Everything's Memorex

James Drakes conversations speak silently

There's no such thing as a guilty man in the prison yard, of course. The Rampart Division scandal seems to be imitating The Shawshank Redemption: everyone really was framed. The governor of Illinois has just announced a temporary stay of execution for everyone on death row. He's perturbed, it seems, that 13 people scheduled to punch the clock have recently been exonerated by DNA evidence. Even advertising is getting into the act: Benetton's ads featuring death-row inmates have outraged Sears shoppers all over the country. But there seems to be no stopping the middle class's hankering for a soporific security or the prison-building industry's yen for bull markets. And so we never—no, never—see criminals with a human face.

But nestled in the appropriately gloomy side galleries at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum, hungry prisoners make cow eyes at their loves—through Plexiglas, of course. They laugh. They furrow their brows. Their eyes mist. They throw signs. It's an extraordinary exhibit, so it stands to reason that it's running second banana to an extraordinarily uninteresting one sprawling through the main gallery in the form of one "California Classic." Fortunately for you, I can't bring myself to address it.

James Drake's "Conversations: Inside/Outside," on the other hand, practically steals your purse and then spits in your face. It's certainly not perfect. For instance, it's almost a cliché to study the dispossessed: from Dorothea Lange's noble Okies to Nan Goldin's junkie hookers to Richard Billingham's squalid and sublime shots of his own parents punching each other and passing out in their own blood and vomit. It's easy to get great shots when your figures are so very down-and-out. But it's the first thing I've seen this year that trenchantly examines something other than the bellybutton lint of privileged, young local artists and how they feel today. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

There are very few works in "Conversations," and more, in this case, would have been more. A few large photos show inmates pressing themselves against prison windows, an otherworldly blue light glaring behind them, talking with their hands at their lovers, who wait on the street. The figures are almost indecipherable; one shows what looks like two men crowded together, backlit so only long, skinny fingers show, glowing like E.T.'s.

One wall-length montage features stills from a visit between a dark-skinned inmate and his inamorata, who has chola eyebrows as thin and stark as if she's carved them out of her forehead with her long, sharp fingernail. They extend at least an inch beyond the end of her eyes. Still, she's very pretty, with a touch of young Sophia Loren. The photos are grainy, but they don't seem so much pixelated—where you lose focus by blowing something up too big—as they seem to be showing things on an atomic level.

The man and woman face each other in a series of connected photos interspersed with stark shards of sentences: "Hold on Hold on." "Throw your sign through the glass." "I want to touch and feel you." Sometimes her eyes tilt up to the ceiling, as though she's holding back tears, defeated. Sometimes she laughs, with her head thrown back. Sometimes he is serious; sometimes he's absolutely tickled. It seems a very normal talk, one you'd have late at night with your lover in the kitchen, maybe. They are so close, despite circumstances and the clear glass wall separating them as surely as the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets separated Romeo and his Juliet. It's perfect.

In fact, "Conversations" is so perfect that, despite assurances to the contrary, it almost seems staged. That would raise the kind of issue that gets highbrow art-journal scribes and art-department muckety-mucks all in a dither. It's one thing to digitally narrow the distance between the Pyramids at Giza when you're National Geographic; I think most of us can see that a well-respected mag aiming to showcase the world as it is probably ought to do it nonfictitiously. But nobody minds when Japanese beauty Mariko Mori digitally inserts herself into a photo serving tea in a fetching Martian flight-attendant getup (except Salon's Cintra Wilson, who points out how easy it is to make beautiful pictures when you're the daughter of one of Japan's wealthiest men and have a crew of literally hundreds to make your small films); it's clearly directed, and its very dreaminess buffers it from attack.

But "Conversations" does nothing to suggest it's anything but documentary —except for a few weird facts, like the fact that most prisons don't let shutterbugs prance around in the visiting room. Even when there are exceptionally good reasons for wanting to interview a prisoner—in the interests of justice, for instance, which should be an example of the highest order of the usually vacuous and glib "public's right to know"—wardens can, and usually do, unilaterally deny access. Things get even trickier with Drake's camera angle: to shoot the woman head-on, he'd either have to be behind the Plexiglas with the inmates or she would have to be facing Drake instead of her boyfriend—meaning that all those seemingly heartfelt responses were meant for the lens, not her lover.

Considering all of that, looking at the exhibit with the knowledge that it might not be documentary gives it a "Remember the Maine" quality.

Drake can do whatever he wants. These are not photos in a newspaper; they're photos in a gallery. And it's been 20 years since the gallerati stopped insisting on "straight photography" and opened its collective mind and pocketbook to the fabricated and artfully staged. In today's tabloid world, there's little difference between a TV re-enactment and its "real-life" inspiration, except for the quality of the acting. Everything is malleable. And when the technology gets better, nothing will be live, and everything will be Memorex.

"Conversations:Inside/Outside" at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5761. Through April 23; Jimmy Santiago Baca reads his poetry inspired by Drake's work. Wed., 5 p.m.
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