Photos of War, Beauty Reveal Distance Between Generations


James Fee's new photographs pay homage to his father, a World War II veteran who survived some of the most vicious hand-to-hand combat in the South Pacific and committed suicide in 1972. At Craig Krull Gallery, 18 small black-and-white snapshots Russell Fee made during the battle for Peleliu are interspersed among 22 large color prints by his son, who has visited the tiny tropical island in Micronesia three times since 1998. Together, the pictures tell a hauntingly familiar tale about the distance that separates American generations, whether or not a war intervened.

The images by both men share a similar impulse: to bring viewers back to a sense of what they experienced in a far-off land. And that's where the similarities end. Even though father and son traveled to the same place, what they saw--and what they photographed--are worlds apart.

For one thing, the curled, creased and imperfectly exposed images from 1944 were never meant to be seen as works of art. Made by an amateur, they were intended for scrapbooks and shoe boxes, where they'd preserve personal memories and convey, to friends and relatives, part of a family's history.

In contrast, the younger Fee's big glossy Chromogenic prints are self-conscious works of art. Often theatrically lit, exposed for extended periods of time and shot from dramatic points of view, these beautifully composed and sumptuously printed images are intended for public exhibition.

More important, each man's photographs are true to the era in which they were made. The father's express an ethos of button-down restraint, of doing one's duty no matter how hellish it got.

Not a trace of bravado or over-dramatized sentimentality suffuses any of his straightforward shots of fellow Marines huddling on a ridge, firing artillery or posing for a portrait outside a field hospital. Likewise, his depictions of overrun enemy positions, crashed planes, destroyed tanks, prisoners of war and a dead Japanese infantryman (whose boots have been stolen) are equally understated. The sense of stoic restraint embodied by his matter-of-fact pictures takes on greater resonance when you learn that two months of fierce fighting on the five-square-mile island resulted in more than 20,000 casualties.

No people appear in any of the son's photographs, which use more sophisticated cameras and film to capture the fleeting effects of sunlight as it filters through the jungle's lush canopy, spills into a shadowy cave, glistens off the ocean's turquoise surface and transforms a cloud bank into a symphony of crimson. Atmosphere is everything in these works, which embark on an inward journey whose goal is to come to terms with the emotional torment that neither father nor son could leave behind on the island.

A side gallery displays nine mono-prints Fee made last year with his father's negatives. Using a duo-tone solarization process that endows them with a fiery orange glow, these torn, taped and superimposed images are too claustrophobic in their evocation of painful memories. They lack the expansiveness of the rest of the photographs, which resonate across the years that separate generations.

* Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410. Through Aug. 11. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Tools of the Trade: Alexandre Arrechea, Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez are three young Cuban artists who make up "Los Carpinteros" (The Carpenters), a Havana-based group of collaborators whose humorous works have been well-received by U.S. museums and collectors, especially since they received the UNESCO prize at last year's Havana Biennial. At Grant Selwyn Fine Art, the trio's third solo show in Los Angeles in three years is disappointing. The sculptures fail to measure up to the attention that is being lavished upon them.

A sanitized version of Surrealism (which is much more benign than anything used by the advertising industry) takes shape in the dull exhibition. Each of its nine pieces consists of a pair of unrelated elements.

For example, the artists have built a sofa, a small stairway and a 4-foot wall with the materials ordinarily used to make kitchen stoves. Gas or electric burners cover the horizontal surfaces of each shiny white object, which resembles an appliance whose dual functions are at cross-purposes.

Neither plugged in nor connected to gas lines, the dysfunctional sculptures are meant to light a fire in your mind. While the sofa literally illustrates the idea of sitting on a hot seat, the burners on the stairs and the wall stretch the metaphor too far. You begin to suspect that the demand for new products by the popular group has surpassed its members' supply of good ideas.

The next set of works confirms this suspicion. "Library (Part I)," "Library (Part II)" and "Library (Part III)": Each consists of 36 tape measures the artists have modified. In place of the numbers and lines that ordinarily designate inches or centimeters, they have stenciled the first few sentences of books that have been banned at various times and in various places.

