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A Tragicomic Yet Hilarious Drama With Hirsch Perlman's Compelling Characters

April 13, 2001|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After an impressive series of well-received solo shows in the U.S. and Europe, which culminated in a 1996 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Hirsch Perlman appeared to fall off the face of the Earth. What the rising young art star actually did was move from Chicago to Los Angeles, where he rented a nondescript house in Mount Washington.

From the outside, everything looked normal. Even when visitors entered the residence, there was no reason to think that anything unusual was going on. But downstairs, behind a closed door at the end of a hall, something strange was taking place.

This is where Perlman went to think--to escape the time-consuming, energy-sapping and attention-devouring demands of modern life so he could mull things over at his own pace. Using his makeshift studio as a decompression chamber, he sat still long enough to allow the gnawing doubts about what he was doing to take on a life of their own.

They grew into a tragicomic drama so despairing and hilarious that it rivals Samuel Beckett's capacity to make you feel as if you're on the verge of simultaneous laughter and tears. At Blum & Poe Gallery, 48 mid-size photographs made with a pinhole camera chronicle what Perlman did in the bare-walled room for the better part of the last four years.

In the beginning, he taped a few empty cardboard boxes (left over from the move) to one another, forming a life-size figure that he posed in various positions. The prints depict a cardboard Everyman leaning casually against the wall, slumping dejectedly in the corner, huddling vulnerably behind his meager possessions, lying face-down on the floor and kicking back in a chair, apparently without a worry in the world. In one of the simplest compositions, its legs are pulled up toward its chest and its hands are clenched overhead, as if beseeching the Almighty for just a bit of respite, never mind redemption.

As the days went by, Perlman brought more packaging materials into the room and made additional figures. Sometimes his cast of characters is depicted as if engaged in friendly conversation, like art students hanging around a messy studio. At other times, they seem to be stumbling through the aftermath of horrendously violent crimes, trying to comprehend their irrevocable acts.

Eventually, they all disappear and a giant head takes shape. Resembling a cross between an Easter Island totem and a Mr. Potato Head toy made of materials from the recycling bin, Perlman's effigy suggests that the relationship Tom Hanks has with the volleyball in "Cast Away" is only the tip of the iceberg. The human need to communicate is so strong that one doesn't need others to carry on a meaningful conversation--especially when one's head is filled with characters as compelling as those that live in Perlman's imagination.

* Blum & Poe Gallery, 2042 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 453-8311, through April 21. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Sculpture With a Twist: Liz Craft's exhibition at Richard Telles Fine Art brings together sculptures previously exhibited in London and Linz, Austria. "Foxy Lady" and "Untitled (dwarfs)" present a humorously twisted rendition of "Snow White."

The star of the artist's refashioned fairy tale is "Foxy Lady," a 6-foot-tall figure that Craft cast from her own body before adding the stylized head and oversize tail of a fox. A two-tone paint job accentuates the comic effect of the fiberglass manikin, its rusty red back and creamy white belly matching the colors of the animal's fur.

Wearing only a placid expression, a leather collar and a long leash, she swirls like a lasso with her seven arms. The strangely serene sculpture resembles a child's action figure rendered with the slickness of a high-end window display. It also recalls the denizens of the ancient Egyptian underworld, Hindu goddesses and Wild West legends, as well as contemporary sculptures by Charles Ray and Takashi Murakami.

A 21st century fox if ever there was one, Craft's superhuman creature presides over six pudgy male dwarfs, none of whom even comes close to being 4 feet tall--Tyrolean hat included. Despite their frumpy demeanor, these painted plaster figures (which are prototypes for cast concrete lawn ornaments) are packed with personality.

A particularly mischievous one resembles Vincent van Gogh, Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes. Another appears to be the offspring of a mean-spirited punk and a wise old rabbi. The rest are less animated. Like old folks, they seem to move slowly. Their faces suggest that ideas bounce off their thick skulls unless they're simple and familiar.

Lacking a dwarf and leaving no room for Prince Charming, Craft's version of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" plays fast and loose with the original. Rather than illustrating the classic fairy tale, her open-ended rendition updates the story to better fit the complex times in which we live.

* Richard Telles Fine Art, 7380 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 965-5578, through May 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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