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Earth can be so strange, yet lovely

September 26, 2008|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Jeff Whetstone spent a good part of 2007 underground, creeping through the caverns and passageways that form vast networks of caves in Tennessee and Alabama. The North Carolina-based photographer took an assistant with him, along with loads of battery-operated equipment, water, food and supplies, often staying beneath the Earth's surface for days at a time.

The result of these subterranean journeys is "Post-Pleistocene," an impressive series of large-format photographs that is so strangely gorgeous it takes a while to acclimate your eyes -- not to mention your mind -- to what you're seeing. At the Karyn Lovegrove Gallery @ Hudson Salon, 10 color prints depict a world both primitive and contemporary: Hellish beauty fuels the imagination's dark ramblings, often kicking them into high gear by forcing Surrealism and photojournalism into uncomfortable alliance.

Except for "Entrance to Wolf Tever," which shows the mouth of a cave -- and recalls Gustave Courbet's paintings of similar subjects -- no daylight appears in any of Whetstone's pictures. Nor do any people. The emptiness and the artificial illumination make the rocky passageways look like abandoned stage sets for a post-apocalyptic production of Dante's "Inferno."

In some, nature steals the show. Organically formed rocks and naturally carved outcroppings twist and turn through space with a sort of sculptural forcefulness. The crude graffiti and roughly scrawled messages left by previous visitors are no match for the thrust and powerful effect of the variously textured and exquisitely weathered terrain.

In other images, humans get the upper hand. The neon tints of spray-painted skulls, hearts, arrows, emblems, figures, names and dates form a mismatched patchwork of signs and symbols that brings the dynamism and danger of urban streets to nature's bowels. Ladders and ropes, placed over difficult passages by earlier adventurers, reveal that although Whetstone has traveled far off the beaten path, he has not been alone in that.

The mixture of nature and culture is rich. "Lot's Way" resembles a ready-made Cy Twombly painting; "Driphole" evokes Aaron Siskind's abstract photographs; "Johnny" has the haunting melancholy of a word-sculpture by Jack Pierson; "Upper Room" echoes Jean-Michel Basquiat's raw paintings; and "Hubbard's Cathedral" looks like a piece of image-and-text Conceptualism that has fallen on hard times.

Some of the oldest traces of man Whetstone has photographed are tally marks made during the Civil War, when many of the caves were mined for saltpeter, an essential ingredient of gunpowder. Escaped slaves hid, worked and lived in other underground chambers.

Whetstone's pictures also recall the caves of Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain, where our distant ancestors left their own versions of graffiti. The contrast between the raw elegance of their handmade marks and the whiplash primitivism of the cave paintings in Whetstone's photographs makes you wonder if civilization is all it's cracked up to be.

Karyn Lovegrove Gallery @ Hudson Salon, 500 S. Hudson Ave., L.A., (323) 525-1755, through Oct. 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


A thoughtful look at casual violence

At a time when the sheer volume of violence in video games and movies has gone through the roof, yet images of suffering and death in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan are few and far between, the room full of 10 bronze sculptures in Julian Hoeber's third solo show at Blum & Poe makes itself right at home. An even larger gallery, packed with 15 big paintings on paper, raises similarly unpleasant questions about the morality of mindlessness.

These are old subjects, typically trotted out by second-rate artists who would rather be activists and are so convinced that the two jobs go together that they can't see the differences between them. In contrast, Hoeber's works probe the links between America's voracious taste for fantasy violence and its smug aversion to the real thing without serving up easy answers.

Never pretending to be above it all, or to know it all, Hoeber's incisive art puts the contradictions and hypocrisy front and center.

His super-realistic heads are no strangers to sensationalism.

Each began as a clay model of a man's head that Hoeber took out to the desert and, using large-caliber handguns and low-gauge shotguns, blasted vigorously -- not quite to smithereens but with more energy and enthusiasm than would be necessary to kill a man.

Hoeber then used the malleable, flesh-like clay to make molds to cast the heads in bronze. The polished pieces are monstrous. Each life-size sculpture sits atop the black base of a mirrored, chest-high pedestal like a demonic meteorite from hell's far reaches, or a perfectly preserved consequence of actions that cannot be undone or forgotten but haunt the memory and lead to all sorts of post-trauma sicknesses.

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