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ART REVIEWS : Revealing Look at the Boys of Summer

August 12, 1993|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Andrea Modica's photographs of the members of the Oneonta Yankees, a minor league ballclub from Upstate New York, make for perfect viewing on a hot August afternoon. These portraits of the "boys of summer"--clad in pin-stripes, eyes shaded behind caps, cheeks stuffed full of tobacco--are, however, more than pleasant diversions. Like the game of baseball (at least according to its aficionados), the photographs on view at Paul Kopeikin are both beautiful and complex.

Sports stars are our heroes, our mythic figures; Modica is interested in myths-in-training, in unripe heroes. The faces in her images are unfamiliar, mostly young and strangely transparent. In those faces, and through those bodies, we see the fine-tuning of a performance--the clenched jaw, the level gaze, the crossed arms. We also see the places where the performance is still raw--where masculinity, as publicly enacted by the athlete, has not yet been finessed.

Everywhere there are clues suggesting vulnerability. A portrait of a catcher stresses a long, thin, painfully adolescent neck, complete with bulging Adam's apple. Another image of two outfielders, as elegantly composed as a fashion photograph by Irving Penn, foregrounds one player's hands placed clumsily on his thighs, the anxious look in his eyes indicating an awareness of his own awkwardness.

Other photographs stress the sexuality of the players. One dark-haired Adonis sprawls on a bench, his legs spread, his head tilted to one side, his eyes glazed. Another sits on the field, arms wrapped around a raised knee like a Playgirl centerfold.

The most interesting of these depicts a pair of infielders, posed like the matching sides of a Rorschach blot. Dressed like twins, their bats are slung over their shoulders in opposite directions at identical angles, and their shoes are touching just enough to merit notice--and to suggest a profound if unnerving comfort with each other's bodies.

Masculinity is a masquerade that relies upon certain attitudes, poses and acts. Intimacy must appear in the guise of camaraderie, competition must be balanced against fair play, individualism checked by team spirit, and violence borne of aggressivity controlled. Modica's images, billed as portraits, document this masquerade--and the imperfections, slips and cracks generated thereof, the places where so-called "inappropriate" behavior has yet to be repressed. In this, they are both daring and conceptually sophisticated. They reveal the hard work that goes into the perpetuation of one of the mass culture's favorite summertime--in fact, perennial--fantasies.

* Andrea Modica at Paul Kopeikin, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (213) 937-0765. Closed Sundays and Mondays, through Aug. 21.

Contradiction: In the 1980s, abstract painters of a critical bent were caught in a whopping contradiction. Artists like Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe carried on about the collapse of history and fomented a serious brouhaha about the death of painting. Yet at the same time, they kept busy trying to gain a foothold in painting's--yes!--ongoing history.

In the 1990s, millenarian talk about the eclipse of both painting and history has subsided, though the assault on high modernism continues. James Hyde, whose abstract paintings are now on view at Angles Gallery, offers insight into modernism's overarching promises and purist stance. But his work isn't pungent enough to be labeled an assault.

Hyde's is, rather, a speculative endeavor, a tentative look into the mechanics of formalism, a low-key investigation into the possibilities for nonobjective painting now that those possibilities are no longer so highhandedly dismissed.

Hyde pulls you in with the lure of the gesture--brushy swaths of paint in colors as intense as mustard yellow and as luscious as pomegranate red. Yet once you come in closer, instead of Willem De Kooning-like texture, you get the flatness of a Roy Lichtenstein-style cartoon.

This flatness is due to the use of fresco, a centuries-old technique in which pigment is sunk deep into the plaster support, leaving a smooth, unmodulated surface. Here, however, the plaster is not slathered directly onto the wall, in the traditional manner, but laid onto massive chunks of pebbly, white Styrofoam projecting from it.

All of a sudden, the Renaissance has fast-forwarded into the age of plastics, with a post-World War II pit stop (or deliberate false turn) taken along the way. Time, medium and stylistic conventions blur, and then derail altogether. What we are left with are a bunch of expectations. Hyde gets us to confront them, and to see that expectation is more than half of what art is anyway.

The other half--at least as far as these very sculptural paintings show it--is concerned with deft manipulations, imaginative permutations and a steadfast refusal of the rhetoric of exhaustion. Hyde offers us visual and other pleasures--a fine antidote to millenarian thinking.

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