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Art Review

'Bernhard': Homage to a 5-Decade Career

November 06, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Changing fashions in art have had surprising little effect on the freshness of Ruth Bernhard's treatment of the female body and her idiosyncratic blend of streamlined Modernism and theatrical lighting effects.

"Ruth Bernhard: Known and Unknown," at the University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach, pays homage to the breadth of the 91-year-old artist's work over five decades.

Concentrating primarily on artfully plotted arrangements of mundane objects--a rhythmic composition of Lifesavers balanced on edge was her breakthrough work in 1930--Bernhard combined an eye for eccentric form with highly controlled studio lighting.

As a young German emigre in New York, Bernhard took up photography in 1929 by chance. When her graphic artist father announced the end of parental handouts, she found a job with Ralph Steiner, a pioneering Modernist photographer of everyday objects who was then working for a women's magazine.

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After learning the basics (and presumably absorbing something of Steiner's aesthetic), Bernhard grew bored and was fired. But she invested her $90 severance pay in a camera and darkroom equipment.

Commissioned photographs for Machine Art, a 1934 catalog published by the Museum of Modern Art, led to other industrial work (notably for architect Frederick Kiesler), as well as Hollywood portraiture and fashion photography.

Typically, the latter images work best when the sitter assumes an architectonic pose, boxed in by limbs and the framing edge, or when the model is reduced to a silhouette trailing an eccentric squiggle of fabric.

In her studies of the female nude, Bernhard was free to lop off heads and focus on elemental qualities. The most memorable of these images is "African" (1959), a squatting black woman who clamps her hands on thighs that part to reveal a dangling triangle of pubic hair above the breast-like double mounds of her heels.

This startling double-sexed effect, the Rorschach blot pattern of negative space seen through her legs and the serenely powerful equipoise of her frame-filling posture suggest the emblematic transcendence of a tribal sculpture.

If none of Bernhard's images of white women convey this degree of strength and surprise, they are nonetheless observed with cool yet quietly ennobling attention, remote from either the dispassionately objectified gaze of her friend Edward Weston or the more low-key scrutiny of Imogen Cunningham.

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Bernhard's other specialty was the fairy-tale realm of mundane objects transformed by light. Whether the subject was a particular type of smooth-textured, flying saucer-shaped candy nestled in the looping folds of satin cloth or a curled-up garden hose spraying a luminous haze, Bernhard saw it afresh, as a sensuous artifact.

Sometimes she put objects to work as part of overtly Surrealist set pieces with a melancholy cast. In "Creation (Doll's Head), Hollywood, California," a grimy model hand holding a bald doll's head looms in the foreground of a dark, primeval landscape: a disquieting image mingling elements of trust, innocence and doom.

Despite her reliance on studio lighting, Bernhard could work her magic outdoors, too, most effectively on a small scale, as in "Flying Leaves (Leaves Through Fence)" from 1952, in which the flat patterns recall a Calder mobile.

Whether or not her work was personal or client-driven seems to have little to do with its quality. Left to her own devices, she could be mawkish--as in "Street Scene (On the Road)," a doll lying near a car tire--or blandly decorative (as in some of the shell still-lifes).

Curator Ilee Kaplan ascribes the source of certain images from the '70s--a melting teapot, a spectral light event happening around a doorknob--to Bernhard's Zen Buddhist beliefs, but the effects seem high-pitched and melodramatic. The symbolism that bubbles underneath Bernhard's images works best when it is least insistent, as in the glancing male-female references in "Bone and Driftwood."

Changing tastes have turned some of Bernhard's sincerely intended doll tableaux, like "Dead Sparrow, Pennsylvania" (1946), into captivating kitsch. She viewed dolls as stand-ins for children, using them straightforwardly as emblems of pathos--a tactic that seems as naive and cloying today as W. Eugene Smith's contemporaneous photograph of children in a forest, "The Walk to Paradise Garden."

* "Ruth Bernhard: Known and Unknown," Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach; noon-8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Fridays-Sundays; through Nov. 17, (310) 985-5761.

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