Russian Photos Trace Images of Mortality and Memory


Alexey Titarenko's intriguing photographs at Apex Fine Art are stills that have the presence of short films. Instead of seizing an instant and preserving it intact, they embrace a span of time, allowing it to pass and leave just a trace.

Photographic film has a different sort of memory from the human mind, heart or eye. The mechanics of the lens and light-sensitive chemicals are well understood, but images such as Titarenko's remind us that photographs can still be elusive. Just like images stored in the mind, those captured on film are at once true and reliable, false and selective.

In his "City of Shadows" series on view here (in an Absolut L.A. International Biennial show), Titarenko explores his native St. Petersburg (Leningrad). It is the feel of the city he is after, more than its outward appearance. Familiar monuments are nowhere to be seen, and the buildings on city streets, however grand, function here like the sturdy banks of a river. Life teems by, with a force and personality of its own. All of the photographs are exterior shots made in public places, but Titarenko wrests from the white noise of urbanity a sense of the quiet, private space of the individual.

In one especially poignant example from 1999, an older Russian woman in archetypal heavy coat, scarf and boots sits on pavement that seems to erode beneath her. With a look of resigned exhaustion on her face, she holds an envelope in her gloved hands, and her shopping bag rests beside her. Her stillness and interiority contrast with the blurred crowds that move like wisps of gray through the square behind her. The picture brings to mind Dorothea Lange's "White Angel Bread Line" of 1932 in its stunning portrait of the singularity of suffering.

In a lighter, more playful vein, Titarenko frames a rain-soaked, leaf-scattered street devoid of life but for the faint echo of a woman's leg, repeated in three whispered beats. In another photograph, he shows the railing of a stairway with a foggy blur of hands and bodies brushing against it, gripping it, sliding along it.

St. Petersburg, in Titarenko's photographs, is a bleak, wintry place, forever wet and cold. Figures huddle in their heavy coats, well-wrapped souls trying to find safe passage through the stony city. In the end, Titarenko's stirring images are portraits of mortality as much as they are evocations of memory. In them, we see that the traces we leave in space and time are faint, yet nonetheless indelible.

Apex Fine Art, 152 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 634-7887, through Aug. 18. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Crunch the Numbers: In this bottom-line culture, what can't be counted doesn't count. Measurable speed matters; the substance of the information conveyed through it does not. Globalization yields quantifiable profits, but its effect on the quality of life for makers, sellers and users around the world is harder to assess.

Guy Limone's most captivating works at Michael Kohn Gallery work to narrow the gap between the qualitative and the quantitative. By translating statistics into tangible form, they encourage us to see numbers in terms of lives, instead of the other way around.

"In the USA, 2400 cinemas closed in the year 2000" is both a lamentable statistic and the title of a mesmerizing sculptural installation. Along a narrow white shelf mounted at eye level and spanning 26 continuous feet, Limone has arrayed 2,400 tiny plastic figures, one for each closed movie house. The figures derive from model railroad sets of various scales, the tiniest standing at about a quarter-inch high, and the tallest about 3 inches.

Limone has painted them all the same turquoise blue, but they are tremendously diverse in type and position. There are men with shovels, veiled women with pots balanced atop their heads, jockeys, dreamers, people walking, working, welcoming, children, old people, lovers, babies. The sheer expanse of life represented along this shelf is vivifying, until it's recalled that each of these miniature lives stands for a loss, an absence rather than a presence.

Limone, a French artist in his second Absolut L.A. International Biennial show at the gallery, uses a similar strategy in an earlier work, "1 out of 420 Americans is a Doctor" (1998). Here, all of the figures are of uniform scale, 11/2 inches high, but they range in flesh tone, and they fill a shelf more than 6 feet long. Again, there are bike riders, construction workers, men smoking pipes and girls in braided pigtails, but at the far left end is the single doctor in his white coat.

Is he bent slightly, as if straining to hear? Or, does it just seem so because Limone's visualization of the statistic makes it appear as if all 419 men, women and children are waiting in line for the doctor's attention? Even though these numbers tell only part of the story, Limone's piece is a starkly affecting visualization of the inadequacy of health care in the U.S.

