Amy Adler, Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe

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L.A. based artist Amy Adler is known for large scale color photographs of her own drawings. Right now at the UCLA Hammer Museum there is an exhibition of her 6 large Cibachrome prints made last year, while living in London. She was able to arrange a private photo shoot with Leonardo diCaprio, who appeared, in the flesh, at her apartment. What's next? You will never guess. The resulting photo portraits were replicated by the artist, into a series of pastel drawings. Then, Amy Adler took a camera again and photographed these pastel drawings.

Next comes a conceptual gesture crying for attention: she destroyed the original negative along with the only set of photo portraits made from them. But that's not all. She also destroyed the pastel drawings that she made from the original photos. At the end, what is left are 6 large color photos, which are three degrees of separation from the original meeting with the superstar in her London flat.

It is difficult for me to be objective about Amy Adler's drawing skill, because of the absence of original drawings. But the many times magnified photographic version reveals the exceptionally banal nature of destroyed drawings. A museum brochure describes her drawings as labor intensive. I would say pedestrian. The same would apply to her final photographs. According to the museum information, Amy Adler's art deals with the role of mass media and celebrities in shaping our own sense of identity. A very tired excuse for all these artistic contortions.

Concurrently at the Hammer, there is another show that absolutely and effortlessly wins your heart and intoxicates your eyes. The black and white portrait photography of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe is a rare chance to encounter fresh, powerful and thought-provoking works of art. Both artists are from Mali in West Africa. The better known of the two, Seydou Keita, just died a month ago at the age of 79. And he is the real star of this exhibition.

Both artists have seemingly the same approach to satisfy their customers, who appear to wear their best costumes which become more and more westernized with the years passing by. The difference between the two artists is the different level of vitality captured by their cameras. Sidibe's portraits are respectful documents of a photo shoot, with people physically and emotionally receding into the space. Seydou Keita's portraits go the other way: people have a very strong physical presence, dominating the space to the point of almost breaking into the real gallery space. What also makes these portraits so exceptional is that one can imagine a story of these men, women, and children. Their emotional presence is so vivid, so palpable.

Clearly, the exhibition curator knows that one of the artists is better than the other. There are almost three times more images by Seydou Keita than by Malick Sidibe, and only Keita portraits are presented in exceptionally large format. But in the catalogue essays, the artistic inequality of the two artists is not discussed. It would be politically and artistically incorrect, I am afraid. But don't be fooled. Seydou Keita's art is magic, the rest is anything but.

UCLA Hammer Museum - official website