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ART REVIEWS : The Controversial Serrano Moves On

May 24, 1991|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After attacks from conservatives a couple of years ago, photographer Andres Serrano seems typecast as a provocateur . In the meantime, he has moved on to other formats and subjects while retaining his widely misunderstood religious sensibility and his sense of risk.

In his "Nomad" series of 6-foot Cibachrome images, Serrano offers heroic views of the homeless, each photographed against a neutral background. Gazing into the distance rather than engaging the viewer's eye, these subjects have a towering, oddly timeless presence. Young, one-armed "Pete" wears a frayed but carefully buttoned-up green satin baseball jacket; massive "Bertha" is swathed in scarves and a stained corduroy jacket with a broken zipper.

It's tempting to compare these images with Richard Avedon's big, slick black-and-white portraits of staring hick layabouts and thugs that made such a splash in the mid-'80s. But those individuals were perceived as remarkable, sometimes downright pathetic specimens of humanity, twisted into odd postures and grimaces by an unimaginable string of unfortunate circumstances.

Serrano's people are clearly urban outcasts--their mode of dress proclaims their lack of status--but they project the self-possession of sober survivors, not freaks. Their nobility may at first seem unearned and falsely dramatic, purely a creation of the carefully posed and lit studio presentation. But Serrano shrewdly capitalizes on these means to focus our attention on people we'd be likely to dismiss in situ. Risking the dual pitfalls of trendy glamorizing and campy heroics, he somehow succeeds in separating innate human dignity from outward appearance.

Also on view are photo-portraits from a few years ago by Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close and the British duo of Gilbert and George.

The Serrano pieces set up the viewer for one of Sherman's untitled images of her disguised self. As a sleeping homeless woman (only her tousled head of hair is seen), she lies on a tapestry-like arrangement of leaves and pine cones. Discarded panties loom in the foreground with richly awful portent.

Close's large Polaroid images of well-known artists are actually studies for paintings in which modular brush mark patterns compete with the visual data. While the photo studies lack this crucial component, they are nonetheless compelling as unsmiling, tension-ridden images. Bearded, bore-eyed Lucas Samaras comes off like a crazed prophet; the lean face of Alex Katz seems wracked by stress.

Gilbert and George have retained their simple-minded (they would say "democratic") approach to art-making through the years, avoiding any trace of intellectual engagement in their rug-sized photo pieces made from postcards.

Their two pieces in the show consist of concentric rings of three identical postcard photographs: an attractive young man, a tourist view and an object (either a piece of malachite or the British flag). The artists seem to be paying politely vapid tribute to attractive objects.

Linda Cathcart Gallery: 924 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (213) 451-1121, to June 11. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Abstract Beginnings: Call it the Awkward Age of American art--that period from the 1910s to the dawn of Abstract Expressionism when a few venturesome artists--spurred on by the Armory Show of 1913 and their own trips abroad--tried to pep up regionalism with an injection of European abstraction.

In "Toward Abstraction: American Art Between the Wars," the big names here like John Marin, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Milton Avery, Arthur Dove and Stuart Davis are joined by numerous unknowns whose styles range from ultra-conservative to timidly venturesome. If the show lacks real dazzlers, it does offer a grab bag of mostly transitional work--jumping-off points for personal careers as well as the broader history of modern American art--by diverse artists not often seen in these parts.

In 1914, when Marin painted "West Point Maine," he was in his mid-40s and had just left Manhattan for the rural New England life. Unlike the late-blooming artist's more forceful style of the '20s and '30s, this abstract watercolor landscape is a dreamy medley of small areas of transparent green, purple and blue scattered across the paper like blobs of wet tissue paper.

Traveling in Europe during his mid-20s, Sheeler was impressed by Cezanne and revamped his conservative style to stress the geometry of space. "Abstracted Landscape with Houses" from 1915 is a thinly painted canvas in which the landscape is all choppy strokes and the house is a featureless void. Another decade would pass before he began making his famous machine photographs and the sharp-edged Precisionist paintings of industrial forms and rural architecture.

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