Two New Exhibits Reveal The Malleability Of Photography.
By Margaret Regan
PHOTOGRAPHY IS A malleable medium. Sometimes it subtly conjures up arty dreams. Other times it's confrontational, and summons up rage.
Two small summer shows illustrate how art and journalism use capricious photography for opposing purposes. José Galvez runs a Fourth Avenue gallery devoted to the work of Latino artists; this time around he's mounted a show of his own photojournalism. Broken Dreams: Alex Rivera 1974-1990 is a suite of black-and-white pictures about a murdered 16-year-old Los Angeleño. The 20-odd pictures, taken back in April 1990 when Galvez was a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times, chronicle the boy's wake and funeral, picturing the visible grief of his survivors. Galvez clearly intends the pictures as a commentary on the stupid waste of young lives in these days of urban gun wars.
Kathleen Velo's dreamy conjurings are the polar opposite of Galvez' purposeful journalism. A photography teacher at Palo Verde High School, Velo exhibits soft-edged pinhole photographs at the UA Rotunda Gallery in a two-person show called Into Light. Taken last summer during her stay in the medieval village of Lacoste in the south of France, her 20 pictures are mostly about light and darkness, and their potential for metaphor. (The companion exhibit features monoprints and photogravures by Karen Fitzgerald, a Queens artist who, like her friend Velo, is concerned with the spiritual dimensions of light and dark.)
There is not a single sharp line or angle in Velo's fields of sunflowers, her stone alley ways or shadowy ancient abbeys. Instead all is murky and dreamlike, and the evanescent puddles of light seem likely to disappear. An art school scholarship gave Velo the chance to work in France's verdant Midi, whose famous light drew the Impressionists a century ago. The restrictions of her own black-and-white aesthetic naturally prevent Velo from delving into the rich colors that so enchanted those painters, but she delights in wandering among some of their familiar imagery, especially France's fertile fields and vineyards.
The shade of Van Gogh is evoked in her many pictures of sunflowers, which she photographed from every possible angle. There is a mildly bold close-up, as strident as Velo's soft photography gets; a medium range view of a whole meadow of flowers, mountains towering in the background; and a distant shot in which the individual sunflowers are nearly submerged in a sea of white.
Landscape lends itself particularly well to pinhole photography: Its broad shapes and undulating planes don't get lost in pictures that are made without lenses or viewfinders. The technique is not as kind to some of Velo's other subjects, particularly shots of people and animals. "Cheval Attaché au Café" is barely discernible: you must screw up your eyes to find the dimly drawn horse. The same thing is true for "Chat du Matin" and "Jeune Homme Tenté": one can barely find either the cat in the garden or the young man scaling the wall. Velo undoubtedly intended these works to be ambiguous, but they are ambiguous almost to the point of nothingness.
Her architecture pieces fare better. The mysterious shadows in the corners of the stone churches and alleys make for fine atmospheric renderings of dark and light. "Vers la Lumiere" is one of the best. It shows a dark stone staircase leading to the bright redeeming light of the open air.
Ambiguity is mostly in short supply in the contrary realm of photojournalism. The most powerful work in Galvez's Rivera suite ironically is also the most obvious. Chosen by his editors at the L.A. Times to illustrate the written account of the boy's death, it's a classic depiction of maternal grief. The wailing mother leans over her son's coffin for a final good-bye. Her surviving son, at left, clutches her arm, while an elderly family friend at right fondly adds a flower to the bier. It's a good, solid newspaper photograph that almost accidentally makes that transcendent leap from cliché into archetype.
The rest of the suite is more workaday. Galvez made repeated shots of the somber mourners sitting in pews, leaning on railings, gathering on the church steps, in close-up and at a distance. His point no doubt is to show the wide path of grief cut by almost any death, especially of one so young, yet none of these other pictures has quite the power of the mother's.
In a way, the exhibit reveals the limits of photojournalism. The pictures simply tell the sad story of grief, while the wall text proclaims that young Rivera was an innocent, a young man with ambition, shot on a highway for no apparent reason. We have to go to the newspaper article, which Galvez has reprinted, for the fuller story. Seems the boy had no real home, and no real adult authority in his life. At the time of his death he was cruising around at 2 a.m. on a school night. So there are guilty parties above and beyond the kid with the gun.
That means the pictures work best with the written word. Filled in on Alex's story, we have a different, more complicated response to his mater dolorosa, and we suddenly understand why so many of the mourners are so young. They were this boy's world.
Galvez says he hopes to show the pictures in some local middle and high schools, in hopes of influencing kids to hold more firmly onto their tenuous young lives. That's a worthy goal, of course, but one longs for something even more effective, like making them required viewing for parents who are guilty of neglect.
Into Light, an exhibition of Kathleen Velo photographs and Karen Fitzgerald prints, continues through June 26 at the Rotunda Gallery, on the third floor of the UA Student Union. Hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. For information, call 621-5123.
Broken Dreams: Alex Rivera, 1974-1990 continues though June 28 at José Galvez Gallery, 743 N. Fourth Ave. Summer hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 4 to 8 p.m. Saturdays. For information, call 624-6878.
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