Negative side of Venice

Making interesting photographs of Venice, Italy, is as easy as shooting the proverbial barrelful of fish. Everywhere you turn, there are richly decaying surfaces, luminous reflections, grand architecture, romantic vistas. The magic of the place and its formidable history seep out of every detail. The city is exceedingly generous with its beauty.

How can an artist create fresh, original images from such familiar splendor? One way to try, the choice of Vera Lutter, would be to use an unusual method. The German-born, New York-based photographer extrapolates from one of the oldest methods of writing with light. She uses a camera obscura (literally, "dark room"), essentially a pinhole camera writ large. She has built walk-in cameras of various sizes, and sometimes uses shipping containers. She hangs huge sheets of photosensitive paper on the camera's back wall, opposite the lens-less aperture, and makes long exposures (hours, days) that yield detailed negatives. Instead of printing positives from those negatives, Lutter develops them into unique prints themselves, keeping the tonal values reversed. That day-for-night reversal delivers a jolt of the unexpected, which makes her photographs of Venice -- now at Gagosian Gallery -- if not fresh, at least striking.

The city's shimmer is reduced to steely, monochrome contrasts. Its radiance is turned ghostly. The canals run black and gray under dark, flat skies. Shadowy colonnades gleam shockingly bright. There is a haunting quality to the pictures, many of which consist of two or three panels and are huge enough to encompass you when you step close to examine their details. The atmosphere is one of eternal winter, a landscape of ink and ice.

Lutter frames her views fairly conventionally, often anchoring the foregrounds with empty, moored gondolas. The long exposures blur the boats into lovely graphite wisps, while the wooden posts to which they are tied poke up from the water with fixed solidity. An expanse of water in the middle ground leads the eye deeper into the picture, toward a horizon of dark facades punctuated by rectangles of intense, blank light.

The tones in the prints -- charcoal, ash, dust -- are gorgeous, and the images contain exquisite details of corroded brickwork, stone tracery around doorways and balconies, and the scalloped ripples of drapery. The tonal transpositions give way to textural tweaks: Plants expanding lavishly out of window boxes billow like bushy white beards; one building's facade is as smooth and pale as an ice sculpture, another's looks carved of ebony; trees dematerialize into fireworks bursts of light.

Lutter has photographed myriad architectural and industrial subjects, including airports, mining equipment and power stations. Structures that trade in a different sort of seduction than Venice, the seduction of scale and mechanical efficiency, lend themselves better to her technique. Lutter's chilly style is so at odds with the lushness of Venice that the pictures feel like acts of suppression as much as revelation. She has sucked dry the city's juicy sensuality, turned gold into lead. If the photographs resemble X-rays, it's not just because they distill their subjects into black and white but because they feel so clinical, all structure and no soul.

Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Sept. 12. Closed Saturdays and Sundays (summer hours). www.gagosian.com.

The most strange music of the face

In Nicole Miller's curiously mesmerizing video projection at LAXART, we see a man from the waist up, in T-shirt and sport coat, facing us but never making eye contact. During the seven-minute piece, the man's eyes bulge and squint, his lips and cheeks stretch, clench and distend, tense and ease. His head jerks and bobs as his body spasms, shoulders lifting and dropping, torso compressing and extending. Whether this is a performance or some kind of involuntary seizure becomes clear with the work's title, "The Conductor."

Miller amps up the significance and oddity of the man's behavior by stripping down the portrait, divorcing the conductor from his functional context: There is no concert hall, no orchestra and, most jarringly, no sound. His arms remain fixed at his sides as he operates in silence against a nonspecific background of gold, white and crimson bursts. His bodily choreography verges on the parodic and grotesque, and yet there is great poignancy in his complete immersion in the task of bringing music to life.

From start to finish, he physicalizes a broad spectrum of feeling, musical and otherwise, registering excitement, amusement, whimsy, anticipation, skepticism, bliss, concern and rapture. Is it important that the actor wears what looks to be a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and that he too is African American? Miller, fresh from the MFA program at USC, gives us this quirky, slightly cryptic episode and nothing more. But it's enough, as a small-scale conceptual exercise in transforming the familiar into something alien and disturbing and as an indicator of her own potential to snag both eye and mind.

LAXART, 2640 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 559-0166, through Aug. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.laxart.org.

Playing whimsical with ironworks

Knopp Ferro studied metal sculpture as well as performance art in his native Germany, and his work has sometimes merged the two, applying whimsical, absurdist actions to sturdy materials (an iron sofa, a slug slithering across towers of stiff paper). His recent iron mobiles and stabiles at Louis Stern Fine Arts are playful in spirit but relatively quiet and tame.

Each is built of slender iron rods, often aligned horizontally with downward verticals hanging from small loops at either end, in the manner of a family tree diagram or organizational chart.

Through repetition and variation, Ferro's modules grow lyrical. The mobiles shift with the movement of air in the room, causing the relationships of the elements and their densities to change.

One mobile makes a cross-hatched cloud overhead, and another, composed mostly of diagonals, a permeable expressionist blot.

The free-standing sculptures, larger and of tabletop height, are the most static and least involving. The most captivating work is perhaps the simplest, an installation of hundreds of horizontal and vertical rods that spreads a fluid, broken grid across the gallery's entry wall. The slim lines dance with shadows falling just behind to generate a calligraphic dance of gesture and echo, pattern and motion.

Ferro's sculpture brings to mind the early work of Mondrian, analytical cubism, the kinetic sculptures of George Rickey and the century-old tradition of drawing in space with metals (Picasso, David Smith, Julio Gonzalez and more). Though Ferro's path as a visual artist might veer toward the unconventional -- he has worked as a clown, actor and playwright -- the recent work has an easy, conformist beauty that engages grace and dynamism. For a taste of the artist's edgier side, look to his "Knife Drawings," sheets of heavy paper scored and slashed with private notations, cryptic handwriting and erotic sketches.

Louis Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 276-0147, through Aug. 29. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.louissternfinearts.com.

Getting sucked into 'Black Hole'

To view "Black Hole," an absorbing video projection by Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib at Kim Light/Lightbox, you must occupy just such a space -- a chamber dark enough to divest you of your bearings. Before long, the aesthetic of withholding that visually characterizes the 7 1/2 - minute piece becomes processed, experientially, as an ethic of confinement.

The space is hot; its air feels dense. What is projected on one black wall is minimal, indeterminate, fleeting: the slow-motion hover of a hummingbird, a pair of bare feet, an illuminated blank sign, a quivering spider web, old footage of something traveling fast and leaving a trail of dust. A soundtrack layers gentle percussion and droning synthesizers, producing something between dirge and trance music. This induced state of unknowing suggests a deprivation chamber, a cell. On screen, an eyeball appears briefly to check on us. Metaphorically, we are stuck in Plato's cave, catching only glimmers, shadows, reflections of actuality.

With "Black Hole," the Philadelphia-based artists (who also work independently) stage an experience both provocative and destabilizing.

A sound piece in the gallery's courtyard is interesting but less powerful, in part because it must compete with the continual whoosh of street traffic. Its mix of film noir dialogue snippets and musical fragments hints at political intrigue. The term "patriotism" is uttered by one voice, then cynically dismissed by another. As in "Black Hole," not all is decipherable, and that elusiveness is part of the work's appeal. In both works, Hironaka and Suib create a kind of environmental montage -- restrained, tense and portentous.

Kim Light/Lightbox, 2680 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 559-1111, through Aug. 22. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.kimlightgallery.com.

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