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ART REVIEW : Becom's Photos Mostly Travel Unadventurous Territory

December 07, 1987|CATHY CURTIS

When Jeffrey Becom packs his bags, he plans to stay awhile. Patiently wandering the streets of towns with names as exotic as Gallipoli and Corfu, the Berkeley-based artist looks for stylish images to trap forever with his camera.

Oh, he probably wouldn't describe his work that way, but his Cibachrome photographs on view at Susan Spiritus Gallery reveal a built-in radar for doorways and walls that happen to have the bright, cheerful, semiabstract look of slick advertisements.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with finding places where luscious color, snappy patterns and intriguing textures meet. It takes a designer's "eye" to see such sights in the first place and to frame them in the viewfinder for maximum effect.

The average camera-slung tourist would probably pass up Becom's aerial view of rows of striped canvas shairs punctuated by furled and unfurled umbrellas. Or a weathered wall the color of cream of tomato soup snapped up with a pair of black shutters. Or a cluster of marble columns in a range of richly variegated colors.

But in professional circles, this kind of photo-abstraction has become a cliche--in much the same way as the "quaint" portrait or awestruck panorama of eras past. Today, the arty color travel photo is a pretty fragment of any view, bathed in rich, saturated hues. It makes no cultural judgments. It offers little or no insight into a way of life--or into the photographer's frame of mind as he or she tries to come to terms with habits or customs unlike the way things are done back home.

In fact, these photos are as polite and unquestioning as can be--"foreign" only in the unruffled sense that they were taken somewhere else. Images like these impose (innocently or not) a sort of well-fed, cozy, Colors of Benetton personality on the raw data of foreign places--as if the world could be made over to echo yuppie taste.

A few of Becom's photographs are a bit more adventurous. An image of mottled bananas hanging on strings over a dirty tarpaulin on top of paint-splattered crates seems more engaged with the nitty-gritty of daily life.

The same goes for a shot of a dentist's supplies in Marrakech, with rows of differently sized gums adjoining a dumping ground for enormous teeth, surely much too big to have come from human mouths. Now that's a sight unlikely to have been created by an army of photo assistants in some flossy uptown studio.

Becom also does pristine watercolors, mostly aerial views of kneeling, faceless peasants who look like bundles of striped cloth. But these paintings are not about peasants; They're about the nifty designs of the local cheap fabric. Even the baskets filled with twigs or apples seem prettified, as if they could be used "as is" for a modish dinner table centerpiece.

Jeffrey Becom's photographs remain on view through Jan. 31 at Susan Spiritus Gallery, third floor, South Coast Plaza Crystal Court, 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa. Weekday and Saturday hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 549-7550 for more information.

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