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SUNDAY BRUNCH

BOOKSHELF / art & photography

September 14, 1997|KRISTINE McKENNA | Special To The Times

Be forewarned: Max Aguilera-Hellweg's "The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery" (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company. 128 pgs. $50.00) is not easy viewing. Photographs of 50 surgical procedures performed in various American hospitals, these images are so visually beautiful that you are drawn into them before you know what you're looking at. But it's not long before you realize that beneath the body's civilizing epidermis, there lurks a big, bloody mess.

We tend to think of the operating room as an overlit, stainless steel theater where events unfold with a minimum of dramatics, accompanied by a soundtrack of reassuring murmurs. Aguilera-Hellweg shows us that nothing could be further from the truth, that the operating room is an excruciatingly human arena where we place ourselves completely at the mercy of our fellow men.

Most of us have some familiarity with medical photography, and though it's rarely pleasant, it generally has a clinical quality that allows us to distance ourselves from the events depicted. Aguilera-Hellweg upends that tradition as well; drawing a parallel between the invasiveness central to surgery and photography, he leaves the viewer no place to hide and pushes everything front and center. Evocative of the ubiquitous image of Jesus standing with his heart exposed, bright red and bleeding, Aguilera-Hellweg's pictures are as grisly as they are graceful.

Accompanying the photographs (scheduled to be the subject of an exhibition opening Oct. 28 at the Gallery of Contemporary Photography in Santa Monica) is a fascinating text by the artist that attempts to shed some light on how attitudes and beliefs about the body have shifted over time. In the Middle Ages, for instance, it was legal to subject the body to all manner of gruesome torture, but there was great anxiety about the performing of autopsies for fear of consequences in the afterlife.

The text also informs us that "the spinal cord is like a sausage with toothpaste inside" and that "the heart is especially difficult to photograph because it won't stop moving." There's something comforting in that.

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If you need something to steady your nerves after "The Sacred Heart," look no further than "Puppies" by William Wegman (Hyperion Press. 96 pgs. $24.95). Wegman is a conceptual artist in New York who since the early '70s has maintained a thriving cottage industry based on photographs and films of his ever-evolving series of pet Weimaraners. With this book, he has outdone himself.

One admits, of course, that it's virtually impossible to evaluate photographs of puppies with any kind of objective aesthetic standard, because everybody this side of Attila the Hun loves puppies. Wegman's are nonetheless particularly spectacular. Resembling tiny seals when they are first born, Wegman's puppies exude the nobility of full-grown dogs, even as they wobble around on shaky new legs.

Wegman likes to dress his dogs up and often poses them with whimsical props, but the integrity of dogdom shines through human monkeyshines. Check out the image on the book's cover: A head-on view of a puppy approaching across the shores of a lake, the photograph captures a look in this dog's eyes that is sweet enough to make you weep. The earnestness, trust and stoic dignity in the face of this animal is absolutely exquisite.

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Kristine McKenna will review art and photography books every four weeks. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn on audio books.

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