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Power of illusion, desire

October 18, 2002|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Kahn and Selesnick's entrancing new series of photographs, "City of Salt," clearly isn't set in the present or in the immediate vicinity. But the stories it tells in words and pictures are familiar. Using the intensified language of myth, the work chronicles the eternal human quest for the secrets of existence, the treasures of the Earth, power, and glory. These ends remain, of course, elusive. That mixed blessing, fundamental to the story of humankind and its aspirations, invests Kahn and Selesnick's stagy work with real poignancy.

Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick have worked together for more than a decade as photographic storytellers. Their previous work in L.A. was an elaborate, sepia-toned historical fiction that presented itself, coyly, as documentary evidence of a mid-20th century expedition. The new series, of which only a part is shown here, sheds the pretense of being old while still adopting a tone and a look vaguely from the past.

The images are panoramic (most are 8 inches high and about 3 feet wide), digital laser prints in pale, muted tones. Even without regarding the companion texts, the pictures read as epic in nature, full of travelers on lonely, heroic journeys. In one image, a man surfaces in a small, isolated pond. With just his head above water, he blows into a long, curved horn (identified in the text as the "trumpet of creation"). In another, men in slightly old-fashioned business attire writhe upon marshy ground, presided over by a daunting, helmeted demon, each of his four arms clasping a weapon. The photographs don't cohere into a single narrative, but are bound by consistent flavor and imagery: pelts, turbans, and a landscape of sand and bog, relentless in its expanse.

Like the moralistic photographic tableaux of 19th century photographer Oscar Rejlander, Kahn and Selesnick's work is threaded through with lessons. "City of Salt," both the series and the individual photograph by that title, are meditations on the power of illusion and desire, the vanity of our pursuits, and the lure of the forbidden. The city pictured is a dense accretion of small domed and spiral-topped structures built on a ground of gritty white salt. It was built, so the story goes, by a king who intended it to be his funerary monument, but he visits the place one night and loses his bearings. Is he dead, he wonders? Is this what he wanted, he asks himself, bringing the parable home, to wander for eternity in a city of his own illusions?

Paul Kopeikin Gallery, 138 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 937-5974, through Oct. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Spinning stories in our minds

In the back room at Rose Gallery hangs a game in pictures, devised by British photographer Martin Parr. It consists of two sets of portraits, one of young women, and the other of young men. For the original version of the game Parr made in 1972, he pasted these pictures onto wooden blocks, "Love Cubes," that were then supposed to be paired according to who might go with whom.

What do we have to go by in this guessing game? Just what's revealed by the appearances of these men and women: their clothing, hairstyle and posture. From there, our minds spin narratives. A third set of photographs hanging here shows the couples paired off, so we can check the accuracy of our presumptions.

The rest of this mildly amusing, mildly discomfiting show contains work from different series of the past 30 years, all of it operating on the same premise: How people present themselves is key in revealing who they are -- and is entertaining, to boot.

This is especially true of Parr's 1992 photographs, "Signs of the Times," which are stills from a television series about the relationship people have with their domestic interiors. Captions drive home the point that Parr had little interest in such relationships if they were healthy, caring only if they were absurd, laughable, pathetic. In one photograph, for instance, a woman appears seated on her couch in an interior busy with competing patterns. Her quote: "When I looked at the wallpaper and the wallpaper looked at me we instantly fell in love."

Parr shoots in a cool, straightforward manner, allowing the vulgarities of middle-class taste to reveal themselves as obvious. He certainly mocks his subjects, and he can be mercilessly acute. What passes as humanism in his work is more of a condescending sympathy for the aesthetically challenged.

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