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Hundreds of Collage Panel Images Add Up to Germany’s Past

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was Theodor Adorno who first questioned whether art was valid after Auschwitz. Many a novel, poem, painting and film created since then has justified itself by virtue of its own compelling form, or because it keeps alive the very lessons Auschwitz taught about the extremes of human potential. Documentary evidence of crime, of cataclysm, renders one type of truth. Art delivers another, just as close to the bone.

Harley Gaber’s vast, absorbing installation at the Laboratory steeps its viewers in the visual vocabulary of German politics and culture from the end of the first World War through the end of the second. Neither oppressively didactic nor consistently propagandistic, the work captures the tumult and terror of those years through a thoughtful, aggressive barrage of images.

Gaber, who is based in the Bay Area, has been working on this project, titled “Die Plage (The Plague),” since 1993, and expects it to number more than 5,000 separate canvases when completed. Only a fraction of the total project is on view here (just over 700 canvases), but the impact is substantial. The 20-by-16-inch panels, aligned in a neat grid formation, cover every available wall. Gaber has painted each canvas gray and covered it, wholly or partially, with photocollage.

The heart of the show is made up of four continuous sections, whose subjects progress chronologically from the promising dynamism of the Weimar Republic through the depravities of the Nazi regime. In this terrifically engaging panorama, Gaber uses both the imagery and visual strategies of German art from those decades to invoke the character of the times.

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Dadaist disjunctions set the rhythm early on, in collages with radical shifts in scale, like those pioneered by Hannah Hoch. The art of social critics George Grosz and Otto Dix further infuse Gaber’s effort with the edgy excitement of a roiling culture, fertile and feral at the same time.

Photographs from the period, sliced and reconfigured, show fragments of key events--the 1936 Olympics, for instance--amid slivers and patches of atmosphere: the imposing colonnades of fascist architecture, Nazis marching at the Reichstag, children in military uniform ushering in the regime of their new, charismatic leader. Hitler shows up in a multitude of scandalous guises, with his adult head on a schoolboy’s body, and in the final section atop a dumb, frisky puppy.

The witty, John Heartfield-indebted graphics of the last section punctuate the chronology with the clarity and verve of an exclamation point. Many of these canvases sport caption-like phrases that, paired with cunning cut-and-pasted images, mock the Nazis’ self-righteous nationalist rhetoric. The text running down the side of one panel reads “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Schwein"--one people, one empire, one pig. The image of a uniformed soldier beside it has been surgically altered to look four-legged and to bear a skull in the middle of his face that, amazingly, reads as a snout. Gaber’s tour through time is a fully immersive experience, and he makes a perceptive, dedicated and ambitious guide.

* The Laboratory, 835 S. Spring St., (213) 689-4725, through Oct. 21. Open Tuesdays through Fridays; Saturdays by appointment. Closed Sundays.

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Lightweight Photos: Liza Ryan’s new photographs at Griffin Contemporary rely more--too much more--on the power of associative thought than on sheer visual appeal. Ryan is stingy in her gifts to the eye.

Her pictures are made up of hints and oblique glances, fragments of the banal. What she gives are opportunities for the mind to wander, some starting points that are neither auspicious nor particularly inspiring. The work has the external feel of poetry--reductive, distilled, nonlinear--but lacks poetry’s keenness of observation.

The color photographs from her series “The Weight of Light” are grouped in twos and threes. One image from each set shows clouds--bluish, grayish or mottled--and the others snippets from the domestic realm below: a doormat on brick paving; a delicate vine against a white wall; a chair whose occupant leans away, out of the frame. Human presence is minimal and all but stripped of personality. One image of a weathered wooden table piled with lace-trimmed linens brims with character and texture compared to the other slightly grainy, off-center views, which flaunt a sense of cool detachment.

A separate sequence of small black-and-white prints invites a brief quiver of nostalgia, with its glimpse of a carpeted stairway in dim light, or the corner of an ornately framed mirror. These play, ambivalently, with collective memory, anticipating the viewer’s unconscious completion of these familiar domestic settings.

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A recently published book of Ryan’s work from 1993 to the present contains provocative evidence of a deeper, more complex visual sensibility than is present here. Work of such insistent neutrality is hot these days--witness the popularity of Uta Barth, Thomas Ruff, Rineke Dijkstra and others--but anti-heroics and indecisive moments quickly wear thin, however soberly presented. Perhaps a better title for this work would be “The Weight of Lite.”

* Griffin Contemporary, 915 Electric Ave., Venice, (310) 452-1014, through Nov. 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Celebrating Life Forces: Linda Vallejo’s paintings are generated by her deeply felt connection to exactly those fundamental life forces--birth, nature, spirit--that are spurned as quaint or old-fashioned by the hippest tier of the contemporary art world. Her recent paintings at the Social and Public Art Resources Center are celebratory and not the least cynical. Their beauty hasn’t even a tinge of irony. Though predictable in some respects, they please the eye and offer a welcome form of nourishment to the heart.

Vallejo visualizes the unity of all living things by layering them, so that Mother Earth and Father Sky appear as translucent figures looming large on the arced horizon. This approach verges on kitsch at times, but when it works, as in “Eternal Seed,” it works gloriously. Painted with a lush sensuality reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe, “Eternal Seed” pictures a standing woman merging with the sinuous, foliate forms that rise around her. She is birthed by the Earth and in turn can give birth. Cradled under one breast is a sphere, its roundness a symbol of fertility and renewal.

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Drawn from a series now more than 50 strong, Vallejo’s images of the sky--"Los Cielos/The Heavens"--give this show its name and some of its more striking moments. Ruminations on vastness more than precise transcriptions of cloud patterns, the paintings range from slightly cloying and saccharine in palette to richly layered records of wonder.

For Vallejo, an L.A. native with a deep interest in the function of ceremony, these paintings serve, perhaps, as acts of prayer. For the viewer, they are at the least a soothing poultice.

* Social and Public Art Resource Center, 685 Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-9560, through Nov. 5. Closed Saturdays.

Strictly for Surfers: If you can’t tell a longboard from a diving board, “Surf Trip,” at Track 16 Gallery, won’t do much in the way of remedial education. Aimed primarily at surfing aficionados, the show isn’t tight enough curatorially or compelling enough visually to turn the tide for ambivalent visitors.

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Bob Carrillo organized the show with Rene de Guzman for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and in a posted statement he sets the stage for a thoughtful look into the evolution of surf culture, from its origins 2,500 years ago among Polynesian royals, through the Beach Boys, Frankie and Annette, the ubiquitous Hawaiian shirt and the cyclically trendy puka shell necklace.

The show itself, though, hasn’t any structure that corresponds with the sociological and historical issues Carrillo raises. A rambling hodgepodge, its videos, paintings, photographs, installations and racks of surfboards are left to speak for themselves; but they do so in a coded tongue inaccessible--and not particularly engaging--to the uninitiated.

Kevin Ancell’s unsettling array of life-size, hip-swaying, battered and burned-out hula dancers certainly mesmerizes, a Sandow Birk painting is always worth attention and Margaret Kilgallen’s wall painting is charming and snappy. But few other artists among the two dozen included offer much that is memorable.

Keith Tallet’s slick panel paintings hint at the influence that synthetic surfboard materials have had on the “finish fetish” art of Southern California, but the connection is neither acknowledged nor developed.

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Elizabeth Pepin’s photo-portraits of female surfers prove that the sport’s image as a male-only domain is obsolete, but the pictures are thoroughly bland. Carrillo might be right that California’s surfing culture is “much deeper than people realize,” but a superficial show like this won’t convince the doubtful.

* Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-4678, through Nov. 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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