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Exhibit Portrays an Artist With an Attitude

Carole Topalian's photos add drama to portraiture. Her works feature a play of light and dark that can be dreamy and startling.


If portraiture can be described as a means of getting at the essence of a subject, photographer Carole Topalian is a portraitist with an attitude. Her works, now showing at the Childress Gallery, don't so much strip away artifice to get to the heart of a personality as they unapologetically spin yarns, dramatizing figures with mystical swirls of light in darkly hermetic yet warm settings.

Her characters are often lovers, sometimes homosexual, who appear in tasteful embraces. Or she photographs young people with far-off gazes. They seem lost to the world, huddled in strange spaces, behind closed doors--and possibly figments of a dream. Clearly, this is photography of a posed, calculated nature, rather than from the documentarian "decisive moment" school. And that dramatization is the source of its intrigue.

Topalian's artistic process involves shooting the subjects in dark rooms, illuminated by a moving spotlight and captured with a long exposure. The end result is dreamy and a bit startling, with light streamers dancing across human skin, like unpredictable refractions off waves in a swimming pool. A water analogy works here because Topalian seems to be after a suggestion of submersion.

Many of the images aim at depicting the special damn-the-world bond of lovers, then there is the hint of a deep yet tense mother-daughter relationship in "Demeter and Persephone." Emotional dynamics are intentionally vague--observed underwater, as it were.

Topalian's individual portraits are equally ambiguous. In "Waiting for Hermes," a young man holds up a wall while staring distractedly into the distance as eerie plumes of light hover around him. "Shrouded" portrays a young man sprawled in a lavish bed, evoking a mystical, rather than sexual, presence.

The most conventional of the images here are of 103-year-old Beatrice Wood, that ageless avatar of the Ojai art scene. But even these photos--of Wood napping contentedly or posing with her assistant David--are enigmatic, enveloped as they are in dark backdrops. Wood, who always seems privy to some other realm of being anyway, benefits from the interpretive eye.

An impressive coherency surfaces from Topalian's series of images, even as they gently baffle. With her unusual technique, she has concocted an expressive means to an end, pushing the parameters of photography to a provocative effect.

Also in the gallery are figure sculptures by the deft and eclectically minded Frank Lauran, whose recent works shown at Art City came from a different corner of his aesthetic. Here, Lauran shows oblique figures, which manage to be plump yet airy. His formal trick relies on the resolution of opposites, creating bulging anatomical studies of Botero-esque proportions, while endowing them with balance and gracefulness.

* Carole Topalian and Frank Lauran, through Oct. 5 at Childress Gallery, 319 E. El Roblar Road in Ojai. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 640-1387.


Seductive Abrasions: The sculpture of Russell B. McMillin, now at the gallery one one one annex, comes from a different place and a different material base altogether. But it also takes on the challenge of careful artistic mediation. Using crumpled sheets of coarse steel, with serrated edges, the artist creates unexpectedly beautiful pieces, using brighter-colored brass inlay to "draw" linear designs.

For all their rough edges and unruly forms, the works in McMillin's "Dream Vessel" series achieve a weird floral-like delicacy. Therein lies the paradox, as the artist alludes to nature using strictly industrial ingredients.

The paradox continues with the "Inner Site" series, McMillin's works on canvas. These pieces are not paintings, exactly, in that they use mixed media. Nor are they exactly two-dimensional, given their gloppy, tactile surfaces and sweeps of diagonal imagery.

One is tempted to read these pieces as topographical relief maps of the soul, a rough indication of how to get there from here. Of course, the "there" in question is abstract and open to personal interpretation or whim. McMillin's works can be seen as metaphysical reflections and/or crafty variations on the issue of "proper" use of medium.

The new gallery one one one annex, nestled within the Performance Studio and including the Palm Street-facing window front, is turning out to be a valuable addition to the art scene in Ventura. Slowly and, one hopes, surely, a sense of revitalization of downtown art space is afoot.

* Russell B. McMillin, "Intuitive Works," through Nov. 2 at gallery one one one annex, 34 N. Palm St. (the Performance Studio). Gallery hours are 4-8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday; 641-0111.

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