"Cafe Man Ray" constitutes the deepest scrutiny of the legendary Dada and Surrealist photographer seen in Los Angeles since an ancient '60s retrospective at the County Museum of Art. It is a praiseworthy effort that comes complete with a spiffy-boxed catalogue in the antic spirit of its subject.
Now, as then, a compilation of his work reveals an artist of such fitful accomplishment that it is a compliment to call it "uneven." You come away from the show convinced that Man Ray--who worked for a time in Hollywood--lives as something of a cult figure blessed with a brilliant pseudonym and an occasionally inspired idea all fueled by naive egotism and a shrewd sense of career.
The original retrospective revealed a painterly talent so amateurish that it produced but a single work of note, "The Hour of the Observatory." Of the myriad of objects Man Ray cranked out, only a clothing iron festooned with nails and a metronome with a photographic eye managed an authentic Surrealist frisson . In a way, it is a miracle that such a wispy talent managed to blunder into making three classic works in the genre.
Present offerings are installed in somewhat higgledy-piggledy melange including a number of ho-hum assemblages, a chess set and a phallic sculpture placed on cafe tables intended to carry out the exhibition's theme but serving mainly to clutter the space. (The title derives from a 1948 object.) Luckily the show concentrates on photography, Man Ray's area of greatest competence. His Rayographs constitute his most original and lasting contribution. (They were made by placing objects directly on photosensitive paper that captured silhouettes with an eclipse-like glow.)