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'Different Looks' Explores Power in Seeing, Being Seen


"Different Looks," a provocative group show at UC Riverside's Sweeney Art Gallery, tries to turn the deceptively straightforward act of looking on its ear. Curated by artist and writer Ken Gonzales-Day, this smart but uneven exhibition of photography, digital art and drawing by seven L.A. artists alternately sails and stumbles over its internal contradictions.

The show's persuasive (if familiar) argument is that looking, and being looked at, can be powerful expressions of social power and control. Gonzales-Day spins this idea in an unexpected direction by selecting images in which people are either visually obscured or entirely absent. A compelling exception to this occurs with Vincente Golveo's show-stealing "Download," 1998, a wall-length display of ballpoint-pen drawings depicting hundreds of Asian and Pacific Island men in various states of sexual arousal.

Golveo's carefully rendered drawings, each copied from downloaded Internet files, transform the instant sexual gratification of online porn into a sustained, and deeply erotic, devotional act. Across the room, Margaret Morgan's wonderfully wry, postcard-sized color photographs of the sinks, toilets and utility closets in public restrooms (shot from multiple angles, not unlike nude studies) ask us to take a long, hard look at places we'd rather not think about.

The efforts elsewhere feel more tentative. At times, the artists seem to be replicating, rather than undermining, the conventional visual strategies that they are presumably trying to question. Installed in another grid formation, the working-class truckers in Annica Karlsson Rixon's color photographs are barely discernible, anonymous blurs, making Rixon's snapshots the conceptual equivalent of drive-by shootings that tell us little or nothing about their subject's experiences. Likewise, Hillary Mushkin's banal, surveillance-style photographs of an anonymous woman in her home don't generate much tension beyond their slasher-movie allusions.

In Jose Alvaro Perdices' nearly monochrome black-and-white photographs of gay bars, the only signs of human activity are the tiny flashes of light emerging from near-total darkness. Perdices' cryptic images speak eloquently to the public secrecy that homophobia enforces, but by the same token, they look an awful lot like the interiors of locked closets.

Culled from archival film footage, Bruce & Norman Yonemoto's black-and-white stills feel out of place here, but a satisfying sense of closure is provided by Joseph Santarromana's gorgeous, digitally manipulated photographs of unidentifiable objects suspended in space. Defiantly amorphous and unreadable, these secret signs confound our efforts to label or classify them. Santarromana's strangely sensuous images are also unexpectedly utopian. They speak of the undeniable pleasure we take in looking, and suggest that someday, our differences might simply be celebrated, rather than endlessly deconstructed and analyzed to death.

('Different Looks" is presented in conjunction with an exhibition of photographs by Raoul Gradvohl and Garry Winogrand, also organized by Gonzales-Day, which is on view at the UCR/California Museum of Photography).

* Sweeney Art Gallery (in Watkins House), 3701 Canyon Crest Drive, Riverside, (909) 787-3755, through Dec. 13. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.


Visual Poetry: In his newest paintings and sculptures at Griffin Contemporary Exhibitions, Enrique Martinez Celaya uses poetry as a material element, scrawling the words to his poem "Berlin" in thick black pencil directly onto the gallery's walls and across the surface of his wax models of body parts. Yet Martinez Celaya is at his best when he deploys poetic devices in exclusively visual terms.

Fragility and violence, memory and its loss exist side by side in Martinez Celaya's spare, haunting paintings. Many depict human or birds' heads and disembodied limbs floating in empty space. Sometimes these heads appear to be wrapped, mummy-like, in white strips, or imprisoned behind vertical bars, as if the Cuban-born artist were likening the mind to a prison house filled with painful memories that refuse to fade with time.

These spiritual themes are balanced by Martinez Celaya's selective application of organic detritus like rose petals, dirt, hair and butterfly wings, which suggest a range of earthbound associations while drawing you into the physical reality of his paintings' tactile, sensuous surfaces. Likewise, his wax sculptures of heads, arms and forearms appear worn, pocked or cracked, the resinous flesh like the crumbling exterior of an aging building.

Although Martinez Celaya is undoubtedly a talented poet, the lyric force and universal themes evoked by his haunting paintings and sculpture succeed well enough on their own. No further context or explanation feels necessary--Martinez Celaya's visual poetry has made any other language superfluous.

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