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ART REVIEWS

A Bigger Picture of Middle-Class America

March 14, 1997|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Roger Minick's well-known color photographs of tourists visiting national parks and monuments in the western United States, seemingly insignificant details alert viewers to a lurking sense of discomfort.

As vacationing families, couples and individuals pose before scenic overlooks and grand vistas, a single clenched fist, a pair of down-turned eyes or the slump of someone's shoulders reveals that the people in these pictures are not gullible victims of some omnipotent tourist industry. Instead, they are self-conscious participants in a drama that's much bigger than any of them.

Most of Minick's 23 prints at Jan Kesner Gallery depict middle-class Americans standing on walkways before expansive valleys, breathtaking mountain ranges and crystal-clear lakes. Made in 1980 and 1981 at such meccas as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, these meticulously crafted images document the diversity of a group that's often dismissed for being blandly homogeneous.

Through Minick's lens, middle-class Americans constitute a pretty goofy group of individuals who would be bona fide eccentrics if they were not all uniformly dwarfed by their majestic surroundings. Included are smiling retirees who look like they've just stepped from gas-guzzling mobile homes, gangly adolescents with bare midriffs, suburban dads wearing striped shirts and plaid shorts and weary families whose dirty jeans suggest that they're fresh off the farm.

Although Minick's pictures don't survey the extremes of the economic spectrum, they show that middle-class Americans come in all shapes and sizes, are driven by a variety of tastes and desires and possess a wide range of disposable incomes. Like Bill Owens' black-and-white photos from the 1960s and 1970s, Minick's anonymous portraits attest to the weirdness at the center of American culture. They vividly demonstrate that no one really fits into the stereotype that is meant to represent them.

Minick intensifies this sense of not fitting in by almost always aiming his camera at a downward angle and by crowding his subjects up against the protective fences that surround scenic overlooks. Though edgy and pointed, his photographs never buy into the simple-minded idea that nature is good and that culture, its opposite, is bad.

Instead, these supple works use the discomfort most people feel when confronted by nature's inhuman scale as a metaphor for the precariousness of culture in a democratic society. Awkward and uncertain, sometimes fun and at other times frightening, this quiet anxiety is a big part of these pictures' power.

* Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 938-6834, through April 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Family Portraits: Stylistically, Richard Billingham's photographs belong to a genre that might be called slacker snapshots. Made famous by Nan Goldin and practiced by a host of contemporary artists whose friends and acquaintances appear to be falling through the cracks of society, this style of documentation ignores the niceties of refinement and finish and instead captures the passing moment with a sense of casual urgency often bordering on desperation.

What distinguishes Billingham's grainy, poorly lit and sometimes out-of-focus prints is their subject. For the last seven years, the 26-year-old British artist has focused his camera on his father, Ray, a chronic alcoholic with a taste for cheap cider; his mother, Liz, an overweight housewife who also rarely leaves their cramped flat near Birmingham; and his younger brother, Jason, who lives there when he's not a ward of the state.

Part of the power of Billingham's art is because he's a member of the family he photographs. These pictures are as much about his relationship to his immediate family as they are about the people they depict. They're also about sticking with a bad situation for the long run, rather than snapping a picture and abandoning the people in it to whatever fate might befall them.

To see Billingham's exhibition at Regen Projects, and the accompanying book, "Ray's a Laugh," is to see the daily rhythms--the ups and the downs, the sorrow and the joy--of a family wholly engrossed in a fairly hermetic lifestyle. The more time you spend looking at these images, however, the more normal they seem. Ray and Liz may not go off to work everyday, but the chaos of their lives is organized into regularly recurring patterns that are not significantly different from those that structure everyone's lives.

Somehow, Billingham manages to lay bare the beauty of what most people would (unfairly) describe as wasted lives. His series of intimate pictures is neither pathetic nor fashionably abject, but a poignant record of accepting people for who they are, not what you want them to be.

* Regen Projects, 629 N. Almont Drive, (310) 276-5424, through April 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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