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Photos of War, Beauty Reveal Distance Between Generations

July 06, 2001|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

James Fee's new photographs pay homage to his father, a World War II veteran who survived some of the most vicious hand-to-hand combat in the South Pacific and committed suicide in 1972. At Craig Krull Gallery, 18 small black-and-white snapshots Russell Fee made during the battle for Peleliu are interspersed among 22 large color prints by his son, who has visited the tiny tropical island in Micronesia three times since 1998. Together, the pictures tell a hauntingly familiar tale about the distance that separates American generations, whether or not a war intervened.

The images by both men share a similar impulse: to bring viewers back to a sense of what they experienced in a far-off land. And that's where the similarities end. Even though father and son traveled to the same place, what they saw--and what they photographed--are worlds apart.

For one thing, the curled, creased and imperfectly exposed images from 1944 were never meant to be seen as works of art. Made by an amateur, they were intended for scrapbooks and shoe boxes, where they'd preserve personal memories and convey, to friends and relatives, part of a family's history.

In contrast, the younger Fee's big glossy Chromogenic prints are self-conscious works of art. Often theatrically lit, exposed for extended periods of time and shot from dramatic points of view, these beautifully composed and sumptuously printed images are intended for public exhibition.

More important, each man's photographs are true to the era in which they were made. The father's express an ethos of button-down restraint, of doing one's duty no matter how hellish it got.

Not a trace of bravado or over-dramatized sentimentality suffuses any of his straightforward shots of fellow Marines huddling on a ridge, firing artillery or posing for a portrait outside a field hospital. Likewise, his depictions of overrun enemy positions, crashed planes, destroyed tanks, prisoners of war and a dead Japanese infantryman (whose boots have been stolen) are equally understated. The sense of stoic restraint embodied by his matter-of-fact pictures takes on greater resonance when you learn that two months of fierce fighting on the five-square-mile island resulted in more than 20,000 casualties.

No people appear in any of the son's photographs, which use more sophisticated cameras and film to capture the fleeting effects of sunlight as it filters through the jungle's lush canopy, spills into a shadowy cave, glistens off the ocean's turquoise surface and transforms a cloud bank into a symphony of crimson. Atmosphere is everything in these works, which embark on an inward journey whose goal is to come to terms with the emotional torment that neither father nor son could leave behind on the island.

A side gallery displays nine mono-prints Fee made last year with his father's negatives. Using a duo-tone solarization process that endows them with a fiery orange glow, these torn, taped and superimposed images are too claustrophobic in their evocation of painful memories. They lack the expansiveness of the rest of the photographs, which resonate across the years that separate generations.

* Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410. Through Aug. 11. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Tools of the Trade: Alexandre Arrechea, Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez are three young Cuban artists who make up "Los Carpinteros" (The Carpenters), a Havana-based group of collaborators whose humorous works have been well-received by U.S. museums and collectors, especially since they received the UNESCO prize at last year's Havana Biennial. At Grant Selwyn Fine Art, the trio's third solo show in Los Angeles in three years is disappointing. The sculptures fail to measure up to the attention that is being lavished upon them.

A sanitized version of Surrealism (which is much more benign than anything used by the advertising industry) takes shape in the dull exhibition. Each of its nine pieces consists of a pair of unrelated elements.

For example, the artists have built a sofa, a small stairway and a 4-foot wall with the materials ordinarily used to make kitchen stoves. Gas or electric burners cover the horizontal surfaces of each shiny white object, which resembles an appliance whose dual functions are at cross-purposes.

Neither plugged in nor connected to gas lines, the dysfunctional sculptures are meant to light a fire in your mind. While the sofa literally illustrates the idea of sitting on a hot seat, the burners on the stairs and the wall stretch the metaphor too far. You begin to suspect that the demand for new products by the popular group has surpassed its members' supply of good ideas.

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