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A cool yet powerful approach toward evil

March 10, 2006|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

The subjects of Arie Galles' subtly devastating charcoal drawings look like industrial complexes, factories perhaps. Set within farmland dotted with small dwellings or edged by dense woods, the sites appear orderly, designed for efficiency rather than beauty or integration into the landscape. Long rectangular buildings repeat in rows or blocks, unsoftened by trees or other plantings. Seen from far overhead, the structures and their settings verge on abstraction. The buildings read as geometric pattern, the agricultural plots as mosaic tiles and the roads as mere design elements, graphic arteries articulating sections of relatively flat space.

The formal abstraction is a result of aerial perspective. The emotional detachment implied by that distance is something else. In fact, what makes these drawings so viscerally potent is the tension, the contradiction between the artist's cool approach and the horror of his subjects: Nazi concentration camps.

Galles used military reconnaissance photographs (made by German and Allied forces) as source material for the work in "Fourteen Stations / Hey Yud Dalet," at Soka University's art gallery. The drawings measure about 4 feet by 6 feet and are framed in wrought iron imprinted with fragments of barbed wire. The heavy-handed symbolism of the frames strikes the only discordant note in a project whose power derives from its restraint.

The images are, perversely, quite handsome, the blacks deep and inky, the contours just shy of crisp. In "Mauthausen," the stark geometry of what must be barracks or possibly crematories is offset by curving roads and a surrounding landscape of animate, pulsing plots. Some of the images generate a disorienting sense of slippage. The angle at which the source photograph was made causes the land to tip away from the picture plane, suggesting a horizon toward the bottom of the page, opposite where we expect it.

Galles draws with calm deliberation. He has channeled all of the emotional and historical urgency associated with the Holocaust into imagery that is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Instead of manipulating instant responses of shock and outrage, so easy to do given the subject, he presents the material and lets it simmer. Image by image, the effect builds, the benign accreting into an insidious malignancy. Hannah Arendt introduced the term "banality of evil." Galles renders it visible in his treatment of the topography of the killing industry.

Each of the drawings is accompanied by a brief, dense poem by Jerome Rothenberg, inscribed in charcoal on an adjacent, separately framed panel. Rothenberg's words, with their pungent vocabulary of fists, blood, plagues, silences, smoke, dust and emptiness, resonate provocatively with Galles' images. Galles may be the one using charcoal, but both artists compose in the ash of family and cultural history. Rothenberg, who has written extensively about the khurbn (Yiddish for "total destruction"), is the son of immigrants from a Polish town near Treblinka. Galles was born during the war, in Tashkent, in what is now Uzbekistan, to Polish parents fleeing German occupation. Both lost numerous close relatives.

In Jewish tradition, mourners repeat the kaddish, a prayer exalting God, to keep alive the memory and names of the dead. Galles has invisibly embedded a fragment of the kaddish in each of his drawings, so that the entire cycle amounts to a silent recitation of the complete prayer. As a child of survivors and a survivor himself, Galles assumes an obligation not just to keep alive the memory of the lost but also to keep current and relevant the questions raised by their destruction. His drawings assert the kinds of answers that can be plainly stated -- questions of location, appearance. The questions that resist such closure -- the whys and hows, the essence of what happened -- remain insistently open in this tremendously affecting work, as they do in the annals of history itself.

Founders Hall Art Gallery, Soka University, 1 University Drive, Aliso Viejo, (949) 480-4000, through April 28. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.

The definition of drawing, expanded

A delicious bit of market-driven irony has boosted drawing, the oldest visual art form, into the limelight as the hottest new trend. The more attention drawing gets, the more new adherents it seems to attract. Never mind that some of them are working in paint and sculptural materials; if a work is in a drawings show, it must be a drawing. Cross-fertilization and discovery matter more than exclusionary definitions anyway.

The "Major Drawings" show at Carl Berg showcases nine artists who work large, either in the spirit of drawing, with directness and immediacy, or the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper. Versatility and vitality largely run high.

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