More Cliche than Risque

Photo by Liezel RubinThe Icaro Gallery in Bixby Knolls is a great space. High ceilings, wide open space and a mission, derived from the gallery icon Icarus—the Greek who daringly flew to the sun wearing wax wings—of displaying works from artists who take risks in order to experience the divine; an admirable objective for this two-year-old gallery that seems to be more about experimental art than making a buck.

Their latest exhibition, “Bordellos and Boudoirs” by photographer Liezel Rubin and painter Margie Darrow-Stretz, is a collaborative effort to explore the worlds of the men and women who inhabit bordellos and boudoirs. Unfortunately, the exhibit's title is its most interesting feature.

For the most part, Rubin's black-and-white photographs of “bedroom play” rely heavily on taboos that have been broached and thus fail to shock or stimulate. What's worse is her attempt to direct viewers' attention through intrusively catchy titles and text, a distracting practice that tends only to illuminate the well-trodden ground we're upon.

In Tools of the Trade, a woman with a fleshy breast exposed straddles a bed wearing Marilyn Monroe Seven Year Itch garb with a dildo hanging beneath her skirt from a strap-on. (How many years has it been since Madonna's Sexwas published?) In another, a trampy female “little person” sits on a bamboo podium looking lustily as she leans on a tiki-god sculpture. And in a third, a woman squatting over a Jesus picture on a Bible is called Magdalena. Andres Serrano should be collecting royalties.

And then there's the not-so-titillating-anymore girl-on-girl sex theme modestly broached in Prt a Porter, where the girls merely “spoon” one another while reaching for a sexy bra off a clothesline. There's a shot of an attractive “woman,” who is really a man, called Sweet Illusion and The Money Shot with, yes, a woman lying the floor in lingerie, surrounded by bills. We didn't like this shot the first time we saw it, when it was called Indecent Proposal. If this is taking chances to experience the divine, then Nirvana seems easily won.

Rubin has some nice story shots but keeps muddling things up with her need to not only illustrate but also write the story. A terrific rockabilly guy in the shower while his girl rummages through his wallet is funny and nicely composed. The title Unguarded Moment is a given. Baby Doll—a girl dressed in a frilly dress holding, yes, a baby doll—is also a photo that seems to have depth until the title locks it up for you. Lesson One: Art does what words can't. Class dismissed.

Failing less, perhaps only because she risks so little, are the paintings of Darrow-Stretz. Using washes with variations on a two- or three-palette color scheme, Stretz has taken lounging images of 1920s and '30s gals—we thought we spotted Josephine Baker and Mary Pickford—and run them through a cubist mirror. Sometimes the full-bodied cubism seems out of hand, especially when it comes to multicubed breasts, but it's an interesting idea, and every now and then, it works—mostly when Stretz continues the cubist flow into the backgrounds, creating sweeping dips and valleys or choppy blocks, blending the bodies continuously with their surroundings.

It seems that cubism has Stretz rather than the other way around, that she's more concerned with technique than message. In fact, there seems to be no message and hardly any exploration of a female or male world of sexuality. While Rubin's photos too actively try to convey a point, Stretz's works are pointless pretty pictures, but not pretty enough to stand on beauty and composition alone. Princess de Serpent is exceptionally chaotic, and the choppy technique works well with the Cleopatra pictured in browns and blues, and a severely cubed face in the pinkish Chapeau Rose is also a success. But the paintings are emotionally hollow. They clearly needed something else.

As far as successful pretty pictures that stand on their own merit, only Le Jardin des Eva makes the grade. Unlike the others, we see only Eva's sensuous backside—the roundness of her thighs and curves of her hips bursting beautifully outward into the world around her.

Still, how these images reveal a world of boudoirs—and especially of bordellos—is unclear. While both artists show talent and a willingness to explore, they're not quite ready to don their wax wings, and so they give to us what we really already have: a very grounded view of the divine.

Bordellos and Boudoirs at the Icaro Gallery, 4258 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, (562) 427-4258; Open Wed.-Sat., 1-7 p.m. Through Dec. 13.

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