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ART | SIGHTS

Urban Dimensions

Getty photo exhibits explore industrial life in L.A. and New York's gritty side.

September 10, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Summer is waning, but not the body count at the Getty Center. Pilgrims, tourists and cheap skates (it is free, if you can get in) still pack shoulder to shoulder into the tram heading up the Sepulveda Pass hillside.

They are in search of art, to be sure, but also some sort of cultural zeitgeist new to Los Angeles.

At this point, the Getty Center lures visitors who are as much seduced by the structure itself as the various wares contained therein.

How else can we explain the popularity of the extensive "Making Architecture" show, essentially a celebration of the Getty from concept to implementation?

The Getty is still a sensation, worth braving the effort to get to. Take a day off, take a little trip.

One of the odder, and therefore more interesting, shows on view is the first in a series of local photography. "Port and Corridor: Working Sites in Los Angeles," featuring work by Robbert Flick and Allan Sekula, focuses on a neglected slice of Los Angeles life, that unglamorous stretch of land between downtown and the Port of Los Angeles. This industrial zone has its own stories to tell.

Fittingly, the project is in the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities. The structure is peripheral to the main complex, and the institute has what is shaping up to be an intriguingly peripheral curatorial agenda. Here, a working turf is revealed--and revered.

For photographers seeking reality beyond the slick, populated neighborhoods, there is a natural lure to such funky areas. But each artist takes the challenge in a unique way.

Flick willfully mixes media, taking a video from his car as he traveled the territory in question. Then, using computer technology to isolate video frames, he assembled "freeze-frame" images and created mosaic-like panels of multiple images. The sum effect is a complex image of a place, at once like a tapestry and suggestive of kinetic imagery.

The process is virtually the opposite for Sekula, who moved up close and personal on the docks. He shows rich close-up portraits of dock workers and the heavy-duty yet beautiful machinery--often with a saturated tangerine hue--surrounding them.

This show, modest and a bit ambivalent by design, seeks to balance its goals, serving documentary, sociological and artistic themes. The work is strong enough to draw attention while also diverting it. After all, the real-life urban scene is just a short drive away, and--it goes without saying--a world away from the tidy idyll of the Getty hillside compound.

*

Horrors of Vanity: In the west wing, a modest but hearty sampling of work by the great American photographer Walker Evans takes aim at another urban center, and with a different agenda. The exhibition with the self-explanatory title, "New York," compiles images from Evans' abundant store of photographs.

It adds up to an archival valentine to his adopted hometown, from the secular spires of his skyscraper images--in pristine, tiny prints that beg for close scrutiny--to the subterranean depths of his subway portraits, an eerie series of candid mug shots taken on subway trains.

This setting, Evans wrote, "can be the 'dream' location for any portrait photographer weary of the studio and of the horrors of vanity." Evans, despite his conventional work for magazines and other workaday sources, was at his best when seeking the everyday reality of this remarkable, confounding city.

Some of the most memorable photographs are shots of the lowly world of signs. Evans found poetry everywhere: in the Chrysler Building, in scrappy storefronts, or at a lunch counter where sharply dressed men are caged behind reflective glass.

He also knew about the importance of shadows. They balance the tonal range of black-and-white images but also provide an effective symbolic echo.

In one image, anonymous figures caught unawares by the photographer perched overhead cast long shadows on a street corner. Thanks to Evans' probing eye, these strangers exude drama without trying.

A photo essay from the '60s called "Dress" attempts to make telling observations on clothes making the man, but the Evans magic fades here. The compositions seem casual and dull by his standards.

There's none of the sense we get from his best work, that an old soul has visited a present-day scene and found art hiding there.

BE THERE

"Port and Corridor: Working Sites in Los Angeles," through Oct. 18; Walker Evans, "New York," through Oct. 11 at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive. Parking reservations: (310) 440-7300. Closed Mondays.

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