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Restless nights of a fiddler on the roof

March 12, 2004|David Pagel | Special to The Times

For the last two or three years, Hirsch Perlman has been staging his own Burning Man festival. But unlike the original, which attracts thousands of thrill-seekers to the Nevada desert every year for a week of Dionysian craziness, the L.A. artist's version is a stay-at-home affair. Think Walt Whitman meets the frenzied denizens of the raucous bacchanal and you'll have an idea of the way Perlman fuses far-out weirdness and good ol' American philosophy.

At the Blum & Poe Gallery, the walls of two rooms have been covered with 78 simply framed black-and-white photographs. In a third, two short videos run continuously. Darkness, both literal and metaphoric, is the ground out of which Perlman's art grows.

The first gallery displays 41 small, medium and large photographs he shot at night, camping on the rooftop of his Mount Washington apartment building. No fancy equipment was required for these strangely straightforward prints, just an ordinary 35-millimeter camera, a remote shutter release and long exposures that captured the ambient light from neighboring homes, streetlights, L.A.'s downtown skyline, the arcing paths of stars and a bubble-shaped skylight set in the building's asphalt-covered roof.

A chair, a bottle of water, a pile of books and a flashlight clamped to a tripod show where Perlman sat for long hours, reading peacefully or staring at the moon, like a retired night watchman for whom old habits die hard. In some prints, faint traces of his body take shape. But he rarely sat still long enough to allow his image to come through clearly.

Perlman's ghostly presence is overshadowed by other human-shaped forms that appear to have visited him on various nights. These include several larger-than-life stick figures he drew in the air with a flashlight, a rocket-shaped contraption made of fluorescent tubes and scrap metal, and a clunky android that resembles a cross between the Tin Man and C3PO.

A fog machine adds a noir touch to the tragicomic atmosphere. But Perlman never strives for the seamless illusionism of Hollywood special effects. It takes time, but it's fairly easy to figure out how he cobbled together the props for his solitary dramas.

When you do, the sense of mystery intensifies rather than diminishes. The same goes for the 37 still lifes in the second gallery, which he made by photographing deflated beach balls, clumps of bubble wrap and inexpensive strings of Christmas lights. In Perlman's hands, these unglamorous items resemble deep-sea creatures, nuclear explosions, cosmic nebulae, human brains, meaty mushrooms, cellular structures and malignant tumors.

Sometimes, it's impossible to tell just what you're looking at. At other times, you don't want to know. All that's certain is that what you see has not been digitally engineered.

Perlman's images have more in common with 19th century spirit photography than 21st century art photography. His short videos, set to scores by Antonio Ruiz-Pipo and Johann Sebastian Bach, similarly march to a beat all their own.

As an artist, Perlman is so far out of step with contemporary corporate culture that he's both behind the times and ahead of them. His second solo show in Los Angeles celebrates the do-it-yourself ethos of rebel festivals while offering a profoundly melancholy meditation on the death of individualism. Here, desperate hope and absurdist humor live alongside each other in anxious harmony -- like the calm before an unnatural storm.

Blum & Poe Gallery, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 836-2062, through March 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Middle class illustrated

If Norman Rockwell were a living African American who grew up in Florida and went to graduate school on the East Coast, he might paint like Lamar Peterson. At the Richard Heller Gallery, this young artist's solo debut consists of two paper bag puppets and 12 page-size pictures so neatly drawn and nicely filled in with supersaturated blues, greens and reds that they look as if they were made by a coloring book master.

What's even better about Peterson's images of men, women and children at work, rest and play is that they finagle something new from a style that's often run into the ground by contemporary artists -- especially those with less talent and imagination that Peterson. His faux naive paintings on paper embrace the run-of-the-mill blandness of middle-class existence with the same punch-drunk enthusiasm they have for the uncanny.

Peterson is an equal-opportunity observer of the weird forms pleasure takes in a work-obsessed culture, where success and survival go hand in glove. No stranger to artistic labor, he's done his homework, drawing on sources as diverse as SpongeBob SquarePants, Caribbean travel posters, online animation, black art from the 1970s and Michael Reafsnyder's smiley face paintings. It's a perky stew with great promise.

Richard Heller Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-9191, through March 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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