"Secular Attitudes," at the Los Angeles Institute for Contemporary Art through March 23, is all about politics and social action. The artists make few attempts to couch their messages in traditional art forms; they get the word out about their favorite causes in straightforward photographs, printed statements and documentation of public performances.
The result is a show that neither looks like conventional art nor evokes the passionate charge of events that moved the artists to involve themselves in political action or to make social criticism the central focus of their efforts. As is usual in exhibitions exploring this increasingly familiar genre, viewers often experience secondhand material from which they are expected to reconstruct the original project.
This rarely works very well, partly because the displays lack the visual or emotional resonance needed to hold attention and partly because they demand reading time and tenacity from a not necessarily sympathetic audience.
The current exercise at LAICA varies in its impact as you move from works by Fred Lonidier to those of Jenny Holzer and the Sisters of Survival (a women's performance art group whose members dress as nuns). Lonidier fills one room with photographs of San Diego union workers and printed snippets from interviews with them, organized under such headings as "Management," "Benefits" and "Race and Sex Issues." Their remarks are often telling, but the project comes off as one more dry accounting of a persistent area of controversy.
The Sisters of Survival have taken considerable trouble to enliven their documentation of public actions with visually stimulating objects. A photo blowup of a nun in a graveyard of white-shovel tombstones--on a wall behind two real shovel tombstones--recalls a 1982 performance in front of Los Angeles City Hall. The event, "Civil Defense: A Grave Mistake," was a reaction to a government official's absurd contention that all we need to survive a nuclear holocaust is enough shovels for everyone to dig a hole and crawl inside until the danger blows over.
A huge photo mural of a mushroom cloud is a call to action (complete with phone number for a recorded message) on behalf of women in international peace camps. Colorful square flags hanging from walls and the ceiling use simple symbols to plead for nuclear disarmament. The Sisters entice you into their spirited past actions but still substitute information for experience.
Holzer's part in the exhibition is most effective because it is at once the most direct and insidious. Instead of trying to re-create a situation, she infiltrates galleries of other artists' work with cast aluminum plaques bearing such messages as "Savor kindness because cruelty is always possible later." Her colorful bands of disturbing truisms flank doorways decoratively, but the very repetitiousness of, say, "Torture is barbaric" or "Thinking too much can only cause problems" has an abrasive effect. The statements are like the sharp ends of a barbed-wire fence; they blend into a pattern of printed words but scratch your consciousness if you venture near them.
Shows such as "Secular Attitudes" are inevitably perplexing because they lead to fundamental questions about the artists' intentions and the effectiveness of using galleries as a stage for political action. Artists involved with this contemporary version of art-about-life mean to reach a wider public than their earlier counterparts who incorporated social criticism in painting or sculpture. Their actual projects often do, but when accounts of them turn up in an art gallery, the work seems to sit on a fence between art and politics, its influence diluted by ambivalence.