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Playing around with pictures

March 04, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Despite the ubiquity of photographs in art galleries during the last decade or more, it's rare to encounter deeply poetic works that resonate simultaneously on multiple levels -- as social documents, aesthetic objects and political expression. The exceptional suite of 10 new and two older Cibachrome prints by David Askevold at Mandarin Gallery does exactly that. This quiet, surreptitious exhibition is slow to reveal itself; when it does, it's at once rigorous and chilling, informed and informative, visually challenging and finally revelatory.

Askevold, who lived and taught in Southern California in the late 1970s and early 1980s but who has long worked in Nova Scotia, emerged with the generation of Post-Minimal artists. He mixed compelling photographs with illuminating texts, but the images and words usually behaved like oil and water: Attractive on the surface, they were profoundly incompatible at a fundamental level. This salutary quality of Askevold's art -- its capacity to befuddle and perturb by upending conventional assumption -- remains, but now it operates in a different way.

The terrific photographs at Mandarin have no text, yet the intimation of narrative is strong. Think of them as creating a kind of pulp fiction -- dark, seductive, vaguely paranoid, decidedly oracular and even just plain weird.

Each of the new pictures, all made this year, is 30 by 40 inches and framed in black. Two works from 1996, identically framed, are 10 inches larger on a side; they stand out from the rest through size and the complexity of their imagery. (In fact, they were the inspiration for the others.)

"Pit #1" shows a suburban backyard gathering, seen from above. Assorted men and women stand or sit on the ground in a casually arrayed circle. It's difficult to see exactly what's going on -- a picnic perhaps, or a party -- because the color is washed out and the image is overexposed. Askevold plays against art photography's fetish for exquisite prints.

Splotchy patches of mottled black further obscure the action. These patches, which hover on the surface like an ominous cloud, recall the burns created when a film gets stuck in a movie projector. As much as the camera is a modern machine hailed for its capacity to reveal the world, Askevold recognizes that it is also a tool that can obliterate perception.

His work shares this disorienting quality with that of artists as diverse as Edmund Teske and Sigmar Polke. Cameras distort, alter context and isolate -- traits historically associated with painting. Photography's false naturalism is a casual deceit. Therein lies an unexpected possibility for extravagant beauty.

In "Pit #1" it's hard to avoid the subject's reference to a modern painterly tradition -- namely, the "luncheon on the grass." Manet turned that aristocratic archetype of Arcadian bliss on its head; likewise, Askevold makes any sense of idyllic natural freedom turn sour. The black splotches and the queasy coloring intrude; ominous details start to emerge.

Most notably, a medical-style bag stands open at one side. You strain to see through the photographic blemishes to uncover what is happening. An accident? A crime? The bucolic scene makes a sudden U-turn into something inexplicable yet forbidding. The pastoral aura evaporates.

"Pit #2" operates similarly, except here a dancing flame erupts in the middle of a bleak autumnal image of an aging suburban street. Reading from left to right around the room, two new pictures precede this pair of 1996 photographs, while seven more come after. The narrative Askevold creates goes forward and backward in time. A final photograph is tucked around the corner in the gallery's back room, as if the saga's conclusion is hidden -- and possibly to be continued in the artist's future work.

The 10 new photographs are all landscapes. Most seem to have been shot at night, perhaps with a strobe flash.

In one you can't see the forest for the tree trunk, which looms in the foreground, its mottled birch bark dissolving into scabs or blisters. Elsewhere the underbrush glows red. Highlighted spots of desert scrub are picked out from the surrounding darkness, as if from a helicopter's surveillance spotlight.

These last works are titled "Shot in the Dark," which at once describes the way they were made, the pervasive violence of contemporary life and our groping for comprehension.

One landscape image appears twice -- first in bleached-out mode, later irradiated in crimson. The penultimate landscape is apocalyptic, a fiery sunrise (or sunset?) that evokes a nuclear blast. The final picture, the one hidden around the corner, shows a close-up of matted weeds against a crumbling cement foundation.

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