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ART REVIEW : Photographer Sets His Tableaux With Diffuse, Metaphorical Themes

September 01, 1988|CATHY CURTIS | Times Staff Writer

It comes as a surprise to many fledgling shutterbugs that there is more to taking a picture than sheer technical ability. And those who have humbly worshiped at the Ansel Adams shrine tend to be both charmed and bewildered to learn of the wildly different approaches of contemporary art photography.

But students can't learn these things in a vacuum. They need frequent access to photography exhibitions that will enlarge their horizons. At Cypress College, instructor Jerry Burchfield has turned the photography department's tiny hallway gallery--formerly used only for student work--into a showcase for the diverse approaches of local photographers.

The big challenge, however, is to obtain top-quality loans that reflect important current trends without being so obscure that students can't relate to them. On view through Sept. 16, Jerry McGrath's Ciba-chrome prints point up a significant direction in photography--tableaux carefully prearranged by the photographer--but in such a way that its pitfalls may seem clearer than its achievements.

McGrath, who teaches at Cal State Fullerton and founded the photography department at Irvine Valley College, says the works on view (part of a series begun in 1983) "stem from a formal concern in design and the intellect, influenced by the Suprematists, Constructivists and the Futurists."

His themes come, he says, from literature, popular myth, psychology and history, and he assembles the components of his photographs "metaphorically, updating and personalizing cultural symbols." He wants his images "to work on a purely aesthetic level," however, even if the viewer is unable to perceive the subject matter.

Yet his images are, for the most part, either too diffuse or too slick to stand on their own, regardless of their meaning. And as metaphors, they tend to veer from hit-you-on-the-head obvious to obscure.

In "Apartheid America," a nude black man holding a white mask sits in a corner of a black-and-white room partially illuminated by candles. A white noose looms out of the darkness. The image is so pat and obvious that it comes across as little more than sloganeering.

"Jean Paul, Are You Sure?" alludes in a sophomoric way (would you believe a smashed "exit" sign?) to Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist drama "No Exit." In the play, people who have died are trapped in a room with a locked door and discover that "hell is other people."

McGrath's photograph is garnished on three sides with images of hands holding vines. In the center of the image, a box holds a lock, a hammer and what appears to be a split jawbone. Perched on top of the box is a doll's hand strung with tiny religious items: a Bible and a print of kneeling angels.

So the point is . . . what, exactly? That there is an afterlife? That heaven is other people? It's all too vague and self-consciously "arty" without giving the viewer enough visual richness to play with.

A slick, visual statement that seems to be about changing perceptions of art in the late 20th Century--when romance is dead, the medium is the message and everything is done with smoke and mirrors--"Untitled Everyman" has the frantic air of metaphors-in-the-making.

The key players include a faceted sculptured head wearing a Walkman, a dangling toaster, a TV set covered with goopy lilac paint, falling rose petals, an empty gold frame and a cloud of smoke.

A voodoo-flavored piece, "The Number of Man," is illuminated by red lighting and a flaming playing card. The mise en scene includes a Jamaican doll, a skeletal hand creeping around the edge of a newspaper,and flat, geometric shapes standing on edge as if bewitched. The idea seems well-suited to McGrath's favorite photographic devices. But the viewer is left wondering whether the theme served primarily as an excuse to pull out the bag of tricks rather than the other way around.

The next Cypress College exhibit, on view from Sept. 26 to Oct. 21, will have a completely different focus. As a demonstration of how the commercial photography process moves from concept to design, original photograph and finally the printed piece, the show will feature the work of photographer G. Robert Nease and designer Michael Standlee.

From Oct. 31 to Nov. 23, the gallery will show work by Mark Johnstone, a photographer, photography critic and curator of the upcoming Irvine Fine Arts Center's photo exhibit "Bare Facts, Sly Humor." A show of student work, from Dec. 5 to 16, completes the fall term offerings.

Photographs by Jerry McGrath remain on view at Cypress College Photography Gallery through Sept. 16 on the second floor of the Technical Education I Building. The gallery is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 8 a.m. to noon Friday.

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