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"Yellow Rose and Red Background", cibachrome photograph, 12 x 8", 1993.


by Nancy Kay Turner

(Newspace, Hollywood) Martha Alf's exhibit is billed as a "new comprehensive body of artworks comprising photography, painting and drawing. . ." Dating from 1993 to 1995, this body of work centers on her vibrant photographs, along with her pale non-objective color field oils.

Alf's reputation was established in the 1970's with luminous achromatic drawings of recognizable and unusual fruit and vegetables. She was like an alchemist, turning her laboriously crafted graphite drawings into something entirely unexpected--profound observations on human relationships. Sparse and elegant, these poignant works are still among her best, each seeming to be a vignette in a larger narrative tale.

These magical works are more than the sum of their parts--they enlarge our understanding of the fragility of human contact even as they mesmerize with their meditative structure. Alf's colored pencil and pastel drawings of fruit, on the other hand, rarely capture the mystery and drama of her black and white work. Here, bright, intensely hued still-life photographs of pears and flowers are hung alongside small, reductive, hard-edged pastel color field works. Like Joseph Albers and Ad Reinhardt, Alf explores color in a limited and repetitive format.

While one can strain to integrate the two bodies of work--they both emphasize horizontal and vertical bands of color, a narrow range of color, and they share a stiff, formal character of composition--it is their distinctiveness from one another that jumps out at you. In Yellow Rose with Red Background the artist situates an out-of-focus yellow rose in a thin vertical transparent vase against a luscious red background. The sharp focus on the stem makes the image look collaged. The gorgeous rose evokes little emotion, though it does look a tad wistful.

The color and composition of Lavender Flowers and White Rose are identical to Yellow Rose, the vase in each photograph strictly centered against a scarlet wall plane. These are cool (in spite of the hot red hue) formalist, utterly "still" lifes.

Though filled with stunning colors, Alf's work strays perilously close to commercial photography, making the transition from these glossy "blow-ups" to the quiet, contemplative oils diffcult if not impossible. Each small, square painting has the same three elements--a horizontal band near the bottom edge and a rectangular shape centrally located which is parallel to all four edges. It is from this series of fifteen paintings that the show draws its title, Closely Valued. Alf has always been masterful at discerning the nuances of values, especially in the unequalled black and white drawings, and it is no surprise to see her working with color in this way. However, the quirky, inventive use of subject matter is missing here. These works are self-assured but without the kind of personality we have come to expect.