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THE ART GALLERIES

Santa Monica

July 17, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

Los Angeles artniks remember John Coplans as an outspoken, original, abrasive critic and curator hereabouts in the '60s. He finally decamped for New York where he metamorphosed into a photographer of some note. His first gallery exhibition in his old stomping grounds consists of a dozen so-called "Self Portraits," which are in fact deeply shadowed black-and-white studies of his own nude body minus the head.

The notion of a guy taking pictures of his personal pile of aging flesh at first conjures an image of a dotty, desiccated male Cindy Sherman doing a winkable striptease. It causes one to pray for something mellow and noble like Ribera painting a grizzled saint. Coplans' work is never quite either and much of its fascination lies in the surprising way he transforms the more repellent aspects of his idea into something quite riveting.

There are shots suggesting Roman torsos of a desiccated Silenus but most of the show is more interesting. Part of the time Coplans makes himself into pieces of formal sculpture with surreal overtones by finding poses we just did not know were there. Considering the immense literature of nude images in the world that is quite a feat. In one composition his back looks like a large, hairy boulder with a pair of hands reaching oddly above it. Then his chest is a blasted tree trunk with the face of a monster owl. It becomes a strange twisted thing somewhere between an Edward Weston bell pepper and a tortured blob by Francis Bacon.

He gets even more unexpected results from compositions that are the strange photographic equivalent of Rorschach blots, symmetrical and evocative. Gnarled hands grip feet at the ankles and the image drifts from roots to ropes to somebody holding severed appendages.

There is a whiff of trickiness about these pictures like shadows of animals made with fingers against the light but the resulting images are so haunting that cleverness is overcome. The back of a hand with cocked fingers makes a deep wrinkle that looks like the dismayed smile of Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent but its not funny, Jack. Coplans moons the camera in a series of six shots but the gesture of vulgar contempt becomes a gallery of Goya monsters as he arranges hands over buttocks. Coplans grips his clasped knees and a dragon appears, blind, drunken and full of evil wisdom. (BlumHelman, 916 Colorado Ave., to Aug. 1.)

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