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XXIII and Holding : Best and Last of 3-Part Anniversary Show Pays Tribute to BC Space's Visual Smarts, Daring and Tenacity

May 20, 1997|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — A few well-known names in contemporary photography illuminate the final installment of the three-part "BC XXIII: Committed to the Light," marking the BC Space gallery's 23rd anniversary with work by some of the 500 artists who have exhibited there since 1973.

While this is probably the strongest of the three shows, and certainly a tribute to the combination of visual smarts, risk-taking and sheer tenacity that has kept BC going, its funky approach is sometimes a bit disconcerting.

Asked to send in an old favorite and a newer work, artists sometimes made quirky choices that don't represent them in their best or best-known light. Additionally, although the range of photographic approaches represented--from social activism to moody experimentalism--summarizes the eclectic history of BC shows, it also lends the exhibition a diffuse, unfocused quality.

David Levinthal, who recently had a retrospective at the International Center for Photography in New York, is best known for his photographs of toys arranged to re-create--and question--historical epochs ("Hitler Moves East") and recently has made disturbingly open-ended photographs of racist memorabilia. But at BC, he looks like an entirely different artist.

It was a pleasant surprise to see his photograph of a woman standing in a bedroom (from the "Modern Romance Series" of 1985), a faint, luminous image that is the distilled essence of romantic longing. Levinthal's 1995 photograph from the "Florine Stettheimer Doll House Series" evokes the whimsical theatricality of Stettheimer, an early 20th century poet and artist who is perhaps best known for her cellophane, beads and lace stage set for Virgil Thomson's 1934 opera, "Four Saints in Three Acts."

A sensual, fragmentary image of a woman printed on a sanitary napkin (part of the "Stay Free Series") represents Suda House's groundbreaking work from the 1970s, when the feminist movement and inventive ways of using unlikely media gave photography a new richness in Los Angeles.

House's recent piece, "Stress Is Extreme at This Stage" from the "Withdrawn Series," is a mysterious blend of shapes and textures (a funnel-shaped flow of turquoise-colored emulsion, a spill of sesame seeds) evoking the imagery suggested by the biology text on which it is printed.

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Other familiar names in the show include Joyce Neimanas, Jo Whaley and Robert Glenn Ketchum, whose sweeping, detailed landscape panoramas seem rather out of place in such introverted and experimental company.

Robert Stivers' slightly surreal theatricality asserted itself in a 1990 self-portrait in which he wears a straitjacket and floats in dreamy disconnection on a body of water. In a self-portrait from last year, he metamorphoses into an attenuated white blur, his pinheaded seated figure looking rather like a bulimic Henry Moore.

Another little-known photographer, Mihoko Yamagata, constructs a delicately reserved four-part portrait of her dying mother. The woman's head, emerging from a whirlpool bath, is glimpsed with eyes closed, as if communing with some inner spirit. A row of banal objects in her bathroom--dentures floating in a glass, flowers in water, a plastic soap box--take on the gravity of an elegantly composed still life.

* "BC XXIII: Committed to the Light," through June 7, BC Space, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach. Hours: 1-5:30 p.m., Tuesday-Friday. Free. (714) 497-1880.

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