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Art | AROUND THE GALLERIES

An exercise in visual democracy

January 31, 2003|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

In today's gushingly patriotic climate, it would be easy to read Andres Serrano's "America" -- a new series of photographic portraits -- as another sentimental tribute to our nation's diversity and enduring optimism. It might seem an odd turn for Serrano, who has spent so much of his career assaulting the conservative tendencies of the nation, but stranger things have happened in the wake of Sept. 11.

The reading wouldn't be entirely off the mark, either. At Chac Mool Gallery, "America" is indeed an emblem of visual democracy. Whether famous or anonymous, rich or poor, white or black, each of Serrano's subjects is conveyed in the same format, in the same classical pose and with the same unsubtle veneer of exaltation.

Rapper Snoop Dogg hangs on the wall next to a homeless man named Lucas Suarez, a traditionally garbed Trinidadian street vendor alongside a costumed Playboy Bunny. Serrano approaches these subjects warmly and without irony, offering each an indisputably lavish photographic space -- roughly 4 by 3 feet in size, saturated in trademark Serrano color -- that is unflattering to none.

To view the work only on this didactic level, however, would be to overlook a far more impressive quality: Serrano's remarkable insight into the dynamics of visual impact. Indeed, whatever one thinks of the artist's renowned iconoclasm, its virtual absence here only underscores his consummate skill as an image-maker.

These are rich, dynamic, full-bodied portraits. If the subjects are essentially an assortment of types, defined largely by occupational titles, they're types in a classical sense -- visually expressive signifiers of great social complexity. Much of this complexity comes to the fore through the relationships that the images forge with one another.

One of the more interesting of these occurs between "Firefighter Darrell Dunbar" and "Brother Divine Allah, N.J. Chairman of the New Black Panther Party."

Both men are black, about the same age and roughly similar in appearance. Both wear dark-colored uniforms and exude an air of pride and respectability. Both appear against a fiery orange backdrop that signifies a sense of urgency.

In light of these pointed commonalities, one is obliged to sort through an intricate variety of associations and confront, among other things, how one's notion of a firefighter might differ from one's notion of a Black Panther.

The most individually spectacular of the 13 images assembled here is, perhaps surprisingly, the portrait of Snoop Dogg. Appearing in a navy blue logo jacket against an intense yellow that seems to emanate from his head like a halo, his face set in a cool, contemptuous stare, he looks, quite simply, like a king.

It is a stunningly straightforward image, which nonetheless embodies a complex network of issues -- cultural, political, racial, sexual and art historical. Like the best of Serrano's work, it's a magnet for the eyes and very difficult to turn away from.

Chac Mool Gallery, 8920 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 550-6792, through Feb. 28. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Conceptual views of Spaceship Earth

The primary motif at play in Bruce Yonemoto's new body of work is the desktop globe -- an object so familiar that one rarely stops to consider its real spatial, conceptual and political meaning. Playing on Buckminster Fuller's concept of "Spaceship Earth" (also the title of the exhibition), Yonemoto encourages us to imagine the planet as a concrete, physical entity we all share, upon which political boundaries and demarcations are ultimately arbitrary, while at the same time acknowledging the symbolic implications of this colorful spherical object in an era of so-called "globalism."

In a series of large, cheerful, candy-colored photographs at Lemon Sky Projects, Yonemoto imagines two idealized global subjects: an attractive young woman of Asian descent and a red-haired, freckled, boy-next-door type of roughly the same age. Each photograph portrays one of these two characters with a globe against a solid background, posing in a mildly erotic manner reminiscent of 1960s-era Playboy layouts.

Playing on prevalent notions of race, consumerism and desire, these images attract the eye in much the same way an enjoyable advertisement does -- and with just about as lasting an effect. More deeply compelling are two sculptures that first appear to be ordinary globes but that actually have tiny video screens planted within them, visible through a peephole. One globe plays scenes from "Journey to the Center of the Earth"; the other, a beautiful stream of footage taken of Earth from space, matched with a musical excerpt from Gustav Holst's "The Planets." More effectively than the slick photographs, the sculptures and their clever conceptual inversions -- and the chuckle they inspire upon recognition -- jar one into considering the dynamics at play in our relation to our planet.

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