Critics’ Picks

Rena Small, Larry Bell, 2011, silver gelatin print, 20 x 16".

Rena Small, Larry Bell, 2011, silver gelatin print, 20 x 16".

Los Angeles

Rena Small

Angles Gallery
2754 S. La Cienega Blvd.
March 1–April 12, 2014

The word handmade unravels in the near-impossible task of identifying a divide between tools and technology; what makes a clay pot handmade and a photograph something else, if a human hand is at the helm of both? The word organic is often used, rather less problematically, to describe artworks that could also qualify for that amorphous “handmade” descriptor, and so it is an elegant twist that Rena Small’s longtime project in photography—the medium whose emergence helped give rise, by way of contrast, to “handmade” as a signifier in art—is infused with a sense of organic process. On view in full for the first time, “The Artists’ Hands Continuum,” for which Small has been photographing the hands of colleagues and contemporaries since 1984, includes 248 twenty-by-sixteen-inch silver gelatin photographs, framed and arranged in grids, spanning four gallery walls. The size remains constant, and the conceptual framework determines the content, but the project also embraces the unpredictable exchange that underlies portraiture, resulting in a body of work in which rules are made and broken—a body of work that points equally to a state of uniformity and to the shifts inherent in any artistic process. A face appears along with the hands now and then, such as in Jules Engel, 2002, and pops of painted-in color defy the black-and-white format: bright butterflies in the hands of Roget Camp, and yellow fingernails in Veronica Syrop, & Dad, Mitchell Syrop, 2011.

The subjects’ individuality shines through in their unique characteristics and adornments (Carole Caroompas’s tattooed arms, Zandra Rhodes’s massive rings) and tools of the trade (Tony Berlant with his scissors, Karen Carson at work with a paintbrush), while luminaries crop up sporadically and unceremoniously—Andy Warhol signs a Brillo Box, William Wegman pets his dogs, and Nam June Paik sports a pocket pen. And yet the similarities among so many of the images are also striking—predominantly pale-skinned hands (reflecting thirty years of an art world in need of diversity), interlaced or outstretched, on a black ground. For the most part, however, a wide array of detail abounds; it’s as if, surrounded by this sea of hands, the viewer is variously—and all at once—held, cajoled, invited, reprimanded, greeted, and otherwise engaged by various iterations of human interaction.