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Art review: Michal Chelbin at M+B

November 4, 2010 |  6:10 pm

Chelbin-Ilya,-Ukraine-2006

Israeli artist Michal Chelbin’s photographs of young Ukrainian and Russian wrestlers at M+B are both beautiful and unsettling. Shot in a straightforward manner, the lushly colored images belong to a tradition of unblinking portraiture that descends from Diane Arbus to Catherine Opie and Sharon Lockhart. Standing in front of decaying walls of various hues, the young people — some just children, really — are caught in the moment after their exertions in the ring. They are glassy-eyed, sweaty and in some cases bruised and bleeding. Some have bodies that are preternaturally mature, giving the images an uncomfortable beefcake tinge. For example, the topless young man in “Ilya, Ukraine” has such a well-defined, muscular torso that his youthful, slack-jawed face looks almost as if it were digitally grafted onto a photo of a man. 

This erotic charge — and its potentially illicit nature — is part of what makes the images compelling. They capture the awkward in-between quality of adolescence with uncanny precision, confronting viewers with maturing bodies and asking them to decide how to relate to them. For a moment, we experience something like the uncertainty that routinely frustrates teens: Are they children or adults? 

Chelbin-Black-Eye,-Ukraine-2006 Tellingly, the two most brutal images are those of the youngest boys. One, who looks little more than 6 years old, has a black eye. The other, perhaps slightly older, turns away from the camera with blood smeared on his cheek. In such images, the intense training required of professional sport (in a formerly Communist country, no less) becomes something of a microcosm of the blows, both physical and psychic, sustained in the process of growing up. 

-- Sharon Mizota

M+B, 612 N. Almont Drive, Los Angeles, (310) 550-0050, through Dec. 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.mbart.com

Images: "Ilya, Ukraine" (top) and "Black Eye, Ukraine." Credit: M+B Gallery

 

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