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Avoiding Voyeurism, Provoking Unease

June 21, 2002|HOLLY MYERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The photographs on view in Reagan Louie's current exhibition at Gallery Luisotti represent a six-year documentary journey through the underworld of the Asian sex industry.

A Chinese American photographer whose last series (10 years in the making) was an epic exploration of his ancestral homeland, Louie covered nearly a dozen countries for this project, encountering hundreds of women and girls in nearly every conceivable level of the trade. (Men appear only occasionally, primarily as clients.) It is a fascinating body of work.

Louie's style is frank but thoughtful, and the landscape through which he leads the viewer--one that few ever see--is intrinsically, if uncomfortably, enthralling. It is also a subject strewn with ethical land mines. The camera is never a neutral observer when it comes to the commerce of women's bodies, even when it belongs to a well-meaning documentarian rather than a pornographer.

There are several instances in which Louie appears to be standing alongside one of the latter, photographing women as they are being photographed, and one must acknowledge that the effect is essentially the same: an erotic body is an erotic body, in whatever context it appears.

Considering the youth and presumably low economic status of most of these women, it would be a shame to see this eroticism exploited in the name of art.

The most impressive thing about the work, therefore, is not that it piques one's curiosity, but that it ultimately constructs such a nuanced and well-rounded portrayal.

Louie's approach is neither sensational nor moralistic, neither judgmental nor voyeuristic. Rather, he treats his subjects as he would probably treat workers in any other industry.

In some images, the women are sexy, showy, alluring or playful; in others they're bored or indifferent. In some, they're entertaining men or giving massages (there is no explicit sexual activity), but in many others, they're checking their beepers, eating takeout or just sitting around. In a large percentage of the pictures, in fact, they hardly look like sex workers.

There is certainly tragedy in this world--most of the women are shockingly young, for example--and Louie doesn't attempt to elide it. Nor does he depersonalize that tragedy with sentimental propriety.

The selection of works included here is commendably balanced and manages to carry the significant complexity of the project despite the relatively small scale of the venue. Still, one can't help but wonder about the hundreds of images that must have been cut in the selection process and the many more stories they contain.

Gallery Luisotti, 2525 Michigan Ave., A2, Santa Monica, (310) 453-0043, through July 6. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Paintings That Force Us to Examine Our Conscience

In a statement on his current body of work, Ruprecht von Kaufmann includes a quotation by German writer Martin Walser: "A dream that's forced into the light of a different language will only reveal what we ask. Like a tortured man, it will say anything we want it to say. So does the past."

The German-born, Art Center-trained Von Kaufmann tests Walser's theory--challenging viewers to interrogate the past--in an unusual series of historical portraits that makes up about half of the exhibition. His subjects are notorious figures, all of whom are responsible for large quantities of death and destruction in the service of a political or religious ideal.

Among them are some of the usual suspects, such as Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot, as well as less familiar ones, like Jean Kambanda, the prime minister of Rwanda during the Hutu slaughter of Tutsi refugees in 1994, and Carl Clauberg, a Nazi gynecologist who spent much of WWII conducting gruesome experiments in concentration camps in search of "cheap and efficient" methods for mass sterilization.

Rather than granting these figures their standard historical regalia, however, Von Kaufmann portrays each in a particularly vulnerable (albeit imaginary) situation: in utero.

Each of these visually striking paintings is a diptych: on the left, a fetus floats in a painterly swirl of soft, eerily illuminated color; on the right, a portion of the fetus' skeleton appears as a realistically rendered electric-blue X-ray. Laying commonly held notions of evil across the archetypal icon of innocence, then subjecting that icon to a pseudoscientific mode of examination, Von Kaufmann seems to be demanding from the past a new response--an explanation that more adequately accounts for the persistent phenomenon of atrocity--as well as challenging viewers to interrogate their own assumptions.

Also included in the exhibition are four large paintings depicting dozens of nude figures crammed closely together, as though in a subway car or other tight container, and pressed forward against the surface of the canvas, which Von Kaufmann has painted to resemble a wall of glass.

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