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A Wild Ride Through Fujita's Sex and Violence

September 20, 2002|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sex and violence play such a big role in the movie industry that the last 50 years of film would be inconceivable without them. The same can't be said about the visual arts.

For all kinds of reasons, painters have focused on other subjects, leaving the spectacle of these supposedly base impulses to lowbrow entertainments as high art strives to occupy the moral high ground.

Gajin Fujita has no patience with such sanctimonious shortsightedness. At L.A. Louver Gallery, his first solo show in Los Angeles embraces sex and violence as if they were going out of style. Marshaling the raw physical power of both subjects for his own purposes, Fujita, 30, uses them to stake out a place for himself--and anyone with similar sympathies--in an art world long dominated by lifeless abstractions and bloodless Conceptualism.

Eight eye-popping paintings fill two pristine galleries with visual punch and graphic drama. When you enter Fujita's world you're in for a wild ride. The centerpiece of the exhibition, "Gold State Warriors," is a 5-foot-by-16-foot panel that depicts four sword-and gun-wielding samurai.

Strutting in front of a graffiti-covered wall whose brickwork consists of alternating squares of gold and silver leaf, the fierce warriors strike contorted poses that recall the formalized pantomime of Kabuki and the whiplash animation of Saturday-morning cartoons. Nearly lost in the Pop excitement is another distant ancestor: The lavender and blue kimonos worn by Fujita's larger-than-life figures mimic the positions of the angled vertical forms in Jackson Pollock's "Blue Poles," whose allover energy generates a similarly dizzying charge.

"Dream" features an avenging angel about to decapitate a horned demon with fire-engine-red skin. His fleeing companion looks back with no remorse as L.A.'s skyline rises in the background like the silhouetted gravestones in an old cemetery. The graffiti that animates every square inch of this 8-foot-by-4-foot image consists of R.I.P. messages to friends who have died before their time, often in mindless street violence.

Fujita is a lot less ambivalent about sex than he is about violence. "La Damsel," "Libido," "Swell" and "Bangin' " combine the erotic acrobatics of traditional Japanese woodblock prints with the stylized forms of Edo screen painting and the lavish patterns of ornamental needlework. The explicit positions of the figures in these variously scaled paintings, which measure from 8 inches to 8 feet on a side, fit right in with the bold designs and graphic flourishes that are Fujita's forte.

He's at his best when he turns words into quasi-architectural supports for decorative embellishments. Delicate flowers, puffy clouds, graceful birds and waves made of curlicues are integral to his vibrant pictures.

So is color, which he deploys like a pyromaniac in charge of a fireworks display.

When words made their way into contemporary art, they had all the visual dynamism of typewritten messages. Fujita makes playful fun of such image-and-text Conceptualism, turning its tactics into a form of rowdy street theater whose pleasures are all the more potent for being riddled with risk.

L.A. Louver Gallery, 45 N. Venice Blvd., (310) 822-4955, through Oct. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Leni Riefenstahl: Grace and Beauty in Africa

The specter of Fascism still looms over the storied career of Leni Riefenstahl. Born in 1902, she began her professional life as a ballet dancer in Berlin in the early 1920s and then made a name for herself as a silent-movie actress. International renown was hers at 32, when she was commissioned to direct her most famous film, "Triumph of the Will." So was Hitler's stamp of approval, when the Nazi party used her groundbreaking documentary as a propaganda tool.

Infamy followed. Unlike some Third Reich scientists, who came to the United States after the war and started quietly working for the government, Riefenstahl couldn't escape moral disdain. As is often the case, art was a lightning rod. Her career came to a screeching halt.

She disappeared from public view, turned her attention to still photography and took to traveling far off the beaten path, taking pictures of people and places whose pasts were nothing like hers. At 72, she learned to scuba dive and began making underwater photographs and videos. Today Riefenstahl, 100, lives in Germany, where she is happy to see that her life's work is beginning to be seen in its own right.

At Fahey/Klein Gallery, 30 color photographs she made between 1962 and 1977 in a remote mountain valley in the Sudanese province of Kordofan go a long way to show that there's nothing intrinsically fascistic about Riefenstahl's art. Her stunning pictures of the Nuba and Kau peoples reveal her to be a connoisseur of the grace, beauty and strength of the human body--particularly when it's stripped nearly naked, all the better to show off its physical magnificence and sexy athleticism.

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