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A Show of Hands : Photos That Pay Tribute to Artists and Their Tools

June 25, 1989|Joyce Miller

VENICE ARTIST RENA SMALL began photographing the hands of artists in 1984, and now she regards the process as something of a ritual. First, she isolates the hands with a black drape that makes them look as if they are emerging from a monk's robe. As she shoots, her subjects become more conscious of their hands, often assuming a prayerful pose. But Small is the one doing the worshiping: She is an unabashed romantic about the life of the artist, and she sees the artists she has chosen to photograph as mentors, if not quite saints. Her series of 60 black-and-white photographs will be exhibited at Art Center College of Design's downtown Pasadena gallery this weekend through July 5.

The 34-year-old photographer, painter and performance artist says the project was inspired in part by a wish to pay tribute to the artists she reveres. At the same time, she says, it is "a way of shaking hands with the audience," selling the romance of the artist to a public that sometimes perceives artists as unsympathetic creatures who force incomprehensible or offensive works on them.

Small started the project while living in New York and expects to continue her study of two of all artists' most basic tools throughout her life because it allows her to collaborate with contemporary art's luminaries. Half a dozen, among them Julian Schnabel and Robert Graham, refused her invitation to sit. It took three months to set up her 1985 shoot with Andy Warhol; now she's on the trail of David Hockney. In general, though, most have been cooperative. Christo became not a draper but a drapee; Richard Diebenkorn was happy to take part as long as his face wasn't photographed; Charles Arnoldi showed up with ink-stained hands from a print run. "He liked that," Small says, "because it was about being an artist and having your hands dirtied."

Along the way, Small unwittingly became involved in the tragedy of an artist she had meant to celebrate. She captured New York sculptor Carl Andre's hands making what could be interpreted as a pushing motion. The photo took on bizarre significance when, in 1985, Andre was accused of murdering his wife by pushing her out a 34th-floor window. He was acquitted last year.

The Art Center gallery, at 54 W. Colorado Blvd., is open 12:30 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 12:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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