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Russian Photos Trace Images of Mortality and Memory

August 03, 2001|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Alexey Titarenko's intriguing photographs at Apex Fine Art are stills that have the presence of short films. Instead of seizing an instant and preserving it intact, they embrace a span of time, allowing it to pass and leave just a trace.

Photographic film has a different sort of memory from the human mind, heart or eye. The mechanics of the lens and light-sensitive chemicals are well understood, but images such as Titarenko's remind us that photographs can still be elusive. Just like images stored in the mind, those captured on film are at once true and reliable, false and selective.

In his "City of Shadows" series on view here (in an Absolut L.A. International Biennial show), Titarenko explores his native St. Petersburg (Leningrad). It is the feel of the city he is after, more than its outward appearance. Familiar monuments are nowhere to be seen, and the buildings on city streets, however grand, function here like the sturdy banks of a river. Life teems by, with a force and personality of its own. All of the photographs are exterior shots made in public places, but Titarenko wrests from the white noise of urbanity a sense of the quiet, private space of the individual.

In one especially poignant example from 1999, an older Russian woman in archetypal heavy coat, scarf and boots sits on pavement that seems to erode beneath her. With a look of resigned exhaustion on her face, she holds an envelope in her gloved hands, and her shopping bag rests beside her. Her stillness and interiority contrast with the blurred crowds that move like wisps of gray through the square behind her. The picture brings to mind Dorothea Lange's "White Angel Bread Line" of 1932 in its stunning portrait of the singularity of suffering.

In a lighter, more playful vein, Titarenko frames a rain-soaked, leaf-scattered street devoid of life but for the faint echo of a woman's leg, repeated in three whispered beats. In another photograph, he shows the railing of a stairway with a foggy blur of hands and bodies brushing against it, gripping it, sliding along it.

St. Petersburg, in Titarenko's photographs, is a bleak, wintry place, forever wet and cold. Figures huddle in their heavy coats, well-wrapped souls trying to find safe passage through the stony city. In the end, Titarenko's stirring images are portraits of mortality as much as they are evocations of memory. In them, we see that the traces we leave in space and time are faint, yet nonetheless indelible.

Apex Fine Art, 152 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 634-7887, through Aug. 18. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Crunch the Numbers: In this bottom-line culture, what can't be counted doesn't count. Measurable speed matters; the substance of the information conveyed through it does not. Globalization yields quantifiable profits, but its effect on the quality of life for makers, sellers and users around the world is harder to assess.

Guy Limone's most captivating works at Michael Kohn Gallery work to narrow the gap between the qualitative and the quantitative. By translating statistics into tangible form, they encourage us to see numbers in terms of lives, instead of the other way around.

"In the USA, 2400 cinemas closed in the year 2000" is both a lamentable statistic and the title of a mesmerizing sculptural installation. Along a narrow white shelf mounted at eye level and spanning 26 continuous feet, Limone has arrayed 2,400 tiny plastic figures, one for each closed movie house. The figures derive from model railroad sets of various scales, the tiniest standing at about a quarter-inch high, and the tallest about 3 inches.

Limone has painted them all the same turquoise blue, but they are tremendously diverse in type and position. There are men with shovels, veiled women with pots balanced atop their heads, jockeys, dreamers, people walking, working, welcoming, children, old people, lovers, babies. The sheer expanse of life represented along this shelf is vivifying, until it's recalled that each of these miniature lives stands for a loss, an absence rather than a presence.

Limone, a French artist in his second Absolut L.A. International Biennial show at the gallery, uses a similar strategy in an earlier work, "1 out of 420 Americans is a Doctor" (1998). Here, all of the figures are of uniform scale, 11/2 inches high, but they range in flesh tone, and they fill a shelf more than 6 feet long. Again, there are bike riders, construction workers, men smoking pipes and girls in braided pigtails, but at the far left end is the single doctor in his white coat.

Is he bent slightly, as if straining to hear? Or, does it just seem so because Limone's visualization of the statistic makes it appear as if all 419 men, women and children are waiting in line for the doctor's attention? Even though these numbers tell only part of the story, Limone's piece is a starkly affecting visualization of the inadequacy of health care in the U.S.

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