OCMA's Close-Ups Are Ready for You

You'll need a lot more than 15 minutes to digest this collection of portraits

When the shutter opens and closes on refracted light and darkness, capturing an image, a record, a frame, is it the visual or the idea behind the visual that makes it worth seeing?

I haven’t posed that question to curator Karen Moss, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at Orange County Museum of Art, but I suspect she has given both their due consideration, based on the more than 175 photographs on display in her captivating—if overstuffed—new show, “15 Minutes of Fame: Portraits From Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol.”

Fittingly, Warhol’s fetish for celebrity opens the exhibition, his Polaroids capturing nothing but famous faces, his obsession for the glamorous indiscriminate: Dance luminary Martha Graham is snapped, but so are also-rans such as Bianca Jagger. As shallow as his subjects, there is no there there in Warhol’s pictures. Adoration is enough.

Early black-and-white work by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Dutch photographer Johan Hagemeyer are just a few steps inside, and the emotional depth of Hagemeyer’s celebrity portraits are a revelation. His Portrait of Eugene O’Neill has the depressive playwright dressed in funereal black and partly covering his face, as if he wants to smile or speak but his hand is stopping him. The doleful gaze in the scientist’s eyes in Portrait of Albert Einstein is disconcerting compared to his playful persona.

Photography becomes a social document in Margaret Bourke-White’s undated Portrait of a Man. Clearly shot before the civil-rights era, her African-American subject eyes the camera (and us) with suspicion. Equal dignity is given to the young Mexican woman with Down syndrome holding a candy skull in Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s 1933 Day of the Dead, shot at a time when the mentally disabled were usually shuttered from sight.

While I’m not particularly enamored of jazz music, the two walls of William Claxton’s hip portraits of Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis and future Bruce Weber model Chet Baker, among others, will please aficionados. Cooler in my estimation is a cropped version of Alberto Korda’s famous 1959 picture Guerrillero Heroico (Portrait), the iconic picture of Che Guevara that launched a million hipster T-shirts.

Despite the pretext of spontaneity in Garry Winogrand’s street photography of young women, there’s an unsettling voyeurism to the pictures, your eyes automatically drawn to the accidentally revealed panties or the prominent racks of the women walking against the wind. I found the pictures distasteful, as if I’d stumbled on a parent’s French-post-card collection.

I don’t know what planet Charlie White is from, but based on his picture Ken’s Basement, with its eerie puppet being fed a piece of birthday cake by a big-breasted woman in a blue dress as hysterical children laugh and eat Jell-O in a shag-carpeted, wood-paneled basement, I think I’d like to visit—but only if I’m sure I can make a quick getaway.

Domestic violence rears its ugly head in the simple wine-stained tablecloth of contemporary photographer Jo Ann CallisMan At Table. Keith Boadwee’s Berries suggests Oedipus as a man’s thumbs smash tiny fruits into his eye sockets, the juice streaming down his face. Red also figures prominently in Rineke Dijkstra’s Stephany, Saint Joseph Ballet School, Orange County, with the subject’s soulful face wrapped in a bright-crimson hoodie.

OCMA also has two areas among the five hosting galleries that the more adventurous can visit. First is a tasteful series of nudes, including Ron Cooper’s headless male Venus de Milo in Male Torso 1978 and 1992; the rippling male musculature under the black skin of Judy Dater’s Nehemiah (back view); the role of women in society given a poetic critique in Bravo’s Temptation In the House of Antonio, as a naked housewife stands in her back yard, surrounded by drying laundry, the sheets obscuring her face; the serenely striking Nude In Box (Horizontal) by Ruth Bernhard, a photo clearly misappropriated by whoever designed posters for the cinematic abortion Boxing Helena.

I always welcome any opportunity to see filmmaker Larry Clark’s ruthlessly in-your-face films or photographs, and OCMA has 20 pictures from his “Tulsa” series in one side gallery. All shots of his addict friends, the bad and the beautiful include tattooed boys brushing James Dean haircuts or slamming drugs in the bathtub; a woman with a black eye and bruises on her shoulder talking to a friend; a man smoking while his baby lies in his lap; a dead infant resting in a tiny casket; and, most tellingly, an expressionless man sitting in a car as rain drizzles down the passenger window, the shadows of it on his cheeks the only tears he’s likely to shed for a wasted life.

This review doesn’t even begin to cover the range of photographs on display, and I’ve had to leave out a lot of good work simply for space reasons. Consider it a positive, though, that despite some hiccups, there’s so much to see here you’ll want to stay in the galleries for a lot longer than 15 minutes.

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