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The deadly ways of the world

Peter Beard makes collages of what he's learned in the wild. Yes, that's blood splashed on the work.

March 25, 2004|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

"The world," says Peter Beard by phone from the Grand Hotel in Milan, "is going to hell in a handbasket."

There's the Bush administration. And: "Density. The diseases. Agonizing death," he says. "The human ignorance is amazing. You know, the whole thing. How we kill ourselves."

Beard's photographic wildlife collages play out these political preoccupations of his -- ecological disaster, the vanishing Africa of his youth, beautiful mammals. Throughout "Living Sculpture," a show of 37 of his collages at Fahey/Klein Gallery, there are flashes of nudity and high society alongside feathers and animal bones. Giraffes gallop and rhinos charge within borders of painted blood and found photographs of people. In one image, a nude model strikes a languid pose next to an elephant tusk.

In conversation, the wildlife photographer and bon vivant may expound a misanthropic message, what he calls "unbelievable Darwinian realities," but he sounds pretty cheerful. "Hee-hee," he giggles. "We're like an avalanche of flesh, a glacier of flesh," he says, "hee-hee."

If you've been trampled by an elephant -- in his words "a very angry matriarch" -- and lived to tell the tale, few people will challenge your he-man credentials. Even if you giggle.

And that is Beard: part he-man (there he is, pictured bathing in a tent in the African bush) and part boldface name (there again, with his tennis tan, surrounded by a gaggle of girls at a post-Oscar party).

"Every woman wants to be with him; every man wants to be him," says gallery owner David Fahey.

"It sounds good," says Beard, 65, when told of the compliment. "But it's been a bum's life. Hand to mouth in the bush." He sighs. "They like to think of it romantically, but it's not been without struggle."

When he first arrived in Kenya in the early 1960s, it was a different country. "Kenya has gone from 5 1/2 million people to 30 million people," he says. "The mosaic of East Africa is gone.... We're masters of mismanagement. We're like elephants. They're dying of heart disease, like us."

Born into a wealthy New York family in 1938, Beard was educated at Yale. He wanted to see the world and in 1961-62, according to his biography, he met and began working with Karen Blixen, who, under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, wrote "Out of Africa."

According to Marianne Wirenfeldt Asmussen, the director of the Karen Blixen Museum in Denmark, Beard and Blixen met once, for lunch, in the summer of 1962, at the author's house north of Copenhagen. She died a few months later.

But for Beard, at least, that apparently became a friendship and collaboration. And the connection now resonates -- loudly -- in his work.

In the "Living Sculpture" show, there's nary a picture that doesn't feature photographs of, or text by, the author and baroness. Beard also bought land neighboring what was once her property in Kenya, his Hog Ranch.

"We were both beneath the Ngong Hills," he says. "I love Karen Blixen."

There were other famous encounters. He was for a time married to actress-model Cheryl Tiegs. Andy Warhol was a friend and Jackie O visited his ranch in Kenya.

In 1963 he starred in a movie (a quirky, low-budget comedy titled "Hallelujah the Hills") before beginning work on his book, "The End of the Game: Last Word From Paradise," which documented the destruction of the African elephant. Scientific studies followed (elephants and hippos, 1966; crocodiles, 1966-68) and some trouble with the Kenyan police.

Beard, obviously, was attracted to the wild, but also eclat. The 1972 entry on his online biography, for instance, reads "Tours With Rolling Stones and Truman Capote." Afterward, there were years of wildlife photography, and the publication of two more books ("Eyelids of Morning" and "Longing for Darkness," both in 1973). In the mid-1970s, he started exhibiting his photography, first in New York and, over the next 30 years, in Paris, Arles, London, Milan, Toronto, Berlin, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Madrid, Santa Fe and Vienna.

In between these shows, he was trampled by the above-mentioned pachyderm, and "discovered" Iman -- the supermodel now married to David Bowie -- hyping the daughter of a Somalian diplomat as a tribal girl.

Over the years, he divided his time between the bush and Long Island -- Hog Ranch, Kenya, and Thunderbold Ranch in Montauk, N.Y.

He claims to own millions of photographs, by himself and others. "I sort of own the history of East Africa," he says, the documentation of "the early hunters, things akin to the American West, the big game."

His process is one of appropriation, mixing his own photographs with that material. "You know, I have all these ingredients to work with, and I just selfishly apply them. Ink and blood."

But don't cloak him with the mantle of art.

"I'm an escapist, not an artist," he says.

And the collages?

"It's like a disease: Once you start, you can't stop."

His goal is documentation and authenticity -- "It's not blindingly selfish" -- but the work is, he concedes, highly autobiographical. "That's all I've got -- my life. I'm just playing off my nervous system." (It's not his blood painted on the collages, though, but animal blood.)

Presently, Beard is working on a children's book in between his travels. He's off to Rome, to look at schools for his daughter, Zara. Then it's Frankfurt, Germany, to see a new show by Julian Schnabel, a neighbor of Beard and his wife, Najma.

"The galloping rot is all around," he says. "The metaphors of the elephant, until we understand them, we're lost."

*

`Living Sculpture'

Peter Beard photo collages

Where: Fahey/Klein Gallery,

148 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles

When: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m.

to 6 p.m.

Ends: April 17

Contact: (323) 934-2250

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