At one point during my recent visit to the William Kentridge exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a man who happened to be standing nearby informed me, with genuine emotion, that this was the best exhibition he’d seen in years. “It makes all those people who just throw paint up on a canvas look really ridiculous,” he said.

I wasn‘t sure exactly who he meant by “those people,” but I found myself agreeing enthusiastically with the sentiment: This is indeed the sort of art — committed, vigorous and far-reaching — that makes a lot of other art seem petty.

One reason for this distinction (or at least for my sense of it as a distinction) may be the artist’s relative distance from the standard well of sources, influences and postures that contemporary American artists can all too easily rely upon. Born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, Kentridge (who is white) studied art throughout his youth but obtained his undergraduate degree in politics and African studies and, after college, also worked extensively in the theater as an actor, director and set designer — a diversity of pursuits that has shaped both the content and the form of his drawings. When it came to art, he felt little affinity, at least initially, with the avant-garde traditions that were flourishing up north. “Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America in the 1960s and 1970s seemed distant and incomprehensible to me,” he recalls in one catalog essay. Abstraction was impossibly apolitical; conceptual art, curious but self-indulgent in the face of the ongoing turmoil in his country. Instead, he found: “The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure. I remember thinking that one had to look backwards — even if quaintness was the price one paid.”

It may well have been. Scattered with visual traces of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz and other Expressionists, the large charcoal drawings that form much of this exhibition make no claims on radical innovation, at least stylistically. Indeed, the very belief in drawing as a potential conduit for emotional narrative — apparent here in every thick stroke — is itself somewhat old-fashioned. But it‘s difficult to imagine another mode of representation that could carry the same weight in the end. The charcoal is soft, flexible enough to capture a wide range of expressions, and so engrossing that you can almost smell its dust. Kentridge’s figures are sensual and slow-moving, as though literally heavy with sorrow and melancholy, and his full-bodied landscapes appear to breathe beneath the feet of their lonely inhabitants.

These drawings literally come to life in the short animated films that are the exhibition‘s real showcase. Here, Kentridge creates movement by painstakingly photographing a series of erasures and additions made within a single drawing (rather than over a sequence of several drawings, as in traditional animation). The result is a smooth, thick flow of images. Objects materialize magically from an ether of dusty gray only to be consumed by it once more; figures drift through spaces that shift seamlessly into one another, as in a dream; and every motion leaves a faint trail of shadow behind. Set to evocative, often melancholic music (some classical, some specially commissioned by the artist), the effect is utterly hypnotic. By introducing the element of time — an impulse that stems, no doubt, from his experience in the theater — Kentridge seems not merely to animate his drawings but to really break them open and reveal their inner logic.

Eight of the 11 films presented here, created as a series between 1989 and 1999, take place in the devastated landscape of late- and post-apartheid South Africa and revolve around two fictional white characters: Soho Eckstein, an industrial magnate in a striped suit, and Felix Teitlebaum, an artist, always depicted in the nude, who steals the affections of Soho’s wife. The narrative is loose and largely impressionistic — Soho builds his empire; Felix seduces Mrs. Eckstein; Soho mourns the loss of his wife; Felix smolders in exile — but the images are indelible. A tiny fish slithers from Felix‘s mouth to Mrs. Eckstein in lieu of a kiss; anonymous black bodies fall on an empty plain only to melt into land formations; the pockets of Soho’s suit overflow with streams of blue water; rows of miners pound into walls of underground passages, shrouded in darkness. The images refer again and again to the cycles of history — the interplay between construction and destruction, hope and grief, amnesia and memory (“between paper shredders and photocopying machines,” as Kentridge has characterized the present-day condition in his country). Whether this history is personal or national comes to seem as irrelevant as the question of whether it is Soho or Felix who is to blame for all the trouble. In the face of all that‘s occurred in South Africa over the last century — read the time line in the back of the catalog for a historical precis more appalling than you probably remember — these sorts of easy divisions are impossible to sustain.

It’s disheartening, then, that the organizational forces behind the exhibition should find it necessary to inform viewers, via wall text, that, “though [Kentridge‘s] interdisciplinary art is rooted in South Africa . . . its power, poetry, and captivating fusion of form and content transcend his country’s history and culture to address broader concerns of the human condition.”

With all due respect to Kentridge‘s personal talent (which is great), the truth is not that his art “transcends” the political situation in order to address “the human condition,” but that the political situation is in itself an expression of that condition, for better or worse. Indeed, this inevitable conflation of the personal and the political is exactly what Kentridge captures so powerfully. So long as we continue to look at political problems — particularly those of other countries — as unpleasant quagmires for artists to mystically rise above rather than trudge through, wrestle with and help to explain (as Kentridge does), we miss half the point. I don’t think it‘s too much to ask the average museum-goer to stretch his brain around a little history. It certainly wasn’t too much for the one I talked to.

The work of Gustave Le Gray, who reached the height of his success in the 1850s but died in relative obscurity 30 years later, has seen something of a resurrection over the last two decades. The current Getty retrospective, organized by the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and accompanied by a fat, scholarly catalog, aims to carve out a place for Le Gray in the top echelon of 19th-century French photographers.

Truth be told, unless you are a scholar in this particular area, this is probably not the most exciting exhibition of photographs you will see this year. The marks of Le Gray‘s genius are largely technical — innovations in chemistry and printing that aren’t readily apparent to the contemporary eye — and his subjects (primarily landscapes and architectural views) are fairly stoic. What the pictures lack in flamboyance, however, they make up in nobility and grace. The compositions are careful but flawless, and the light that seeps through them, thanks to Le Gray‘s technical insight, is at times celestial.

Most spectacular are Le Gray’s seascapes, which he printed from two separate negatives in order to achieve a full range of tonal definition in both the sea and the sky (since exposing a single negative long enough to capture the details of one would always over- or underexpose the other). It is easy to see why these brought Le Gray such success at the time: The light is electric and charges the forms of clouds and waves with an eerie intensity.

Among a number of commissions Le Gray executed around Paris at roughly the same time, a hauntingly spare series documenting a military training camp established by Napoleon III is especially striking. In 1860, as a portrait studio he‘d opened a few years before was drifting toward bankruptcy (he was apparently not much of a businessman), Le Gray left Paris for Italy with the novelist Alexandre Dumas and made a fascinating series of photographs documenting the debris-strewn streets of Palermo just after Garibaldi’s liberation of Sicily from the Bourbons. These and subsequent pictures made in Egypt, where he spent the remaining 20-some years of his life, are filled with traces of ancient civilizations and resonate with elements of both awe and melancholy.

Whatever the real nature of Le Gray‘s self-imposed exile (the details, according to the catalog, are foggy), he would no doubt be pleased to find his vindication here, more than a century after his death.

William Kentridge and others will discuss his work on September 14 from 3 to 5 p.m. For info, call (323) 857-6512.


GUSTAVE LE GRAY | J. Paul Getty Museum | Through September 29

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