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Gambit Weekly Into the Light

By D. Eric Bookhardt

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  It sounds strange to say, but talent is sometimes a mixed blessing. For instance, curiously few great artists have come from the ranks of commercial art, just as surprisingly few great novelists have emerged from the field of journalism. Of course, for every rule there is the exception -- the Hemingway, Steichen or Man Ray -- but these have been relatively few and far between. It is one of life's little ironies, but this never stopped anyone from trying -- as we see in the work of three photographic illustrators at A Gallery for Fine Photography.

While all three have had some success as artists, Ruth Bernard is in a class by herself. A native Berliner and former New Yorker who, at age 92, is now the grand doyenne of San Francisco photographers, Bernard seemed to sense this professional paradox from the start. Consequently, she strived heroically to "follow her bliss," as it were, conjuring up some of photography's more memorable images along the way. Even so, this show is oddly generalized, eclectic, a Whitman's sampler that ranges from staid pictorialism to some of the more electric images in the history of the medium.

In this regard, Skull and Rosary, 1945, a pale horse skull glowing eerily in soft white light, is as enigmatic as it is emblematic. From its crown hangs a black rosary that seemingly cleaves the skull into two halves visually united by a gothic crucifix. And while it is hard to know what any of this implies, it is, as Diane Arbus was so fond of saying, "really something." But Bernard is probably best known for her nudes -- and for her empathic take on the female form that causes her nudes to be seen as subtly "different" from those done by her male counterparts.

Different, but no less sexy. In the Circle, 1934, features a nude female curled up in a concave metal container sort of like a gigantic wok. She resembles a Gordian knot of limbs, all thighs and calves, arms and legs arranged in a manner almost as revealing as it is convoluted. (Quite a rush for 1934.) In Embryo, she appears curled up in semifetal fashion, the encompassing wok now evoking some sort of amniotic bird bath.

While some of the nudes from the 1950s and 1960s are almost oppressively respectable or predictable, others can be disarming. In the Box, Vertical, 1962 is a woman in a box, head thrust back so we are confronted with a crouching female icon in an altarlike enclosure. All limbs, hips, ribs and breasts, she suggests some Amazon fertility figure -- and there is a touch of wildness here, a sense of some preternatural female energy that sets such images apart from the more sedately domestic nudes. In fact, their only real counterparts are found among the still-life studies.

For instance, the elegant convolutions of a lacy Silk Purse contain a sea bird's bleached skull, while the crumpled baroque form of a smashed Teapot evokes a similarly paradoxical mix of primal associations. Both do wild, eloquent things with light, which scintillates in fine, netlike strands, like the unseen filaments that were once thought to hold the universe together. But that was when the universe was regarded as female (a legacy contained in the word "matter" from the Latin "mater," or mother). I mention this because I think Bernard's best work taps into this magic female universe, which she somehow captures and contains in her finest images, regardless of their ostensible subject matter.

Which makes for an interesting contrast with Joyce Tenneson, another renowned photographer of female beauty. Tenneson is very consistent, a superb technician who, like Bernard, has an amazing gift for the use of light. Her mostly female and frequently nude figures seem like escapees from some mythic hothouse realm of soft skin and a gauzy luminosity that imbues whatever it touches with a pale, confectionery aura. It is all dazzling, yet somehow produced and artificial, like a George Lucas space opera about life on Venus -- sponsored by Cosmopolitan magazine. That much said, Tenneson's work is still very impressive within its limits.

Things get even wilder and more commercial in George Holz' Original Sin. This is like an opera in the buff, an Aztec Romeo and Juliet set in the cactus fields of Mexico. A nubile native maiden and her male counterpart engage in what looks like a passionate ethnic mating frenzy amid the snakes and spiny cacti. Both are exotic, svelte to an almost indistinguishable extent, and you might almost expect a walk-on by Maria Montez or Yma Sumac were it not so sleekly done. Holz is a good photographer with a fleshy flair on par with Bruce Weber, the Calvin Klein underwear maestro. Holz's abstractions are intriguing even as all the operatic tableaux amount to overkill. So it's a mixed bag, but, like his client, Tequila Sauza, it goes down smoothly enough. Salud...

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