The inventory is impressive if far from revelatory. "On the Origin of the Species," "Das Kapital" and "The Stalin School of Falsification" rest alongside "Ulysses," "Lolita" and "Hamlet." Likewise, "Tarzan of the Apes," "James and the Giant Peach" and "The Story of Little Black Sambo" share space with "The Joy of Gay Sex" and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

At their best, these pieces link manual labor to intellectual work by evoking the idea of smuggling--of hiding contraband in innocent objects. However, the relationship between the banned books and the tape measures is too arbitrary to amount to much more than a clever exercise in commercial packaging. In the hands of "Los Carpinteros," a common carpenter's tool becomes a symbol of group identity, giving their uninventive works the brand-name recognition advertisers crave.

The show continues into the gallery's office, where a carpenter's oversized toolbox takes the place of a metal filing cabinet's drawer. A visual pun that you don't need to see in person to understand in full, this work was shown in Los Angeles three years ago. Obvious then, it hasn't improved with age. It is dispiriting to see a promising group get stuck repeating itself.

* Grant Selwyn Fine Art, 341 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 777-2400. Through Aug. 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Compositions of Reality: If Charles Sheeler had spent more time painting interiors and still lifes, he probably would have ended up making works like Bruce Cohen's: dazzlingly precise yet resolutely artificial oils on canvas in which ordinary household items are bathed in ambient light so exquisite that it makes everything it touches look crisper, clearer and more vivid than usual.

Such adjectives are the lifeblood of Realism, but in Cohen's art they lead ever more deeply into a world of operatic artifice. Here, flagrant fakery and earnest authenticity play leapfrog with one another, catapulting viewers into a charged realm of impeccably refined manners and preposterously simple illusions.

At Michael Kohn Gallery, which recently moved to new quarters, six pictures by the L.A. painter fall into three groups. The two smallest canvases are the simplest. Atop creased or folded linen tablecloths, each juxtaposes a pair of apples or oranges with an envelope or book of matches.

The fabric and fruit appear to have the heft and volume of real things. In contrast, the unsealed envelope and open book of matches seem to be barely there. It is as if they do not occupy the material world but hover in the conceptual space of idealized geometry. Such carefully calibrated inconsistencies throw a monkey wrench into the masterful illusionism each image orchestrates.

The bigger paintings are even better. Complexities multiply in two mid-size works, which feature crystalline still lifes made up of eccentric configurations of ripe fruits, freshly cut flowers and stylish vases, as well as ordinary plates, bottles and books.

The biggest paintings are the best. Each presents two or three separate still lifes, which rest on tables, desks and dressers in accurately depicted rooms. In the backgrounds, doors, arches and windows open onto other rooms, framing additional views that maintain the meticulous formality of Cohen's smaller works. In these deftly composed pictures, there's no end to the paths along which your eyes travel: Constantly circling back, they reveal details you missed the first time around.

* Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., (323) 658-8088. Through July 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Chaos Around the Corner: At London Street Projects, three new paintings, a poster and an arrangement of fake flowers by Daniel Mendel-Black toy with the idea of installation art. Fortunately, the young L.A. painter's acrylics on panel and canvas don't need to be dressed up with such incidental extras. Naked painting is what Mendel-Black does best.

Each of his rectangular abstractions resembles an aerial view of suburban plot divisions. Most of the lines that divide the picture-plane into four-sided sections run in roughly horizontal and vertical directions. But some fall diagonally, breaking the regularity of the grid into a loose patchwork of oddly angled parts.

In these thoughtful works, order is never so inflexible that there isn't room for randomness. Chaos is always right around the corner.

This is where color enters the picture. Luscious purples, resplendent greens and delicious crimsons overrun their borders, transforming individual units into color-coordinated clusters. Like lively neighborhoods, Mendel-Black's paintings are abuzz with activity that looks crazy from close up--but falls into patterns that make sense when seen from a distance.

* London Street Projects, 2924 Bellevue Ave., Silver Lake, (213) 413-1210. Through July 15. Open Saturdays.

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