Big, bright and snappy--Jane Gottlieb's Cibachrome photographs from the past few years are the kind of work you might expect from a former film and magazine art director. In her first museum show, at the Laguna Art Museum through March 4, she comes across as a strong technician who rarely breaks away from a fascination with color for its own sake to create a composition that lingers in the mind.
One exception in this body of work is "Moonlight: Chinatown," from 1984. Against the intricate silhouettes of leafy trees and a pagoda roof, a bizarre red light from some unseen source flares over a domestic scene: a woman standing behind the screen door of a house with a picket fence. At a distance, the city beckons with a blurry celebration of pink, blue and yellow lights under a muzzy green sky with a softly glowing moon.
In another vein, Gottlieb's four-part "Lawn Bowlers" series of 1985 offers a bizarre, apocalyptic scenario. In each scene, a photograph of elderly, white-garbed lawn bowlers standing on a patch of velvety lawn with their backs to the viewer is fitted into a landscape that makes the people look as though they're standing on the edge of the world, observing the rise and fall of geologic epochs.
In the first image, "Birth," scribbly lines of color (one of the photographer's much-invoked devices) snap across a black sky. In "Life," a gigantic cactus and huge yellow-leafed trees tower over the elderly figures. Dry hills cluster round for a scene of "Death," and light bursting through the clouds to produce one of nature's hammier tricks creates the drama of "Resurrection."
The more recent photographs are much more reductive and pallid, for all their high-key color. Despite what would seem to be deliberately built-in contrasts between Gottlieb's subjects (anonymous walls and a famous facade; a plain-vanilla lawn and a famous Parisian park), she sees them all with the same neutral designer's eye.
On an image of a variously textured stone wall in Florence, the photographer added dye-painted stripes of turquoise and hot pink. (Why?) A patch of mauve stucco with crosslike detailing in pale pink turns out to be a detail of the house in which Impressionist painter Claude Monet lived. (So?)
In a brochure essay, museum chief curator Michael McManus cooks up a number of involved explanations and tenuous comparisons for what he considers the "subtle" and even "cryptic" look of Gottlieb's work. But he never discusses its broader context in conceptually oriented photography of the 1970s and or postmodern images of the '80s.
Which is a major omission because Gottlieb seems to be just playing at Serious Art--borrowing the fragmented, inconclusive or deadpan look of cutting-edge contemporary photography without bothering to make the intellectual investigations that go along with the territory.
An image of the Grand Palais in Paris looks like a sendup of conceptual photography, especially once you know (via the brochure) that the big square screen obscuring the elegant columned facade of the Grand Palais in Paris was actually in place and not added by the photographer. But this viewer has a sneaking suspicion that Gottlieb changed the color of the screen to turquoise and the facade to hot pink simply because the colors are pretty.
Which is reason enough if you're doing a magazine layout but no reason at all if you want to make your mark in the idea-riddled and slippery world of "avant-garde" art.
Gottlieb's sensibility seems best suited to dispensing images that are either innocuously pretty (like the fish-eye lens view of a lily pond under an arching hill, transformed in the print with pink and green dye paint) or poster-slick (like "Beaubourg Windows, Paris," with an oblong of city skyline glimpsed through an opened section of bright red blinds). Would that she somehow could recapture the promising fancifulness of the work she was doing a few short years ago.
Color photographs by Jane Gottlieb are on display through March 4 at the Laguna Art Museum, 207 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: free. Information: (714) 494-6531.