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ART REVIEWS

Retelling Stories of Fame and Misfortune

August 08, 1996|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At Stephen Cohen Gallery, more than 50 sensationalistic photos by Weegee (1899-1968) paint a grim picture of life in the modern city. Mostly made to be sold to tabloid newspapers in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, these relentlessly unforgiving images by the freelance photojournalist are too mean-spirited and vicious to result from a dispassionate day job. Weegee clearly loved his work, and what he relished most was being face to face with other peoples' bad luck and suffering.

A demolished bus, a crashed ambulance and an upside-down car with its dead driver's feet pressed against the windshield serve as sleazy precursors to today's trashiest tabloids. Jampacked drunk tanks, dozens of suspects being arrested (pre-Miranda) and scores of corpses in puddles of blood are prominently featured in Weegee's collective portrait of the dangers awaiting visitors to big cities.

Close-ups of derelicts, hobos and unsavory street vendors as well as jaded laborers and unflattering shots of movie stars like Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe flesh out the photographer's vitriolic view of urban life. As a whole, the show graphically asserts that success is a long shot at best and, at worst, a disgusting lie foisted on honest citizens by the corrupt powers that be.

A series of self-portraits gives physical form to Weegee's disdain for ill-gotten fame. In one black-and-white photo the curmudgeonly photographer lies in an empty paddy wagon and aims his camera at the viewer as if to say, "Mess up and I'll have the last laugh when I get your picture in here."

Weegee's most revealing self-portrait depicts him glaring at Andy Warhol, who tries to look cool behind a pair of dark sunglasses. Despite Warhol's best efforts, you can almost feel his skin crawl in Weegee's seedy presence. Anyone who can make the Father of Pop look so uncomfortable and manipulated is creepy indeed.

The creepiest component of Weegee's persona and photos is the vindictive, country bumpkin moralism they are based in. Like Warhol's parents, Weegee was born in Poland. Like Warhol, he changed his name--from Arthur Fellig to an intentional misspelling of Ouija, from the board game that supposedly foretold the future.

But unlike Warhol, Weegee's fascination with fame did not celebrate or embrace the risks and possibilities present in modern cities. Squalid and malignant, his cynical art embodies a prudish, paternalistic warning about going to big cities and failing miserably.

In retrospect, Weegee's oeuvre seems to screech "stay on the farm, stay out of trouble, steer clear of decadence and just do your work."

Weegee is a first-rate propagandist in a peculiarly American--or Puritan--vein. Unfortunately, his art embodies a crusty notion still dominant today, as art continues to be called on to prevent bad things from happening rather than to invite risk-taking and the failures that such crazy behavior necessitates.

* Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., (213) 937-5525, through Sept. 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

*

Categorical: At Margo Leavin Gallery, a group show of photographs, etchings and videotaped films by five gay black men makes being gay, black and male look boring. Titled "Hotter Than July," the only thing that's hot about this exhibition is its topic.

The images themselves are tepid, wan and unengaging. Too formulaic and self-involved to get your blood boiling, they appear to be so eager to fit into a specialized niche that they refrain from challenging individual viewers with interesting ideas about what art's relationship to being black, gay and male might be.

Almost all of the works are based on the assumption that art is the straightforward documentation of its maker's experiences. A gentlemanly sense of entitlement thus prevents these staid, well behaved images from taking hold of your body or appealing to your mind with any sort of compelling force.

Lyle Ashton Harris' bland photographs of himself and his friends look as if they could have been made by any number of highly touted photographers, whose oversize snapshots are a staple in today's art world. Meant to be seen as works of art simply because the people in them lead meaningful lives, these images fail to convey any specific sense of this meaningfulness to viewers.

The mere fact that the people in Harris' pictures had experiences, and that the artist knows about them, is supposed to be sufficient. The grand scale of the prints (one measures a whopping 4 feet by 5 feet) exacerbates, rather than hides, their shallowness.

Although each of the 15 mostly portrait photographs by Nigerian-born, New York-based Ike Ude measures only 8 by 10 inches, this group of prints also reveals too little about its subjects to sustain interest any longer than it would take to flip through a generic 15-page magazine. Without captions or accompanying stories, Ude's fashionable photos attest to little more than the artist's appreciation of hip stylishness.

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