Limone gets simplistic elsewhere in the show--in his "Collection" pieces, where he has gathered color-coordinated cutouts from advertisements and brochures, and arrayed them on shelves with clinical efficiency. The works using miniature surrogates manage to be simple without being simplistic. They are suggestive of play and at the same time slightly redolent of death. Tribute-like, they mark the passing of certain qualities of life, intimacy and variety that have lost their relevance in the race toward efficiency and profitability.

Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 658-8088, through Aug. 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Dust to Dust: Etruscan art is one acknowledged influence, religious statuary (Buddhist and Christian) is another, but what emerges as the primary source of Georges Jeanclos' breathtaking sculpture is a deeply private inner well of both pain and love.

Jeanclos was born in Paris in 1933, the same year Hitler ascended to power in Germany. A decade later, Hitler's forces held much of Europe hostage, and Jeanclos' childhood with it. For a year, the Jeanclos family, Jewish and thus subject to deportation, lived in hiding in a forest near Vichy. Circumstances stripped Jeanclos early of the comforts of innocence and a natural sense of security. The loss of these gifts and also their later restoration came to figure prominently in the artist's work, charging it with an exquisite emotional density.

The work of Jeanclos' final two decades (he died in 1997) is the subject of a stunning Frank Lloyd Gallery show that's another of the fine introductions offered under the umbrella of the Absolut L.A. International Biennial.

Even before the imagery of Jeanclos' work registers, one senses its fragility--not just a material delicacy, but a more profound psychic vulnerability. Made of terra cotta the color of dust, the surface rippling like wrinkled skin or cracked like fissured land, the sculptures make palpable the notion of man as emerging and returning to the dust of the earth.

Many of the small, tabletop works show figures wrapped in thin blankets of clay. Partially sheltered, partially exposed, they draw themselves inward in a posture of self-protection. Similarly, sleeping figures are, at once, in hiding and at rest, craving the refuge of sleep's temporary death.

Excerpts from Psalms and the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, wrap in raised letters around several of the sculptures, transforming them into memorials. But the figures that Jeanclos sculpts with such extraordinary feeling are themselves very much alive. Several express that vitality through gestures of tenderness, Adam to Eve, woman to her lover, whose head is cradled in her lap, Pieta-like.

However encrusted the cloak or roughhewn the blanket sheathing them, the figures within retain peaceful expressions, expressions of utter purity. The incongruity is not accidental. "I wanted to keep the face," Jeanclos wrote, "make it a point of persistence ... exempt of all wounds and offenses....Those faces pay witness to our hope, they are the survivors."

Frank Lloyd Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-3866, through Aug. 18. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Colors of the Year: First impressions can be misleading. Such seems to be the case with Giovanni Frangi's paintings at Ruth Bachofner Gallery as part of the Absolut L.A. International Biennial. Even in the reduced scale and with the compromised veracity of reproductions, catalogs illustrating Frangi's work evidence a far richer and more complex sensibility than is manifest here in the dozen paintings that make up the Italian artist's L.A. debut.

The works relate as a group, each titled after a month of the year and hung in chronological order. Although suggestive of hilly landscapes, the paintings read more as formal experimentation than as literal description. Strokes and slashes imply the horizon, arching lines and diagonals hint at land forms. Landscape may be the vehicle, and even the inspiration for the series, but gesture, textural play and vigorous color are its driving impulses.

Frangi keys each canvas to a different chromatic scheme, only loosely linked to the month of its title. March and April buzz with a green the color of fresh young shoots, while December and January are a cloying combination of hot pink and orange. February is a clatter of orange and red across a silver ground.

Some of the paintings have a fresh, sketchy charm, even a lyricism. The physicality of their execution is mildly compelling, and the dialogue staged between pigment slathered on like frosting and areas of paint that are parched and crusty engages briefly. Variations in the speed of lines--rapid slashes, lazy curves--are also of some interest. But overall, these are slight, unremarkable works by an artist clearly capable of much more. Let's hope a future show here gives Frangi a better chance to shine.

Ruth Bachofner Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 829-3300, through Sept. 1. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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