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ART REVIEWS : Mann Captures the Images of Childhood

August 04, 1994|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sally Mann's photographs of her three, pre-teen - age kids vividly describe what it's like to be a child. In a dozen black-and- white pictures at G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, contradictions run wild.

Playful games of dress-up contrast with touching images of absolute unself-consciousness. A solitary child's rich fantasy life reverberates against utter alienation. A little girl's absorption in the present plays off another's isolation from the world, which appears to be an inhospitable, adult place that is impossible to join and futile to try to escape.

Many of the emotions that accompany and define childhood are given crisp visual form in Mann's accomplished photographs. The bliss of sleep, the pain of fisticuffs, the fear of rejection, the comfort of a warm lap and the self-consuming rage over nothing in particular take shape in her highly perceptive, carefully composed and meticulously printed images.

Mann's art also offers a sensitive study of what it's like to be a mother. The expanded subject of her exquisite family pictures is her own evolving relationship with Emmett, Jessie and Virginia, accompanied by all the expectations and trepidation a mother brings to the lives of her kids.

The intimacy shared between Mann and her children is clearest in "The New Mothers," which depicts her daughters taking their dolls for a walk. Having just had their role-playing interrupted by their nosy, intrusive mother, the older girl throws a powerfully contemptuous and prematurely jaded look back at Mann. Jessie's expression and body language seem to say, "Cut the dumb fantasy stuff, Mom. We've got more important things to do than be your cute little playthings."

Mann's strongest photographs lack the saccharine sentimentality that sometimes suffuses her sweet, overly romanticized and painstakingly staged images. The pictures that emphasize the autonomy of the kids and the unbridgeable distance that separates their interior lives from their mother's control are the most psychologically charged. "Damaged Child," "Jessie at Six" and "At the Preacher's House" are exemplary.

Not surprisingly, they open the issue of the innate sexuality of children. Mann's most memorable photographs fly in the face of the outdated adult fantasy that pre-pubescent kids are angelic, asexual creatures. These images are remarkable because they beautifully demonstrate that being pure and innocent has nothing to do with being sexless.

An undertow of animal sensuality tugs at "Hayhook," in which a group of adults is oblivious to the nude girl using the hook as a trapeze. Mann's pictures, in which her nude children strike grown-up poses, recall the role reversals in "The New Mothers." Her precocious kids imitate adults not to be more like us, but to emphasize that their own world is no more naive or sheltered than ours.

* G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, 908 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-5558, through Sept. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *

Urban Diversions: "The Green Show," a hit-or-miss group exhibition at the Bradbury Building (which occasionally hosts exhibits) proposes that art is like a city park. Both provide momentary respite from the hustle-and-bustle of downtown life, injecting some natural color and a bit of cultivated landscaping into an environment of smog, steel, glass and concrete.

Wendy Adest, Lynn Aldrich and Laura Cooper use plants to make temporary sculptures. Adest's two, 60-foot strips of wheat grass border a path that runs from the lobby to the rear courtyard. Her miniature hedges entice passersby to depart from their walk to the parking structure and to relax among the other, color-coordinated works.

Doug Hammett's labyrinth of creamy cake frosting slathered over stretcher bars echoes the idea that falling off-track--or getting lost--is as worthwhile as traveling directly to your destination. His aggressively decorative icing smells as good as it looks.

The show's most mesmerizing works short-circuit your ability to locate their surfaces. Pae White's thick, shiny slab of forest green plexiglass laid on the floor pulls your body toward its illusory depths. Fandra Chang's multi-part, multilayered screen print maddeningly prevents you from knowing where one plane ends and the next begins.

Neither subtle nor reticent, John Millei's "Wall Flower" is a juicy offshoot of culture's collision with nature. His compact painting looks like a cross between Warhol's silk-screened floral arrangements and a colorful submarine's propellers.

Julian Goldwhite, Nick Taggart and Paul Tzanetopoulos each contribute quirky, playful pieces, while the paintings, sculptures and photographs by Richard Haga, Daniel Marlos, Steve Roden and Barbara Strasen are too illustrative to be engaging.

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