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Defined by what's been left behind

March 05, 2004|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Photography of the South, like so much of its literature, tends to be emotionally viscous, thick with history and tragic beauty. Mike Smith's photographs at Sarah Lee Artworks & Projects are all that and more.

Smith has taught and photographed in and around Tennessee for more than 20 years. He shot the color photographs in this show, his first solo presentation in L.A., in rural areas with such picturesque names as Troublesome Hollow and Poor Valley. They're landscapes defined by what has been left behind -- everything, including the kitchen sink, which in one picture rests on uneven grass next to a parked car.

In "Red Rowe, TN," a boat has been left between a narrow paved road and an even narrower trickle of a stream. The banks of the stream also sport an overturned toy truck and the mangled remains of a bicycle. The place has pastoral possibilities, but it's been used as a transportation litter box.

A view into a dense thicket of trees in another picture reveals an automotive cemetery, the rusted tops of rows of old cars mounding and swelling like waves. The characteristics of the natural landscape and the human-made meld here, as in many of Smith's remarkable pictures. Bent and rusted metal echoes creeping vines; dried-out apples on a bony tree read as tired debris.

Accretion and decay make powerful partners, and Smith has a keen eye for the way they compound each other's affinity with emotional intensity. In images such as "Bristol, VA," obsessive accumulation and abandonment are all that fill the frame. The picture shows a power pole with multiple horizontal struts that have been adorned like a macabre Christmas tree with animal skulls, corroded old dolls, fan blades, horseshoes, bells and bones.

Smith's pictures track the presence of humans through their stuff and their surrogates -- mannequins, dolls, animals live and fake -- but people themselves never appear. Their absence affords us the luxury of poring more intently over the trails they've left, the messes they've made.

It also spurs a livelier visual dialogue between what's illustrated and what's suggested, what's known and what's imagined about the lives of these places and their residents. What makes Smith's work so engaging is not just its emotional richness but its visual intelligence.

He's especially fluent in the innate poetics of photography, its quality of condensation, concentration and abstraction. He plays with the way space in a photograph appears simultaneously deep and flat. He doesn't indulge in visual trickery but encourages the perceptually vexing properties of the medium to work their magic.

In "Poor Valley, TN," for instance, a straight-on view of an abandoned shack makes it appear flat against the distant landscape. As a result, its vertical wooden planks, partially painted white, read as nearly continuous with the trunks of the tall, leafless trees behind. In another picture, a bus abandoned by the side of a road appears to butt up against a stop sign much nearer to the foreground, as if obeying its order. Such coy moments are frequent in Smith's work, as are thoughtful, provocative ones. His local debut is this gallery's inaugural show -- an auspicious start for both.

Sarah Lee Artworks & Projects, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 829-4938, through April 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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The calligraphy of the sleeping body

There's quite a magical slumber party going on at the Frank Lloyd Gallery these days. Tatami mats are scattered about the floor at all angles, like sleeping bags whose occupants have tossed and turned them out of alignment. The event is sculptural, rather than live, but the nappers on those mats have undeniable presence, as of humanity distilled.

Akio Takamori's 15 sleeping figures, in stoneware with underglaze, slightly less than half life-size, represent women, men and children, nude and clothed, singly and in pairs. A figure of a young man in shorts, shirt and socks rests with his hands on his chest, as if taking a brief respite from the activities of the day. The figure of a young child presses snugly against his mother, his feet tucked between her bent legs.

Takamori, who lives in Seattle, captures beautifully the calligraphy of the sleeping body, with its angled limbs, rhythmic curves and heat-seeking postures. With fluid black line, he articulates features and clothing, dabbing a warm blush on pale, chalky cheeks to suggest lifeblood.

The work gracefully fuses the immediacy of drawing with sculpture's more palpable engagement of space. Though the figures don't appear particularly vulnerable in their slumber, walking among them awakens a rush of tenderness and even protectiveness. Our position certainly has the privilege of both consciousness and size, but theirs has something enviable too -- simple honesty.

Frank Lloyd Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-3866, through March 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Showing off the ordinary

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