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'Raised by Wolves': Along the Boulevards of Despair

Art review: An exhibition of Jim Goldberg's work shows empathy in its portrayal of runaway teens but lacks a compelling vision.

March 13, 1997|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Jim Goldberg's multimedia exhibition "Raised by Wolves: Photographs and Documents of Runaways" is a heartfelt chronicle of two teenage runaways in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The barely contained chaos of life on the street comes through loud and clear, but the presentation is finally only marginally engaging.

The show, which opened last week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, tells its thorough if unsurprising story primarily through black-and-white photographs made by an artist who managed to gain the confidence of his subjects and thus had access to the full spectrum of their lives. One hundred forty-five pictures are printed in a wide variety of sizes and formats, some poster-like, some in the manner of collages, most simply framed for display.

Goldberg, however, seems plainly skeptical of the limitations of his photographic medium, as if doubting its capacity to convey the story with immediacy, conviction and truth. He's interwoven his photographs with videotapes, audiotapes, artifacts and elements of installation art in an apparent attempt to expand the traditional means of the documentary photographer.

The actual graffiti-covered denim jacket worn by one kid whose story is told in camera images hangs overhead near the end of the show, like evidence that the boy whose harsh and poignant life you've been witnessing in pictures was in fact flesh and blood. A mattress leans against an entry wall, evoking the bare rudiments of home cobbled together by homeless youth, while another is set up in a small gallery where headphones are available for visitors to listen in on ruminations spoken by the subjects. Text written by runaways, taken from Goldberg's book "Raised by Wolves," which was published in lieu of an exhibition catalog when the show first went on tour in 1995, is reproduced around the photographs in barely legible scrawls directly on gallery walls.

The urge to employ video, sound, artifacts and text seems to stem from Goldberg's conviction that one primary source of the tragic, intractable problem of runaway kids can be found in adult refusals to listen to their children's plaintive voices. So, the artist builds the runaways a platform from which they can speak about the brutal situation in which they now find themselves. Goldberg's photographs become like illustrations, describing the abjection, dreaminess, despair, tedium and fantasy spoken in the kids' haltingly articulated text.

*

He may be correct in his diagnosis of a major source of the problem. Still, having a voice is not the same as being an artist. Goldberg's attempt to find a way to transform into a meaningful work of art the disordered and inchoate utterances of his youthful subjects is finally thwarted.

Goldberg has shaped his narrative into two separate stories, which take divergent but seemingly inevitable paths. The boy, called Tweeky Dave, is a young man who becomes progressively sicker on the streets until, eventually, he dies; the girl, Echo, is a young woman who, having sought solace in a self-invented street family, eventually gives birth to a baby.

So life's inevitable cycles are affirmed--one person lost, one gained--even amid the dangerous squalor of a wretched existence on the street. The result is a strangely pallid exhibition that creates a harrowing and sentimental narrative of kids on the skids, but without much that is compelling to look at.

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through May 18. Closed Mondays.

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