The formal perfection and unique technical style of Lynn Geesaman's garden landscape photographs attest to the artist's many years of concentration on her subject and medium. Her color photographs have a peculiar watery texture, as though painted on thin sheets of glass. Her colors--soft greens and pinks, primarily--are sweet and ethereal. Her black-and-white photographs have a similarly glassy texture and utilize a wide range of creamy grays with a sharpness of focus that makes the images subtly surreal.
Both styles are distinctive and lend an element of fantasy to her solid compositions. At the same time, however, the body of her recent work currently on view at the Stephen Cohen Gallery seems to be poised at a crossroads.
Perhaps because the formal elements of the work are so resolute, the thematic tensions are ever more apparent. They seem to be pushing the work to the limits of its style. There is an uneasiness, for example, in the contrast between the masculine angularity of the narrow tree trunks, which structure many of Geesaman's compositions like disciplined squads of soldiers, and the lush feminine extravagance of the flowers, which engulf others in shapeless waves.
The distant sophistication of the black-and-white format, which tends to favor the sharp lines of the formal gardens, is at odds with the immediate, almost guilty pleasure of the color format, which embraces the broad, grandfatherly oaks and the profuse greenery of the more sensual gardens.
The most pressing tension, however, is the one between the dependable marketability of lovely landscape photographs and the more treacherous space of photographic experimentation. On the whole, Geesaman seems to be treading lightly, as though hesitant to offend either those who will appreciate (and purchase) her photographs for their decorative qualities and those who will value their strangeness.
I fall into the latter camp. In exploring these photographs, I found myself longing for recklessness, for a decisive break with the starched traditions of the picturesque. There is a brilliant quality to her strangeness--the best of her color photographs are like dreamy, girlish acid trips--and I found myself mentally urging her to embrace that strangeness boldly. The path of formal perfection has its share of ruts. It would be a shame to see such dynamic work resign itself to one of them.
* Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 937-5525, through Mar. 10. Closed Sunday and Monday.
The Modern: The early work of Dorr Bothwell, who died last fall at the age of 98, reads like an interpretive textbook of mid-century Modernism. The works on view at Tobey Moss Gallery (which date from 1924-1955) move through art historical categories with the ease and eagerness of a comic doing impressions: Social Realism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Dadaism, etc.
It would not be appropriate to call the work derivative, however. Bothwell was not imitating other artists, but rather participating in contemporary styles as they developed, examining and engaging them on their own terms. In moving through her oeuvre, one comes to appreciate art history--particularly Modern art history--not as a parade of primarily white, male heroes but as a form of community, into which people have entered and worked with a degree of metaphysical entanglement.
This work lacks the sort of signature trademarks that might have distinguished Bothwell's name in popular memory. But in their absence, the work possesses a refreshing sense of versatility and restlessness--driven by an apparently unflagging enthusiasm for color and form. In relieving the viewer of the obligation to grope for grand signature themes, Bothwell's unself-consciously variegated approach allows one to take pleasure in the work's small revelations: the exquisitely smooth rendering of conical rooftops in a Gauguin-like portrait of a Samoan village, for example, or the elegant use of line in a small, wonderfully intimate sketch of a Siamese cat.
Above all, Bothwell's early oeuvre might be characterized as a passionate exploration of the two-dimensional surface. It is not particularly reflective work--not distinguished by great emotional depth or psychological complexity. But its spirit is curious, sprightly, and agile, clearly fascinated with style as a noble exercise, and marked by a seemingly irrepressible and entirely enchanting sense of humor.
* Tobey Moss Gallery, 7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 933-5523, through Feb. 28. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Roaming the City: At ACME, most of the photographs in Kevin Hanley's recent series, "Passing and Resemblance," revolve around a psychological triangle among three primary characters: the observer (or the camera eye), who is always looking down from a position several stories above the ground; an anonymous passerby, somewhere below; and, the unspecified city in which they both roam. The city is depicted as a ubiquitous and ominous presence--a dense web of concrete and steel choked with hardy urban greenery.
The passerby is small, distant and often half-hidden in the tangled compositions. The observer, with whose gaze the viewer is aligned, is elevated but not detached from the city, hopelessly out of reach of the passerby but still consumed by the indifferent geometry of the landscape.
Although conceptually clever and somewhat cool, the images are suffused with a very human sense of solitude and longing. They speak of the desire to understand one's environment and of the experience of simultaneous intimacy and isolation that characterizes city life. These psychological formulas apply even to the few photographs that depict interior spaces.
In these images, the other figure--although only a few feet from the camera--is still out of reach: In one, a woman faces the camera only to be obscured by a long stem of greenery and cut off at the shoulders by the frame of the image. The contrast between the large, light jet prints and the smaller, more intimate chromogenic prints, or C-prints, which alternate within the installation, further emphasizes the interplay of enclosure and alienation.
The frustrations of the urban environment are also expounded in a double-channel video piece that accompanies the photographs. The camera and off-screen cameraman trudge against the current of a moving escalator, to the sound of the cameraman's soft panting. If the photographs offer the viewer a glimpse of the unsympathetic urban landscape, the video literally traps the viewer within it. Because the tape is looped, the cameraman--tragically, maddeningly--never reaches the end of the escalator. He never emerges from the rotating mill of concrete, steel and chrome.
* ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 857-5864, through Feb. 10. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Like a Fairy Tale: Gage Manor--a storybook mansion filled with noble furnishings, brilliantly colored wall hangings, elaborate window casings and spacious porticoes--is home to a superficial but splendidly dressed girl named Tibby, whose mission it is to collect and cage the many species of birds that lurk around the manor, and to the demure Gage sisters, Gwenn and Johanna, who spend their time furtively freeing the birds.
The solemn activities of this carefully sculpted cast of characters is the subject of Siobhan McClure's small and vibrantly colorful narrative paintings at Jan Baum Gallery. The images play like scenes from an updated fairy tale, with a symbolic code, outlined in McClure's statement, that is complex without being obscure.
Gage Manor, with its many chambers, windows and doors, is an elaborate cage as well as a symbol of choice and opportunity. The birds symbolize spirituality, thought and freedom. Water and other fluids symbolize creativity and the unconscious. And the wide variety of cages, jars, bowls, pools and fountains that fill the manor contain and give shape to these nebulous forces. In a sweet metaphor for the human (and particularly female) experience of maturation and growth, the Gage girls maneuver their way carefully through this world, collecting the maps (knowledge) and the oranges (art) that they need to ultimately release them from the manor's walls.
Although McClure's figures are somewhat stiff and often seem more like characters from a grade school textbook than occupants of a fairy tale, her colors are intense and brilliantly arranged, which lends a complex character to each of the manor's many rooms. The strong color also complements the
small size of the paintings, giving them a riveting, jewel-like quality. Clearly executed with great care and conscientious affection, the paintings are precious, memorable vignettes.
* Jan Baum Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 932-0170, through Feb. 23. Closed Sunday and Monday.