Camera tricks dazzle

Special to The Times

Photography, literally defined, means writing with light, and light packs heat. Together, the twinned energy sources fuel Chris McCaw’s astonishingly beautiful body of work, “Sunburns,” at Duncan Miller.

The process McCaw devised to create the work is captivating. Each picture is a unique print, made in a large-format camera that the Bay Area-artist built himself using old, scavenged lenses. McCaw sets up his cameras in the desert or near the sea, aimed with the sun fully within the frame. He places photographic paper where film belongs, inside the camera’s film holder. Exposures can last up to four hours. They produce an image that is a negative but that appears to be positive because the lengthy exposure time and the idiosyncratic behavior of the expired photographic paper cause a reversal of values akin to the effect of solarization.

Further, the lens concentrates the sun’s rays. Remember the old scouting method of starting a fire by using a magnifying glass? Over time, those focused rays burn into the photographic paper. In some of the images, the sun appears as a singed black dot. In other, longer exposures, the arc of the sun’s rising or setting has slashed all the way through the paper, leaving a scarred absence outlined in scorched black.


McCaw’s favorite part of the process, he states on his website, “is watching smoke come out of the camera during the exposure.”

It’s hard to pick favorites among the results. The images mesmerize in different ways. Some show just sea and sky as barely differentiated bands of gray, the water shimmering with light reflected from a paradoxically dark sun. For some pictures, McCaw opens and closes the shutter several times, so the sun repeats as it rises, forming a string of coded dots, ascending notes on a scale.

McCaw uses a variety of photographic papers in different sizes, and they yield a rich range of tonalities and temperatures. One image looks as if it were drawn in metallic dust; another, in graphite or charcoal. Another, anomalous in this group, has the creamy sepia tones of the 19th century. The process reduces subjects -- Joshua trees, palms, sea cliffs and mountain ranges -- to silhouettes, giving McCaw’s daytime photographs the moody, elusive quality of Whistler nocturnes.

Several pictures read as pure gesture: the slash of the sun’s trail across a scale-less expanse, the fall of a luminous, silvery comet. Lucio Fontana’s “Spatial Concept” paintings, their surfaces violated by punctures and slicing stabs, come to mind, as do Joe Goode’s “Environmental Impact” canvases, pierced by shotgun blasts. McCaw’s work too entails violation, but not violence, and the interruptions of the surface are inflicted not by the human hand but by natural (and chemical) processes, harnessed. The work feels more reverential than defiant, a homage to the creative/destructive powers of nature and the wholly explicable mysteries of the photographic process.

Accident and ingenuity conspired to bring these images into being. They are sculptural, painterly and photographic at once, tactile, expressive, physical traces of phenomena.

Over a pale San Francisco skyline, a thick excision weeps dry rust. Light writes and writes and writes, until eventually it erases.

Duncan Miller Gallery, 10959 Venice Blvd., (310) 838-2440, through May 24. Closed Sundays through Wednesdays.


A show with a meaning vacancy

As rare as it is to come across an exhibition that scintillates down to its last detail, it is equally unusual to experience a show with no hint of resonance. MC’s presentation of new work by the Belgian artist Michel Francois comes close.

A hardened puddle of chromed steel on the floor is illuminated by floodlights on a lower-than-normal overhead track. A small tree fashioned of unfurling brass cable sprouts leaves shaped like Pringles potato chips. Two inflated balloons, one black and one white, squeeze together inside a clear glass bowl. Each of these works merits a shrug of acknowledgment at most.

The central installation, “Domestic,” pairs facing Styrofoam couches on either side of a gold-leafed net hung with scraps of clothing. On the arm of each sofa rests a faux cigarette as thick as an arm, and on the walls behind the couches hang identical world maps whose central image has been replaced by a DVD projection of jostling gray spheres.

