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Art Review : Street Shots Crowd Into S.d. Museum

May 02, 1987|ROBERT McDONALD

SAN DIEGO — The Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park is presenting the third exhibit in a continuing series of "street" photography.

The first two shows focused on the works of such masters as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, Lisette Model, Andre Kertesz, Helen Levitt and William Klein, all of whom are represented in mini-exhibits introducing this third show.

A quotation from Walker Evans on the wall reminds us of the special nature of the genre: "When you see an unbelievable confluence of chance in a photograph, remember the operator was there, booted and spurred." Although chance provides the occasion for the potential realization of a work of art, there must also be present an alert artist with a sensitive, experienced eye and the proper equipment.

"Masters of the Street: Part III," which includes the works of eight artists from throughout the world, is overall a strong show. But it has its weaknesses. And, as is usual at the Museum of Photographic Arts, the installation is crowded.

The desire to share your enthusiasm for works of art that you admire and even love is understandable. But visitors may remember the fatigue and frustration created by an excess of images rather than the beauty of the experience. Judicious editing would have strengthened this exhibit.

A case in point appears at the very entrance to the exhibit in the works of Raghubir Singh. Though a resident of Paris since 1972, he was born in India and life there remains his subject. He has worked for Life magazine and the New York Times and has published several books.

Generally, his pleasant images, despite their exotic locale, are no more interesting than those you would find on the pages of National Geographic. They are ingratiating rather than dramatic.

There are exceptions, however. Architecture, as in "Mud and Thatched Roof Houses" and "Bins, Calf, Crow," provides a kind of permanent "found composition," as do the earth contours in "Transplanting Paddy on the Outskirts of Srinagar," which make a sinuous contrast to the hard edges of a large pushcart in the foreground. The spatial ambiguity in "Dust Storm and Well Scene," with a quasi-mirage effect, is also intriguing.

Here is an instance where editing would have strengthened the artist's representation.

An excess of representation is also given to Anthony Hernandez of Los Angeles, whose color series "Rodeo Drive" records the "ladies who lunch" and the ladies who shop and the men who support them. Few individual images have strong intrinsic interest, but as a group they are imposing. However, half a dozen images make the point. Another dozen are redundant.

Hernandez's photographs evince moral outrage against, rather than a humanistic concern for, what appear to be wasted lives. D.J. Hall, in her paintings of the same class of people, is kinder and perhaps profounder.

In contrast, Australian Max Pam, in his small (8-inch-square), black-and-white photographs made in Asia, conveys a sense of humanistic caring for people he finds living in what we regard as degrading conditions. On a formal level, his "Camels Before the Storm" and "Bihar School of Yoga" are beautiful, reductive works of art.

New Yorker Alex Webb makes color photographs that are masterfully composed (often with a very strong vertical form in or near the middle) and dazzling in their physical beauty. They are visually virtuosic without a sense of passion, however, or of human caring even where figures appear. Indeed, Webb evinces a predilection for cropped figures--a pair of arms or a child's face appearing from behind a concrete pillar or a baby's brown bottom beneath a banner, for example.

Mexican artist Graciela Iturbide, with only black and white, creates works of art that are not only visually strong and memorable but are powerful human documents. Like all great works of art, her images are crystallizations of human experience that convey a sense of spiritual grace to viewers.

Her "Mujer de Cera" (Woman of Wax) has the combined impact of the works of Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and Edvard Munch as a statement of compassion and horror. Even the dreary pair in "El Matrimonio" (The Marriage) are engaging.

Dead roosters, in "Los Gallos," are not a promising subject, but in Iturbide's photograph they are a memorable composition.

Iturbide finds much humor in life, for example in the image of a boy holding up a large white rooster for appreciation, but most often she finds poetry.

In his color photographs, Belgian artist Harry Gruyaert strangely seems more tuned in to the drama of India than does Singh. But he is also sensitive to the beauties of home, even in such prosaic subjects as "Laundromat" (Antwerp) and an embracing, sleeping couple in "Picnic in Burgundy." His photographs of Las Vegas evince his appreciation for the surreal character of that town while his "Carnival" (Belgium) conveys some of the hallucinatory quality of Gauguin's paintings of religious life in Brittany.

Sicilian Ernesto Bazan practices a kind of confrontational photography with admirable results. Miguel Rio Branco makes strong painterly statements in lurid color.

The exhibit continues through May 31.

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