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ART REVIEW

An Enchanting Look at Royal Gardens

March 01, 1997|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

It's unusual to the point of rarity for an artist to be able to talk us out of the evidence of personal observation. Many modern travelers, for example, tend to dislike the aristocratic formal gardens of Baroque France. Places like the palace of Versailles seem impersonal, over-scaled and excessively controlling with their vast spaces and boring symmetry.

Yet there is presently an exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens offering the work of an artist who sees these spaces quite differently. "Le No^tre's Gardens: Photographs by Michael Kenna" includes about 40 prints that not only take one's breath away by their formal felicity, they also are liable to turn people who hate such gardens into fans. The pictures are literally enchanting.

Andre le No^tre died in 1700. He was Louis XIV's landscape designer and laid out the grounds of such notable residences as Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Chantilly and Les Tuileries. Seen through the British photographer's lens, they look like some place where you'd like to live or go when you die--assuming you have a taste for mystery.

Kenna is clearly a neo-Romantic who believes in the poetry of place. In his imagination it's always dusk, dawn or midnight in the garden, times when transformative magical events occur. Many of the pictures are back-lit from a source made to seem more metaphysical than real. Objects in the foreground are thrown into silhouette, but for all this murk the scenes remain specific.

The kings and courtiers who dwelt here lived mentally in a beautiful mythic realm whose practical effect on society was so odious eventually the people destroyed them. The slightly ominous quality of the prints suggest some of that, albeit obliquely. They look like the result of long thought and meticulous planning. No wonder. Kenna spent the last decade taking them. Rumination seems to have bestowed on the artist the capacity to see these places as their original inhabitants might have done.

He has a particular knack for making the garden sculpture look alive, as if in a startling momentary glimpse in ambiguous light. There's a real double-take in a pair of lions near a draped female figure he calls "Beauty and the Beast." But the most magical of such works are two studies of a "Chariot of Apollo" sculpture installed in a reflecting pool at Versailles. Kenna convinces us that we're witnessing the birth of the sun god from the Earth's primal waters.

He captures an equestrian statue in wide angle at the top of a massive staircase at Chantilly that looks like the ghost of Hamlet's father.

If that sounds a little too tricky or anecdotal, don't worry. A significant hunk of Kenna's mind lingers in the 19th century, but a larger piece is very hip to the legacy of Modernism. Kenna derives most of his emotional effect from calculations about texture, atmosphere and shape that run edge-to-edge across the picture plane. There's more than a whiff of late Monet in a composition around an octagonal basin at Sceaux. The same locale yielded images of dark clumps of trees that's virtually pure abstraction.

Which is not to suggest Kenna's art proceeds by fits and starts. There's a seamlessness about his sensibility. It knits together an image of a mirror basin that looks like a Robert Irwin with a Rorschach-like view of the Grand Canal at Versailles that resembles the birth of the world. The binding quality is, I think, a vision of a world that's haunted by a wondrous spirit.

* Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens; Virginia Steele Scott Gallery, through April 20, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, closed Mondays and holidays, (818) 405-2141.

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