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ART REVIEW

When Nostalgia Is in the 'Foreground'

July 02, 1998|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

The last couple of decades has exhibited a penchant for robbing life of ordinary fun. Take, for example, the traveling show "From the Background to the Foreground" currently on view at UC Riverside's California Museum of Photography.

It's a carnivalesque concatenation of some 200 portraits. All were taken against painted or otherwise faked backgrounds--about 40 of which are on display. Pictures meander through time and around the planet. An 1875 shot of Sam Houston depicts the first president of Texas looking elegantly heroic against a hand-drawn backdrop.

The scene shifts to Spain's Balearic Islands. There an unrecognized master photographer named Tomas Montserrat took formal special-occasion shots of the locals. Images were produced between 1900 and 1944 but--thanks to traditional dress and persistent backdrops--absolutely nothing seemed to change on the islands.

Recognizable names like Cecil Beaton and James Van Der Zee are whimsically represented. Vintage slick mass-circulation magazine ads try to convince us that it's a mark of gentlemanly distinction to drink bourbon whiskey.

Mostly, however, these are pictures by commercial studios or itinerant street photographers who girdle the globe from North and South America to India, Africa and Asia. Their subjects look like ordinary folks out to have a good time at local fiestas and fun zones.

Urban types tend to mug for the camera as they loll on crescent moons, immerse themselves in a "Barrel of Fun" or stick their faces atop cartoon figures. One example transforms the boy into a scuba diver and his date into a mermaid.

Rural folk frequently freeze. They look as if they've never had their picture taken and aren't sure they'll survive the ordeal. Mostly though people fall into their assigned role. A Guatemalan woman celebrated her 84th birthday looking properly reverential in front of a painted angel in an idyllic park. A Chinese girl had no trouble playing a traditional beauty against an Arcadian pagoda-and-lake drop in a Beijing studio. A muscular African American guy looks appropriately bellicose in front of a graphic commemorating Malcolm X.

These pictures were made because the subjects wanted a modest souvenir of a nice time or a postcard to send home. Virtually everybody betrays awareness of being in an artificial situation. The pictures confess they're fakes with their flat lighting and the hilarious line of the drops separating their fantasy from the reality of sidewalk or floor. At that level, the show can be a hoot for any casual visitor with a taste for kitsch, nostalgia, browsing old albums or appreciating the frequently charming backdrops.

Serious souls, however, will have problems making sense of it all. The mixture of professional, amateur, quasi-anthropological and political-conceptual work is confusing; the borders between them ill-defined. The printed exhibition checklist is so complex it's a job of work to relocate what's on view.

The show was organized for the Rochester, N.Y., Visual Studies Workshop by curator James B. Wyman. A tabloid-format publication serves as the catalog. It reminds us that the exhibition's subtitle is "The Photo Backdrop and Cultural Expression." That pretty well discourages any invitation to sentiment and poetics, much less any inclination to aesthetic appreciation.

The work was dragooned to serve as forensic evidence in an intellectual investigation of matters relating to cultural stereotyping. Essays by Arjun Appadurai, Lucy Lippard and Avon Neal variously employ semiotic and deconstructivist techniques to analyze deep meanings the authors find in the work. Unfortunately their numerous--and frequently important--ideas were accorded so little writing space, nothing gels.

Interesting mega-themes are suggested. Wyman, in his curator's introduction, floats an enticing question. He wonders about cultural changes implied by the difference between the cheerful artificiality of this work and the almost seamless photographic fakery made possible by today's computers. That's interesting but it's another exhibition.

The 300-pound elephant not addressed in the present show is this: Can such engaging ephemeral art bear the weight of so much mental baggage without collapsing in a laughing fit? Maybe fun's going to win after all.

* "From the Background to the Foreground," UC Riverside, California Museum of Photography, 3824 Main St., Riverside; through Aug. 16, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (909) 784-3686.

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