Well All Be Ugly Then

There are plenty of galleries along Laguna Beach's Forest Avenue that pull in all kinds of bored passersby. Their offerings generally are beyond gauche; they're the kinds of gaudy bits of reflected light that only a Trump could love. But behind a steel door and up a flight of stairs, surrounded by boutiques throwing expensive fabrics in ugly cuts and colors at middle-aged women, the BC/Space Gallery perches over that same stretch of street. The place is hard to find; it used to be the Masonic temple, and as befits the Masons' yen for secrecy (the better to sacrifice babies and drink their blood!), it's almost invisible even when one is right on top of it. I'd wager that cuts out a lot of walk-in traffic. And maybe that's as it should be: owner Mark Chamberlain has been doing just fine in the place for 28 years. He has brought in difficult works, works with issues. And now, if I've got anything to say about it, he'll have brought in a big, screamy controversy as well.

“Figure3” divides itself almost equally between fantastic works with a soulful hideousness and commercial bits of beautiful crap. The first works at the top of the stairs are by Robert Stivers. They aren't offensive, but with the exception of one, they're irrelevant. Heavily burned-out images glow a deeply contrasting black-and-white. They're abstracted and blurred, eyeless and creepy. That's fine, of course, but they're mute as well as blind. They just don't say much. There is one, however, that shows the back of a bald man's round head reflecting light the way the moon does the sun. And like the waxing moon, half of it fades into darkness. It's mighty cool.

It's in the second room of the gallery that things get glorious. And please to permit me to gleefully stir up some shit: part of that glory is a photo of three prepubescent girls without a stitch of clothing on.

The process by which Robin Rosenzweig develops her silver gelatin photos imbues them with an old-fashioned sepia tone. The texture is positively pointillist, like grains of sand. And the subjects are troikas of women, shot from neck to thighs, standing immobile before the camera like the Three Graces or Macbeth's witches. Some women are middle-aged and fat, with pendulous breasts hanging onto their stretched-out bellies; others stand slim and perfect, their straight hair hanging to their shallow hips. The fat women, C-section scars like camera-ready smiles, are vital to the scene; they're as lovely in their human flaws as the bits of perfection that surround them, shoulder to shoulder.

And the three naked girls? Yes, there have been complaints, though not from easily offended oldsters but rather from a few of Chamberlain's college students. And no, had the photo been shot by a man, Chamberlain wouldn't have hung it. It's simply a lot easier to defend a photo—and minus the nagging suspicions of perviness —shot by a woman. Nor would he have shown it had it not been part of the series. But in context, it makes absolute sense: two young sisters modestly cover their pudenda with their hands. Their blond hair is straight and long; they seem to be related to two of the women in the grown-up photos. In the middle, her arms thrown around her comrades' shoulders, a curly haired girl exposes herself without self-consciousness. There is strength and beauty, but there's absolutely no icky sexiness, no inappropriate allure. This is not the parted lips of a breathy Jock Sturges, who delivers lovely slices of nature crouched over—one-handed—by hard-breathing men with problems. These three girls aren't about the promise of sex; they're about girlhood. They're not yet women, but they will grow up to be one of these trios, and their litheness will fade into a bony spareness or a stretchy thickness, and it's perfectly all right. It is masterful work.

The glow from Rosenzweig's perfect pieces diminishes considerably when one faces the last room of the exhibit. Dennis Mecham is a studio photographer whose pieces are perfectly composed and artfully shot, swimming in liquid color that is practically its own life force. But it's more than a little precious. And—God forfend—it's twee. Here are faultless executions of women posed in capes before saturated night skies, or in sequined gowns that end beneath their breasts (how arty!) like a mermaid's tail. It is life at its most posed and least lived, each with an artifice that is positively suffocating. They're like grown-up Nagels: glamour shot as design motif.

Mecham clearly knows his craft: on one woman, you can see the blue veins in her milky, luminous skin even from a distance. It's his taste you question; he doesn't appear to have any. But I know more than a few Forest Avenue galleries who could make a killing off his faultless works.

“Figure3” at BC/Space Gallery, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-1880. Through May 12.

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