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ART : Giving Life to Toys : In David Levinthal's photo exhibit at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, it's easy to forget the subjects are merely plastic and metal models.

June 11, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

Photographer David Levinthal grew up in the '50s. Like many boys of that era, he loved cowboys.

Saturday afternoons were often spent at the movies with his father, taking in the latest Western. Countless other hours were whiled away in front of the television set, watching the likes of "Gunsmoke," "Cheyenne" and "Maverick." He had a favorite cowboy shirt that his mother constantly washed so he could wear it every day.

"I wouldn't go out without my Red Ryder gloves," said Levinthal, a native Californian who lives in New York City.

So it is not surprising that as an adult, Levinthal would create a body of work that depicts epic scenes of the West; at least, those vistas known to him and the rest of us from the lore of Hollywood films. It is also not unusual that he would create the series of photographs, "The Wild West," now on view at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, not outdoors on the plains of Texas, but in a studio, using toy cowboys and Indians and pioneer women.

"For more than 20 years, he has arranged toy figures in studio-constructed situations that mimic and cast doubt on representations of contemporary myths and American icons," writes Richard L. Woodward in the book that accompanies the exhibit. It is part of a Smithsonian Institution Press series, "Photographers at Work," which includes books on the work of photographers such as Lee Friedlander and Annie Leibovitz.

Levinthal has worked with toys since 1972, when he was a graduate student at Yale. Recreating military battles on his linoleum floor with toy soldiers, he photographed them for a thesis project. Among his early works with toys is the book, "Hitler Moves East," a portrayal of the Eastern Front in World War II Europe done in collaboration with classmate G. B. Trudeau, renowned today for his Doonesbury comic strip.

"Toys and the way society socializes its young with them constantly intrigue me," Levinthal said. "Society imparts a sense of values through play. We use toys so much as surrogates for our beliefs and desires, they take on a life of their own."

For his "Wild West" series, which includes some photographs that pay homage and others that critique the general mythology of the West, Levinthal used a Polaroid 20x24 Land Camera--one of only five in the world--to capture Western scenes in rich, primarily red-toned, 20-by-24-inch Cibachrome prints. Most of them contain no more than two figures, either human or animal.

By developing a narrow depth of field, these 29 untitled, almost entirely out-of-focus images impart a sense of action and movement in inanimate figures such as gunslingers on horseback, a stagecoach that appears to be out of control, a cowboy lassoing a steer and a woman seemingly waving to a passing train. One is pulled into the vital dramas of Levinthal's visions created by this technique, easily forgetting that the figures are merely plastic and metal models.

"I did research on how the mythology evolved," Levinthal said. "I tried to capture the sensibilities of Remington and Russell in the work. The toys play off of that. You look at this work, the imagery that comes up is the Hollywood Western. Your mind fills in all these details that are not there. This imagery has become so iconic, we perceive of it as a reality even though we know it's not real."

The excitement of well-known scenarios from movies--a shoot-out, a confrontation between cowboy and Indian, a gunslinger (or perhaps the sheriff) standing tall in front of swinging saloon doors--is evident in Levinthal's images. Yet, none of the compositions make references to specific movies or to the actors who extended the mythology of the West.

"If you have a figure that shows John Wayne as Davy Crockett at the Alamo or Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt Earp--and there are such figures--then the picture becomes about them," Levinthal said. He has chosen to make his photographs "intentionally ambiguous. I don't want the viewer to feel constrained. I want to draw viewers into participating, to creating their own narratives."

WHERE AND WHEN

* What: "The Wild West: Photographs by David Levinthal."

* Location: Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, 4700 Western Heritage Way (next to the Los Angeles Zoo).

* Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Monday through Sept. 9.

* Price: Adult admission, $6; seniors and students with valid I.D., $4.50; children ages 2 through 12, $2.50. Parking is free.

* Call: (213) 667-2000.

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