15. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

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