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ART REVIEW : Rocker's Cache of Helpless and Hopeful Images : Romanticism and an oblique engagement of social issues mark the Graham and Susan Nash collection of photography at the County Museum of Art.

November 15, 1990|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

The cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 1970 album "Deja Vu" bears a sepia-toned photograph of the band gussied up like renegade Civil War dropouts. The music inside is tinged with countrified melancholy, including one ditty about a hippie whose misery is so deep that he almost cuts his hair. Even the upbeat tunes convey a sense of loss summed up in a famous song that longs to get back to the spirit of Woodstock.

What was being mourned was not so much the usual loss of individual love but the guttering out of the spirit of the '60s.

Given all that, it is not surprising that Graham Nash's taste in photography would run to the Romantic. He has recently given the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 170 pictures from his noted collection of contemporary work. A selection of 35 images goes on view today under the unfortunately conventional title "Selections from the Graham and Susan Nash Collection." On view through Jan. 13, this striking show would be more aptly named "How a Rock Star Found the 19th Century in the 20th."

Romanticism is always with us. It represents the style of those attracted to strong sensations of any kind. It is grounded in the physical and the self-indulgent. Sex, violence and death are the standard polarities.

The Nash collection is not particularly interested in sex. It is alluded to only subtly, as in the seductive eye of the woman depicted in Pierre Houcmant's 1984 "Annabelle." The single nude on view is by Michael Spano. A seated woman crisscrossed with the shadows of a wire fence looks rather like one of those butcher's charts diagramming where to slice the beef. If anything, it is a picture about victimization.

There is plenty of death. German photographer Rudolf Schafer is represented by five portraits of corpses. The eerie certainty that they are dead comes when we realize they look too peaceful to be merely sleeping. Two pictures of men remind us of Theodore Gericault's painted studies. A pretty child is touching, but it is two lovely women that transport us back to the 19th Century and Edgar Allan Poe's dictum that nothing is more poetically pathetic than a beautiful dead girl. Ah, Annabel Lee.

The greatest Romantic painting in the Louvre is unquestionably Eugene Delacroix's "The Death of Sardanapalus." It depicts an orgy of violence in a dying tyrant's burning palace. Concubines and horses are slaughtered by turbaned slaves.

Nash's Neo-Romantic taste lacks Delacroix's brio. Violence is implied rather than stated in Gloria DeFillips Brush's image of an exaggerated pair of scissors. The madness associated with genius is hinted at in a portrait of Jacques Templeraud by Spanish photographer Rafael Vargas. Romantic attraction to the exotic is signaled by Norinne Betjemann's image of a mosque and Ruth Thorne-Thomsen's picture of a giant Ozymandias-style head fallen in the desert. Significantly, this work looks like a studio set-up.

Romanticism was sometimes repellently extreme but it did represent a quest for authentic experience. Neo-Romanticism is often willing to settle for watered-down sensationalism and winds up feeling weird, tired and sentimental. Photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark's images from Mother Theresa's Calcutta mission are perfectly authentic but tend to get balled up with our media memories of the great woman, providing a convenient excuse to deny the reality of the suffering they show. Well, just send a donation and it will be all right.

These pictures often substitute creeping decay for dramatic destruction. Martin Paar's color shot of a clean-cut boy and frumpy ladies at Brighton Beach looks perfectly cozy and Brit-idyllic. Then we notice a pile of trash in the foreground. Pollution of the planet is killing us by inches, and there seems little to do about it. Maybe the sense of helplessness that wafts from this collection marks the real difference between original and current Romanticism. They could still find glory and excitement in facing imagined disaster; our problems seem so overwhelming, there is no fun in them. What to do?

Escape.

Anthony Hernandez's "Las Vegas" takes Paar's trash and aestheticizes it into a Jackson Pollockesque abstraction. John Divola's "Zuma Beach" does the same for a vandal's graffiti. Escape into art.

In Ton Huyber'sc series "The Cloud" a man appears--rather unexpectedly--to eat a passing cloud. Then there is the series "Solenoglypha Polipodia," by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera. They have solemnly documented the existence of a snake with legs. Escape into fantasy.

Luckily, like the lugubrious hippie whose idea of serious atonement was cutting his hair, this work gives us a shot of bracing humor and absurdity that paradoxically brings back reality.

Cheered up by a good chuckle, one is encouraged to think we might be able to save the rain forest after all.

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