Larry Fink, Frederic Webber

Larry Fink, Noble Evenings & Other Social Graces, the Jan Kessner Gallery.
Frederic Webler, In Primary Light  at the Stephen Cohen Gallery.

Point Blank and Skin Deep

Thank God for the car pool lane.  It's an amenity  that makes driving to L.A. bearable and even possible.  This week on another perfect  L.A. afternoon (to my East coast mind, the days are nearly all perfect here) we hurtled past long ribbons of stock still automobiles, every one containing a lone, disconsolate driver, each of whom faced hours of excruciating  inching in traffic before reaching their destinations.  We, on the other hand, simply by having two bobbing heads in the car, flew by in blissful disregard of their suffering.  It's natural to wonder why more of those unhappy car sitters haven't thought up creative ways to win discreet acceptance to the coveted carpool lane. For instance all it takes is an infant in a car seat to count as two. With tinted windows, a carefully placed blanket, and at 65mph, whose to know if that baby breaths or not? Of course, not that I am suggesting such a thing, and  it might take some delicate explaining  if one were to be stopped by the local law enforcement . (How about, it's a sleep disorder officer, I'm loathe to wake her up just now.)  I understand fines are steep.  I've heard there was one woman who fought a ticket based on the fact that she was two weeks pregnant. She claimed she counted for two. I guess the Right to Lifers would be on her side.  One's mind can't help but wander on to such schemes when stuck on "pause" on any L.A. freeway.

There's a party going on somewhere, in this city, or in your city, on the East coast or the West Coast, or somewhere in-between, and we have not been invited. At this party people are dressed in their best. The women wear gowns or short dresses with revealing necklines  and the men are in tuxedos or plaid jackets.  They clutch drinks in their hands or lean on the bar. They practice the art of small talk, very small talk, and smile blandly, eyes darting. Who is here? Who do I know?  They wait for cocktails to be served, dinner to be announced, speeches to be made, couples pronounced man and wife, or to go home.

It's a "Gala Event", "A Celebration," a "Special Fashion Fete."  Somewhere Larry Fink and his camera skulk in the crowd. A stalker and sometime paid collaborator  aiming to bring back news from this particular battlefield,  Fink's been to Roni's Wedding, the Allentown Museum Party, the American  Legion, Studio 54, and Gucci. He's been to the Hungarian Debutante Ball, the Black Debutante's Ball, F.I.T. Fashion Awards, Halston's House, and Elaine's, and many more parties where the upper crust, middle brows, and plain folks gather to meet and greet.  "Nobel Evenings & Other Social Graces,"a twenty-five year retrospective of his work is at the Jan Kesner Galley, Los Angeles.

What has Fink got to tell us about these events? People are bored. They can be superficial. Their clothes don't always fit right . They laugh uproariously, or nervously, or frown imperiously. They are lost in a crowd. They are venal and banal and tired. They wish they were elsewhere.  Sometimes they are young and beautiful and they have funny expressions on their faces in the split second their mouths begin to form words. They are trying to have a good time, trying to be amused, trying to be polite. They are helpless and haunted and they don't know why. In this way they've  all come to look like America, laughing as they buss, playing games with their faces.  The man in the gabardine suit is quite shy. Be careful  Fink's bowtie is really  a camera.  He finds his prey at their best dressed and almost naked. They'd like to go home now, but it will be awhile before the festivities are over.

Are these lives as empty and vacuous as they appear?  Probably not. The celebrants in Fink's photographs do live somewhere, but not here in the sharp, 1/125th of a second glare of his point-blank flash. For Fink has found a way to reveal nothing to us about the individual inner lives of his party goers. Instead he has chosen for his subject Social Relations, Everyman , the contradictions of culture and class. Fink finds icons of American life where loneliness, isolation, and alienation in the midst of plenty are everywhere among the high and low, the privileged and not so.  We look at these black and white photographs and can tell the whole story. The one about the guy sitting alone with a drink. ("American Legion, Bangor, PA, 1979Ó). We even know the woman missing in the picture.  She's present in the half full cocktail glass and evening purse waiting on the bar and she has excused herself to the powder room. Where have we seen this man before? We remember him at our cousin's wedding, at the benefit bash, at the gallery reception, or we were married to him awhile back.  We know him as we know ourselves and he is our mirror. We also know the attractive , well put together woman in the zebra stripped dress, lips slightly curled, glaring into the camera, her eyes seeming to ask, "Why are you taking my picture?"("Russian Orthodox Fund, NYC, October 1975Ó). It's a picture held together by hands. Two supplicating hands reaching into the frame from the left comment on another resting in the lower right corner next to the limp, age revealing hand of the woman who clearly wishes the photographer would go away.

The marvel of photography is that the blazing light of the flash can capture in a split second what the mind may only dimly remember  and the eye may or may not have seen. Like a deer in the headlights the faces of Fink's revelers are frozen in moments of ecstasy, agony, boredom, confusion, desire, envy and ambition.  Fink has mastered the art of choreographing lone figures in the crushing, swirling, dance of humanity, and while the  chiaroscuro light of his flash may not reveal the deep inner workings of the heart, it does have the not inconsiderable power to illuminate that tender, complex, vulnerable stratum just beneath the hard mask of public presentation.

From the Beyond

Should we ever be given permission to take our cameras on a visit to the spirit world of both heaven and hell, and ordered to bring back a likeness of the departed, we might return with something resembling  the images Frederic Weber exhibits in his show "In Primary Light" at the Stephen Cohen Gallery. The flesh has gone to decay, but the silent soul remains.

Weber's apparitions of closely cropped faces and figures, often of Black men, appear to be shot from behind multiple layers of tissue and translucent glass.  The amber and azure hued cibachromes are referenced more to painting than to photography.  Weber  alters, obscures and uses darkroom manipulations  to forge haunting, barely visible "spirits" that float like ghosts in a murky underwater world. These enigmatic countenances  of men and sometimes women, appear to no longer inhabit terra firma. In "Untitled, #77Ó, there is only the shell of an obliterated face of a screaming black woman, her mouth and eyes empty hollows, her features eaten or scratched away.   They hover mysteriously somewhere just at the edge of perception  - or maybe they are dreaming, lost for a moment in some netherworld, waiting to be awakened, revived and returned to life.  In many, an uncanny glow of gold, red or bluish light shimmers beneath the blurry veils of the worlds they inhabit.

It's unclear  as to why Weber who is white, chooses representations of Black men and women, as it seems to be of no significance other than the fact that the faces he selects are striking, but it adds to the feeling of otherness, and mystery as though these brooding heads were from some lost ethnic tribe or another culture. One has the sense that they have only recently been unearthed, swept partly clean for our awed inspection. The meaning  in these vague, hazy images of dark poetry may be unclear, or there may be none, but the stark beauty of their presence is compelling.

Photometro, Volume 16, Issue 152, 1998 © A.M. Rousseau

Captions for photos enclosed:
(please note that Frederic Weber has no "K"on his name.)

1.)   "Sante and Kara's Wedding, NYC, September,1991"Gelatin Silver print, Larry Fink, courtesy of Jan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles. (11"x 14"black and white press printÓ)

2.)"Untitled #77" cibachrome, Frederic Weber. Courtesy Stephen Cohen Gallery, Los Angeles. (slide)

3.) "Untitled # 84" cibachrome, Frederic Weber, courtesy Stephen Cohen Gallery, Los Angeles. (slide)

4.) "Untitled #104"1997, cibachrome, Frederic Weber, courtesy Stephen Cohen Gallery, Los Angeles.  (5"x 7"black and white press print)