A lens and a mirror

Special to The Times

If you drive in Los Angeles, it's hard to miss the Dove Firming Lotion billboards that show hefty women smiling widely as they strike playful poses in underwear my grandmother would approve of.

And if you visit "Likeness: Portraits of Artists by Other Artists" at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum, you can't miss the art world's version of the same thing: Heather Cantrell's glossy photograph of Mary Kelly lounging poolside like a stern odalisque.

The ad campaign and the portrait mess with the expectations viewers commonly bring to pictures of women. The first puts big-boned babes where we're used to seeing lithe hotties. The second puts a conservatively dressed academic known for her morally serious artworks in a setting more familiar to sunbathing, cocktail parties and other silly pleasures.

Hair tautly fixed in trademark flying-saucer bun, Kelly reclines on a cushioned chaise in a posture that recalls yesteryear's starlets. But the matron of the conceptual wing of the feminist art movement arches her eyebrows, evoking the don't-mess-with-me intensity of Indira Gandhi, Georgia O'Keeffe and strict schoolmarms everywhere.

The hint of a Mona Lisa grin increases the image's ambivalence. Softening the severity of Kelly's expression, it also reveals a trace of self-satisfied smugness -- the look male CEOs seem to specialize in when posing in public.

Titled "Singing Sirens (Mary Kelly)," Cantrell's carefully staged photograph from 2002 suggests that the UCLA professor is only pretending to be a fish out of water in her Bel-Air backyard, and that despite her art's celebration of such unglamorous activities as changing diapers and doing the laundry, she could easily get used to a life of leisure -- or already has.

Hanging on a long wall inside the gallery's front entrance, Cantrell's color print introduces visitors to a fascinating exhibition that raises profound questions about where the self resides in a culture whose most visible citizens are celebrities. (The image is also reproduced on the catalog's front and back cover, having been reversed to wrap around the spine.) Organized by the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco in conjunction with Independent Curators International in New York, the traveling exhibition includes approximately 50 works by 30 artists.

Most are photographs. More important, most function like Cantrell's picture, revealing intimate insights into their sitters' character, attitude, being. That has been one of the main goals of portraiture as long as it has existed.

Other works that do this effectively include Bruce LaBruce's endearing "Naked AA Bronson," in which he grins like a nerdy Santa Claus or a mischievous elf; AA Bronson's billboard-size print of his friend and collaborator Felix Partz, lying amid a riot of brightly printed fabrics in his deathbed; and Robert Mapplethorpe's gorgeous portrait of Louise Bourgeois, beaming as she totes a big phallic sculpture under her arm, as if it were a compact umbrella.

Less flamboyant but no less affecting are Neil Winokur's passport-style shots of Nan Goldin, Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol; Goldin's picture of David Wojnarowicz smoking a cigarette as if his life depended on it; and James Welling's candid image of Jack Goldstein lying back and letting his cigarette burn slowly. It's impossible to know whether Peter Hujar's double portraits of Paul Thek and Wojnarowicz are posed or candid.

But that doesn't matter. The sitters seem so comfortable having their pictures taken that viewers are afforded a glimpse of what they are like in private, behind the veneer of professionalism.

In other works, however, the two-way negotiation of portraiture, its trust and vulnerability, is overwhelmed by the portrait maker's vision or the strength of his style. The balance of power tips away from the person in the picture, toward the artist who made it.

This happens in Chuck Close's huge silk-screen, "Lyle," which reveals far less about its sitter's personality than Close's ingeniously multilayered process. In works by Richard Prince, Julian Opie, and Wolfgang Tillmans, it seems that sitters are merely raw materials and that almost anyone, plugged into the picture, would come out looking, respectively, evil, cartoonish or glamorous.

Deborah Kass avoids this problem by eliminating her own style. She mimics Warhol's, replacing Liza Minnelli with Cindy Sherman and Marilyn Monroe with Elizabeth Murray. But Kass' altered Warhols fall flat. Making the originals look like Renaissance masterpieces, Kass' shameless rip-offs represent artistic coat-tailing at its I-wanna-be-famous worst.

In contrast, Elizabeth Peyton, Jonathan Meese, Sam Durant and Sean Landers portray artists they never met, except in their imaginations. Casting themselves as fans, the first three pay homage to David Hockney, Balthus and Robert Smithson -- in, respectively, a lovely watercolor, a luscious oil painting and a raw drawing. Ever the overachiever, Landers sketches nine European modernists, including Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Max Beckmann.

This is the only part of the exhibition where photography does not dominate. Its handmade works balance fame and intimacy, earnestness and futility. Its artists use historical figures to reveal their commitments, priorities and values -- which form large parts of their selves.

The most influential, ahead-of-its-time work is David Robbins' "Talent," a wall of 18 simply framed head shots of up-and-coming artists from 1986. Photographed by James Kriegsmann Jr., a commercial photographer commissioned by Robbins, the series includes youthful portraits of Larry Johnson, Sherman, Ashley Bickerton, Gretchen Bender and Robbins himself, one of the few self-portraits in the show.

Part a time capsule, memento mori and fantasy class yearbook, the group portrait of fresh-faced optimists asserts that the most telling thing about modern selves is what they do in public -- whether their stars still shine or they are has-beens, also-rans or nearly forgotten.

"Talent" suggests that getting behind the scenes to see what people are "really" like is as outdated and passe as thinking that art has no social role to play. For Robbins, art in America is a peculiar form of entertainment, one that travels far beyond conventional notions of public and private, individual and group, celebrity and fan.

Cantrell's portrait of Kelly spins off of Robbins' provocative masterpiece, taking viewers into a world where some things are just what the seem but many are far more ambiguous and worth a long, close look.

*

'Likeness: Portraits of Artists by Other Artists'

Where: University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach

When: Noon to 5 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays; noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closed Mondays

Ends: Oct. 30

Price: $4

Contact: (562) 985-5761; www.csulb.edu/uam

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