Photography that goes only skin deep

Special to The Times

The two most common responses when coming across people with physical anomalies are to stare too bluntly or look away too quickly. Both reactions are awkward and neither registers a high score in the humanity department.

Enter a camera into the equation and the issues of power and respect latent in the encounter get more pronounced -- and more slippery. From the earliest photographs of such "others," a fine line has existed between documentation and sensationalism, honest record and opportunistic exploitation.

The politics of photographic portraiture come to the fore in Pieter Hugo's pictures at Stephen Cohen Gallery. The problems raised by Hugo's work are fascinating, even if the images themselves are not.

Hugo, a South African living in Cape Town, travels extensively to photograph marginalized or unusual groups of people: honey gatherers in Ghana, Nigerian gang members who bring hyenas or baboons on their rounds to collect debts, boy scouts in Liberia, taxi washers in Durban, judges in Botswana. His current show draws from a recent series on albinism around the world.

Those born with the congenital condition typically have little or no pigment in their eyes, skin and hair. Due to abnormal development of the retina and irregular nerve connections between eye and brain, albinos suffer from misalignment of the eyes and poor eyesight, sometimes to the extreme of legal blindness. Those with one variant of the condition have the eye disorders but normal pigmentation.

Hugo's photographic project seems driven by compassion but is implemented with nearly clinical neutrality. Each man, woman and child poses in a sterile studio setting, under crisp light against a blank background. These are glorified head-and-shoulder mug shots in the taxonomic tradition that stretches from Thomas Ruff back to Bernd and Hilla Becher and beyond, to the New Objectivity photographers of the Weimar era. Hugo has identified a type and proceeded to collect specimens.

The uniformity of his approach does little to humanize his subjects but instead puts sole emphasis on their physical appearance -- pale, pinkish skin, sometimes mottled; fuzzy, golden hair; and gray-green eyes, often clouded, crossed or aimed in divergent directions. Hugo's brief shutter-snap affords us a prolonged, leisurely stare, exempt from the rules of propriety but flooded with doubt about the format's scant sensitivity.

In other bodies of work, Hugo has framed his subjects within their environments or let their bodies and dress announce more of their individuality. Here, the subjects read primarily as data that Hugo has gathered and systematically assembled, with as little personal inflection as possible.

What's missing is insight into the complex mystery of these souls and the profound contradiction of their lives as black albinos in a country where racial identity has been not just highly charged but until the last decade the chief determinant of social and economic opportunity. Hugo's subjects are categorically black yet physically light-skinned. These pictures declare their presence. They assert the basic facts of their physical appearance. That information alone is surprising and worth knowing, but not as interesting as it might have been if Hugo had dug a little deeper into these lives and not, himself, been satisfied to define them only according to appearance.

Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 937-5525, through March 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.stephencohengallery.com

Attention to disturbing detail

If Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo worked in the glut of contemporary consumerism, his composite portraits might look something like Aurel Schmidt's.

The 16th century Italian fashioned faces largely from dense accretions of fruits, vegetables, plants and animals. Schmidt, a young Canadian-born artist living in New York, draws faces whose features are defined by cockroaches, cigarette butts and condom wrappers. The work in her first solo show, at Peres Projects, is irresistible and disturbing.

The faces read as grotesque masks, with burned-out holes for eyes and mouths stretched in huge Cheshire-cat smiles. In "Pink Eye," frosted, sprinkleencrusted doughnuts ring the eyes. A pair of Band-Aids crisscross to make the nose. Lips made of swarming, maggot-like larvae frame stubbed-out cigarette teeth.

In "Garbage Man," blue cockroaches encircle the eyes and chicken bones stand in for the nose.

Another, "Fly Face," is just what it sounds like -- a visage with dark orifices and a skin of fat flies. Schmidt's vision is creepy, but her technique is ravishing. She renders every object with the exquisite care of a 17th century Dutch master of still-life, equally attuned to sensual integrity and symbolic weight.

Working in pencil, colored pencil and acrylic, she strikes an odd and compelling balance between line, which is meticulous throughout, and color, which appears selectively, like hand-tinting on an old photograph.

"Body Swallows World," the title piece of the show, is a dystopian marvel, a self-devouring landscape in gray and sallow yellow. A pool of water in the foreground sits ashen and still. Bits of detritus, fly-studded feces, loose change, moths and mice line its grassy banks. The leafless trees in these bleak woods come straight from dark fairy tales. They writhe and reach, dancing a contorted dance of evil enchantment.

Peres Projects, 969 Chung King Road, L.A., (213) 617-1100, through Feb. 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.peresprojects.com

Challenging the usual perspective

Turnabout is fair play -- and the premise of an amusing, astute project by Eduardo Villacis at Bert Green Fine Art. Imagine, Villacis proposes, if the familiar conceptions of New World and Old World were reversed. What if, after Columbus arrived on the American continent, the Aztecs set sail for the east to "discover" and conquer Europe?

As Villacis envisions it in a museum-style display complete with didactic panels, conquest is conquest, whomever the victor. The defeated culture is dehumanized, their places of worship built over and their ways of life derided as alien and primitive. Villacis, an Ecuadorean artist who received his master's degree in illustration from Cal State Fullerton a few years ago, fleshes out this fantasy in faux-historical paintings, contrived documents and mock weapons.

The display reads as pseudo-history but looks more like the storyboards for an animated epic. Colors are lurid, figures are cartoonish and caricatured, and nearly every scene is set on an amped-up diagonal. The visuals feel far less nuanced and historically informed than the concept.

Villacis' lesson is timeless in its application, barbed with ugly truths and spiked with clever humor. In one painting, the pope quakes at the feet of an Aztec warrior. In a drawing of everyday life in the newly conquered land, an Aztec is shown riding the back of a sturdy Germanic slave, the original Volkswagen or "car of the people." Another chuckle comes from the witty bundle of anachronisms in Columbus' detention report, which includes a fingerprint and pictographic mug shot -- all laser-printed on papyrus.

Bert Green Fine Art, 102 W. 5th St., L.A., (213) 624-6212, through March 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.bgfa.us

Just look at what lies beneath

"The Book of Lies," according to its project history, "is a book that is not a book, a work of art made of other works of art using the lie to explore our relationship with truth." Conceived by L.A. artist Eugenia Butler in 1991, "The Book of Lies" now stands at three volumes (of a projected four) and includes images and poetry by nearly 60 artists and writers. At 18th Street Arts Center, the project can be experienced as a spatial collage, an array of individually framed pieces hanging on or at varied distances from the gallery walls.

Since lies encompass as much diverse territory as truths, the works in the project don't cohere in an obvious, explicit way. Some approach the theme obliquely, some head-on, and others seemingly not at all. Together, though, they constitute a richly textured fugue of individual voices.

Gloria Graham's sheet printed with the single word "Watergate" is as blunt an evocation of lying as it gets. Michael McMillen's curious little ticket printed with coded text and labeled "Manifesto of the Crooked Branch" provocatively merges the notions of artifice and artifact.

Melissa Smedley muses in a letter on the lie all Californians live in this unsustainable desert, drinking imported water. Eve Aschheim presents a page of Hebrew religious text, much of it blacked out as if by censors. Other notable contributions are made by Deanne Belinoff, Georganne Deen, Seth Kaufman and Kim Abeles.

William Wiley puns poignantly in his print inspired by Mark Twain, declaring, "Rumors of my dumb eyes have been greatly exacerbated!"

This show is a stream of consciousness worth wading through.

18th Street Arts Center, 1639 18th St., Santa Monica, (310) 453-3711, through March 23. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. www.18thstreet.org

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