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In `No Single Truth,' Humanity's Potential for Good and Bad

November 16, 2001|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two basic truths emerge from Robert Lyons' Rwanda photographs at Paul Kopeikin Gallery. First, photographs remain fundamentally ambiguous until words are applied to direct their meaning. And second, humans don't fall into mutually exclusive categories of victim and perpetrator, but are born into the potential for both.

Lyons has been photographing in Africa since the late 1980s, and his 1998 book, "Another Africa," is a gem of humanistic poetry and environmental portraiture. In this new series on Rwanda, Lyons takes a radically different approach, shooting in black and white, and stripping his subjects of context. The men, women and children in these portraits are rendered with startling clarity, but even more startling is the realization that such straightforward, direct representations yield no obvious interpretations, but only unanswered questions and moral equivocation.

The portraits are beautiful, elegant, sympathetic. Most of the subjects look clear-eyed into the camera, which neither accuses nor aggrandizes them. A gentle evenhandedness applies throughout, whether the subject is a man who confessed to having killed a child in the Rwandan genocide, a child confessed to having killed his neighbor, a man with a soft crater in his skull from a bullet wound, or a young woman who survived the killings by living in hiding. Cues to the identity of each have been suppressed to the point where the captions alone tell us whether the subject is guilty or innocent.

"No Single Truth" is Lyons' title for this work and his bottom-line take on the complexities of the Rwandan genocide. His photographs are powerful in their ambivalence, striking for their paucity of answers. They give the lie to the pseudo-science of physiognomy, which claims a correlation between a person's physical features and his or her character. Here, an utter democracy reigns, and the hands of a woman who admits her capacity to murder are pictured with the same dignity and studied elegance as the fronds of a banana tree. There is no single truth to be drawn from this collection of images, only multiple questions, and not just about tribal politics, but about our faith in photographic documents to serve as evidence.

Paul Kopeikin Gallery, 138 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 937-0765, through Nov. 24. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Sources of Light: Bordering each of Marcia Roberts' transfixing new paintings at Kiyo Higashi Gallery is a band of solid color that works like an internal, asymmetrical frame. It's fairly plain, and a bit too predictable in its slightly askew angles, but it serves perfectly as a foil for the spectacle within, as the mise-en-scene in support of the main event.

Roberts' imageless images are stunning--but perhaps not immediately. They register at first as lovely, luminous color fields, each with a brighter spot near its center, darkening into another color toward the edges. In one, a pale white-gold gleams from within a field of green. In another, a misty pink light dissolves into darker surrounding turquoise. What makes these paintings come alive is a change in the light applied to them. Dim the gallery lights and suddenly that brighter spot at the canvas' center transforms into a light source itself, with uncanny physical presence. Built up from nearly 100 layers of paint, that gleam seems to emanate from deep within. It's a startling, magical feat, alchemical in its raising of a spirit from simple matter.

The paintings that Roberts showed here last year, in shades of gray and taupe with horizontal stripes across them, are downright cerebral compared with these new, revelatory canvases. Roberts has emptied the frame of imagery but filled it with a richer experiential opportunity.

What becomes necessary with these paintings, she writes in a statement, is time. Time and the changing conditions of light render these works animate. Like the Light and Space installations of James Turrell and Robert Irwin, Roberts' paintings are subtle, seductive marvels that evolve as we awaken to them.

Kiyo Higashi Gallery, 8332 Melrose Ave., (323) 655-2482, through Dec. 22. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Intensity on the Street: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough" is a common dictum of war photography that Bil Zelman seems to have adopted as a guiding principle. He doesn't shoot in a war zone but in the realm of ordinary life--on the street, at parties, in restaurants and stores. Working aggressively close to his subjects, and rapidly, intensifies whatever is in front of the camera.

Faces often jut in from the bottom edge of the frame or are lopped off by the upper edge. The mundane becomes theatrically charged, the common looks strange, the rhythm of the status quo gets splintered into tension-filled fragments.

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