Every element in the installation could be juiced for meaning, but the effort would require pretense and a fair amount of verbal theatrics -- the kind exhibited in the show’s press release, which describes “Domestic” in laughably common artspeak as “an exercise in formal installation of sculpture . . . playing with divided volumes and the tension between domesticity and institutional display.”

Unremarkable shows are, in the end, unremarkable, but a show like this by an internationally acclaimed artist becomes remarkable if for no other reason than the discrepancy between talk and walk.

MC, 6086 Comey Ave., (323) 939-3777, through May 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Between face and disguise

Salomon Huerta’s improbably stirring portraits of the backs of men’s heads hit the scene about 10 years ago. The L.A.-based artist has created several other bodies of work since then, each revolving to some extent around themes of intimacy and restraint, revelation and concealment.

His new paintings and sculptures of Mexican wrestlers and their masks, divided between Patrick Painter’s two Bergamot Station spaces, relate loosely to what came before but take some decisive turns. The pronounced stillness of the earlier work remains dominant, but Huerta injects some motion into a few of the new works. He also ratchets up references to cultural identity, trading the implicit for the particular and overt.

Huerta’s large portraits of masked wrestlers are heroic in scale and bearing, each head filling a 5-by-4-foot canvas. The three-quarter angle shows off the masks’ flamboyant patterns of flames and spirals and allows a peek into the eyes of the wearers. One wrestler’s cherry-red lips, his flame-framed eyes and the scarlet background all merge harmoniously into an aggrandizing mug shot. Another’s gentle, Clark Kent WASPishness jars with the dynamic spiral that winds across his face. A few smaller paintings, of a wrestler’s face pinned to the ground or grimacing in defeat, lack the graphic immediacy of the more classically posed portraits.

Tellingly, the most emotionally saturated works are the two bronze sculptures of masks. Technically extraordinary in their replication of iridescent colors and pliable textures, the masks exude the pathos of the exhausted and perhaps defeated -- the unmasked. A green one, with a surface like the brilliant carapace of a scarab beetle, has an especially powerful presence. Vacant and sunken, it is a mere shell, skull, surrogate, but it occupies the highly charged zone between person and persona.

Patrick Painter Inc., Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-5988, through May 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.patrickpaint


Photographs with a British accent

“Three From Britain,” at Rose, has unusual substance for a gallery group show. Thick with emotional texture, it braids together the bleak, ironic, tender and poignant in the work of three British photographers shooting in the Thatcher years, all three using the camera as a tool of cultural anthropology.

Martin Parr is the only one of the three who is widely known to U.S. audiences and also the only one to shoot in color. His images smirk at their subjects and wink at us with a knowing, shared sense of superiority. In these pictures from the late ‘80s series “The Cost of Living,” Parr punctures the social aspirations of the middle class. Banality and pretense lock arms and rule the day.

Chris Killip and Graham Smith are less familiar names, and this show provides a generous introduction to their work, which looks more empathetically across at, rather than down on, its subjects. Killip, who now teaches at Harvard, made these pictures in northeastern England in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They feature disaffected punks, glue sniffers, coal scavengers and others, all bereft in some way and consigned to shabby surroundings.

Details speak profoundly of individual identity and broader social conditions, as in “Torso, Pelaw, Gateshead.” The faceless portrait shows an older man from the chest down, seated on a brick wall, his coat grimy, the buttons mismatched, a ripped pocket mended with large, clumsy stitches, and his laces so short they barely do the job of keeping his shoes on his feet.

Smith’s work too has a gritty sobriety, allied with obvious affection for his subjects. Smith photographed close to home, in the pubs and streets of his iron-and-steel industry town, after attending art school. His images of couples, drinkers and dancers are the observations of an insider who, as he puts it, “broke free, but just enough not to lose a sense of belonging.” On the back of each photograph, he writes his reflections on the town’s characters and plots and, most affectingly, on his own adopted role as teller of their tales. His pictures are moving confessions as much as they are documents, love letters as well as evidence.

Rose Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-8440, through May 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.