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CALL IT PUPPY LOVE : BankAmerica Exhibit Lacks Cohesiveness, but It Does Have Some Amusing Works

July 29, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

During the eight months that the BankAmerica Gallery (formerly Security Pacific Gallery) has been offering art shows, I've waited in vain for the return of curated exhibitions with a fresh thematic point of view. The BankAmerica style is a letdown: Works chosen from the bank's 18,000-piece contemporary art collection are displayed in uncreative ways, with minimal information for the curious viewer. Still, there are some wonderful pieces in that huge collection, and every now and then we get to see a few.

Through Sept. 3, the subject is "Contemporary Color," a pointlessly arbitrary selection of work by seven photographers who work with various color processes, including hand-colored black-and-white images. In virtually every other respect, these artists have little in common; the juxtaposition of their work doesn't help define it. But beggars can't be choosers when it comes to summer art shows, and the William Wegman, Richard Misrach and Greg MacGregor photos (in particular) are well worth checking out.

Wegman's amusing photographs of his Weimaraner, Fay Ray, play with conventions of portrait photography and contemporary art in the most beguiling ways. Posed in a haughty S-curve on an overturned metal bucket, the dog imitates a vamping high-fashion model ("Untitled/Fay on Can"). Shot in fine-textured close-up with light playing over her rich coat, she could illustrate a Vogue magazine feature on skin care. Covered by a flowered afghan, with only her nose poking out ("Afghan"), she mimics a cutesy-poo baby pose. Mournfully straddling two chairs, she becomes a living pun ("Foot Bridge").

Antics of the litter Wegman photographed for his "Puppy Portfolio" series include a wry take on the photo-documentation of performance art: outstretched hands underneath a puppy that has been tossed in the air right-side up and then (for good, experimental measure) upside-down.

"The dogs always look sad," he once told an interviewer. "So you have to create happiness around them if you want to get joy in the picture."

Misrach's nature photographs have evolved from explorations of optical phenomena on the desert to strong statements about the fragile status of the Earth. Different views of the Salton Sea show it at dusk (barely perceptible red clouds hover over the inky blue scene) and at night (a red beacon burns a vibrant streak onto the dark water). In "Desert Croquet No. 1 (Deflated Earth)," a deflated fabric globe sags on a huge expanse of cracked yellow earth under a sickly yellow sky.

MacGregor's approach to landscape is quite different. A former experimental physicist, he queries the "believability" of photographs in his work by hand-coloring black-and-white images, siting unlikely architectural objects on the land (achieved through multiple printing) or even inventing phony events. In "Goblin Valley Star Field," geological formations appear as elaborately carved as Himalayan temples under an incongruous star-filled sky. Orange-and-blue rays fan out like a celestial tiara in "Twenty-four Lightning Bolts in the Direction of Rapid City, South Dakota."

Following a more mainstream photographic tradition, Leo Rubinfien photographs slices of life in various parts of the world in a curiously flat-footed way that looks as though it's supposed to be meaningful. The guy with a dog straining at a leash at the harbor in Hong Kong, the pensive young girl on the train to Rome, the group of exhausted young people drooping at a fountain in Rome--these images fail to crystallize the atmosphere of a particular place at a particular time, or provide a fresh insight into human nature.

Richard Ross's untitled photographs from "Burma Suite," on the other hand, give the viewer a sense of the way a traveler takes in bits and pieces of a foreign environment. Glimpsed from the side, an enormous statue of the Buddha is seen only as a giant arm and a welcoming open palm in a light-filled temple.

Ross is best known for his earlier "Museology" series, which zeros in on odd juxtapositions of art objects in museum storerooms (such as the two fragmentary Ionic capitals for long-vanished columns that rest incongruously on slab-like contemporary bases).

Jo Whaley's work often seems too large for the wispy, wide-eyed notions she pursues. Her images of folk carvings of saints sadly overseeing desolate, rubble-strewn landscapes in the Southwest are affecting, if somewhat repetitious, but the ideas behind her "shrine" photographs are far too fragile to withstand their epic formats. (In "Shrine to Domestic Boredom," for example, free-falling images of onion peels, carrot curls, lettuce bits and cheesecloth surround a reproduction of an 18th-Century painting of a peasant woman peeling an onion.)

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