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THE GALLERIES

December 15, 1989|MARLENA DONOHUE

If 19th-Century sculptor Canova made photographs they would look like the male and female nudes by Los Angeles photographer Herb Ritts. Ritts has distinguished himself in fashion photography and all the schmaltzy posing, high drama and cult-of-youth sizzle from that genre fuel these ultra sensual black-and-white portraits.

More often than not Ritts has subjects coiled against a still background, turning the image into a study of light, texture and the innately erotic lines.

The analogy to sculpture is not a passing one. Ritts makes these nudes as decorative, luscious and pleasurable as the ornaments of 19th-Century boudoirs. Sometimes the impulse takes him to silly places, as when he loads clay onto a male model's hair and groin to make the winsome kid look like a living diorama of Pan, or when he places a nude male on a highly ornamental ledge that makes him look like a fireplace figurine.

Ritts' special talent comes in using tightly grained paper and controlling light so as to eliminate surface detail and get huge, broad planes of tone to ape the look of an amazing array of textures.

There is some excellent photography here and more beautiful women and sultry youths than you can shake a stick at. The delicate and sensitive "Curved Torso" is low on hype and high on expert craft, while other works, like "Wrestling Torsos," smack of the kind of marketable sexuality that pervades wet T-shirt contests. (Fahey-Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea to Jan. 13.)

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