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Watching Art Watchers Is an Art in Itself

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you think going to a museum to look at pictures of people looking at pictures is redundant, you’ll probably be put off by Thomas Struth’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened Sunday.

But that would be your loss. Struth’s photographs invite viewers to contemplate peculiar details, rewarding us with intriguing pleasures.

The 48-year-old German artist’s midcareer survey, which was organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, consists of 93 photographs. They come in three sizes: huge color prints affixed to the backs of gigantic sheets of Plexiglas and set in steely gray frames; medium-size color pictures mounted similarly; and small black-and-white photographs framed traditionally.

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At MOCA, the user-friendly exhibition fills three galleries. The first contains nine big color prints Struth made between 1988 and 1992, when he visited museums in London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Naples, Venice and Chicago. They form the show’s overture, introducing viewers to major themes and providing a model of how its pictures work.

The first one is a straight-on shot of three early Renaissance paintings in London’s National Gallery. Titled “National Gallery, London,” Struth’s photograph does not identify the paintings it depicts.

Everything that happens in his meticulously composed image also takes place outside its frame, right where you’re standing. In the photograph, five ordinary viewers are oblivious to Struth’s camera: Their backs to the photographer, they face the same direction we do, toward an elaborately framed, nearly life-size painting of the Apostle Thomas examining the wound in Christ’s side. The other disciples’ faces register a wide range of emotions, from I-told-you-so sanctimony to relief that someone else had the nerve to do what they were afraid to.

Struth’s choice of subject matter is instructive. Although religious belief is not as pervasive as it was when the painting was made, doubt is--especially doubt about art. And yet art’s powers are believed in by many, even if they can’t be articulated clearly.

The see-for-yourself, science-inspired skepticism embodied by Thomas runs throughout Struth’s oeuvre. It’s palpable in his best pictures, which seem to be unsure about their relationship to the real world and uncertain about photography’s capacity to capture what’s important about the present. Their doubt is infectious, even quietly exciting, especially when it heightens one’s perception of the mysteriousness of simple things.

The painting’s composition is also significant. It provides the architecture around which Struth builds his image. On the blank back wall of the symmetrical room in which Christ and the Apostles stand, a pair of arched windows open onto a fanciful landscape. This illusionistic deep space functions as a pictorial counterweight to the space in which viewers actually stand.

Moving from the painted landscape to the painted room and on to the photographed gallery, your eye picks up enough momentum to jump from the two-dimensional realm of art to the 3-D space of real life. By setting pictures within pictures and worlds within worlds, Struth plays a sort of visual shell game, shuffling their frames so adeptly that you feel as if you’re included in the drama.

The remaining eight photographs in the introductory gallery present variations on this theme. Moments of serenity take shape amid chaos, both within the paintings and amid the people looking at them.

To make these images, Struth patiently waited until unsuspecting museum visitors mirrored the postures of the painted figures or mimicked their activities, either metaphorically or literally. The idea that photography is a reproductive art takes a funny turn in his work. Treating both painterly and photographic representations as engines that set your imagination in motion, his pictures drive viewers to determine just where they stand in relation to what they see.

The second gallery takes us into the street and back in time. Small black-and-white photographs, most of which were made between 1977 and 1988, depict empty city streets in New York, Chicago, Paris, Rome and Tokyo. Made just after daybreak, when most people are sleeping, they transform the most banal, often ugly urban scenes into delicious little interludes from the cacophony of life in the big city.

Although silence and solitude are these works’ main ingredients, Struth shows his sense of humor in “Piazza Augusto” (1984), in which a huge stone statue of a bishop appears to beseech the heavens on behalf of a pair of street-cleaner’s pushcarts.

In another, Struth acts like a movie director, which deadens the effect of his otherwise engaging works. A big color print from 2001 depicts a gallery in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. More than 40 visitors mill around the antiquities. But the serendipitous magic that Struth captures in his other interiors is absent from this one, whose viewers appear to be models hired for the shoot. They lack the inimitable diversity of randomly gathered crowds and appear, instead, to be a well-heeled class of fashionably dressed art students.

Standing around and looking as if you’re looking at art is nothing like actually doing it. If Struth expects viewers to patiently study his works, he should have the patience to wait for undirected groups to spontaneously arrange themselves in compositions that interest him.

The largest gallery consists of seven room-size spaces arranged in a counterclockwise spiral. The first room displays six family portraits, and the final one--at the center of all the others--features six views of lush forests, all titled “Paradise.” To follow the path set up by the sensitively laid-out installation is to find yourself more and more alone with your thoughts--hell for people addicted to the distraction of rapid-fire visual stimulation but exquisite for the rest of us.

Struth’s portraits of families bring as many as 14 relatives together, often packing them on overburdened furniture or in the corner of small kitchens. Despite their cramped quarters, and facial features that rhyme with one another, each sitter appears to inhabit his own world. Struth achieves this effect by using a slow shutter speed. The people who sit stillest come out the clearest; those who move the most are the blurriest. The longer you look, the more attuned you become to these subtleties. When you focus on an individual, you feel as if all his or her relatives are staring at you. Distance and intimacy intermingle.

The next rooms take you to a cathedral in Milan, a parking lot in Dallas, a harbor in China, a casino in Las Vegas, a subway station in Tokyo, a meadow in Bavaria and a national park in California. Even the pictures that include scores of people invite a type of romantic reverie that makes them feel as if they were made for you alone.

Of course that’s an illusion, but Struth’s uncanny photographs allow you to entertain it longer--and more intensely--than usual. His resplendent images of forests, shot in Australia, Japan, China, Germany and Brazil between 1998 and 2001, are dazzlingly sensuous feasts of color, texture and light, each leaf or frond a tiny testament to the beauty of mundane details.

Strange as it may seem, Struth is a realist whose true love is daydreaming. The escapism that takes shape in his clear-eyed pictures is not the programmed kind found on group tours or packaged and delivered by mass entertainments. Charming and almost quaint in their emphasis on individual experience, his often-spectacular photographs redeem the ordinary world by emphasizing its richness.

*

“Thomas Struth,” Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., L.A., (213) 621-2766, through Jan. 5. Closed Mondays. Adults, $8; students, $5; children under 12, free.


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