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ART REVIEW

14 Personifications With Little Personality

September 05, 1997|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most of us wouldn't think twice about referring to a person as a real brick, a tall glass of water or comfortable as an old shoe. Edgar Honetschlager, however, has made a point of staying alert to the whimsy, incongruity and even inanity of such venerable metaphors.

For the last 10 years, Honetschlager has documented people in the form of chairs. His single, mural-scaled painting at Griffin Fine Art may look like a picture of a dozen-plus chairs, but it is in fact a group portrait of the 14 people who participated in a project of his currently on view at Documenta X in Kassel, Germany.

You'd never know it to look at the image. Drawn in pencil on linen, with only a few of the chairs colored in with lush red paint, it's a deadpan rendering. Yet one supposes this is the point: If there's no way to really know a person secondhand--that is, through a mode as distanced as portraiture--why make any pretense at all?

Why not depict him or her in the form of something whose lack of animation is necessarily a given?

Honetschlager acknowledges the ingenious ways in which we read things into other things only to frustrate all such attempts. To begin with, his chairs aren't in any way idiosyncratic; they're more like minute variations on a form than individuals with unique habits of being.

Office and school types, they are utilitarian specimens pretty much bereft of personality. Neither spineless, forgiving nor luxuriant, they rebuff all adjectives thrown their way.

Perhaps all this concerns Honetschlager's fascination with the failed mechanics of personification, or alternately, a plea for painting as pure denotation. In any case, what it adds up to in terms of art (as opposed to theory) remains unclear. The work ultimately has the feel of a tentative albeit provocative exercise--one worth pursuing, but hardly resolved.

Also at Griffin Fine Art, Liza Ryan's photographic installation takes as its starting point a research conundrum. Scientists scrutinizing wind patterns are challenged by the fact that their object of study is invisible: They can't see the wind, they can only observe those things affected by it. So their conclusions are necessarily oblique.

Ryan's photo-narratives want to play off of this obliqueness, yet they are caught up in the literal and don't seem to be able to maneuver themselves out of it.

Here, for example, is a horizontal array of four black-and-white photographs of a woman with hair being blown in her eyes; a wind-swept tree; a woman, again with hair in her eyes; and again, a wind-swept tree. Etched directly onto the thin metal frame surrounding the images are the words, "Tree twigs break. Walking progress slows."

Another piece juxtaposes three images: a woman's foot, all but covered in a white gown, stepping into a field of grass; a wind generator; and the same woman's foot, striding forward through the field. The phrase etched onto this frame reads, "A careful observer can judge the wind, not by wetting his finger."

Ryan is a skilled photographer with a certain lyricism. But her image-and-text strategy feels particularly dated--especially deployed in this manner, where the language does no more than comment upon pictures that are already perfectly legible.

What this means is that "the effect of surface wind speed on familiar objects," as Ryan titles her show, is plagued by redundancy. That single quality is antithetical to the poetry Ryan strives for.

* Griffin Fine Art, 915 B Electric Ave., Venice, (310) 452-1014, through Sept. 28. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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