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Art Review : A Sizable Minority Breaks Out

April 01, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

A decade ago the air was thick with protest over minority artists not getting an even break. Since art is discriminatory by nature, it was hard to see how things could get better for racial or sexual groups through any sort of social mandate.

All the same something heartening has been happening. Today, at least one sizable minority has attained such comfortable authority that when their art is shown, the qualities and characteristics of the work register long before we take note of the fact it was made by people recently regarded as disenchfranchised.

Three simultaneous exhibitions at Cal State Long Beach provide an excellent case in point. At least one reviewer had driven half way back to the city before thinking, "Hey, all those artists are women."

There is no feminist bunting on the shows; just art made more or less resourcefully and presented in the gallery directed by Connie Glenn in an ongoing series called "Centric."

Not concentric or eccentric, just centric. Not "women artists" just "artists"--the way it ought to be.

The most accomplished of them is certainly Susan Rothenberg, a person more justly noted as a leading Neo-Expressionist than anything else. The present offering is more typical than exemplary in 20 smudgy charcoal drawings, agitated paintings on paper and graphics. Technical excellence that often makes prints overly rich in physical presence here is happily made handmaiden to feeling.

By now Rothenberg is familiar as one of the only Neo-Expressionists who expresses anything. Her strange spectral horses gallop disembodied on air, now pale as fear, now black as terror. These are horses painted on the cave walls of the mind. To paleolithic man, they probably symbolized power and sustenance. Now they whistle the fear of losing control and being trampled by stampeded emotions.

Rothenberg says little that wasn't articulated in Edvard Munch's "The Scream" at the turn of the century, but she is no mere revivalist. It is a case of affinity. Her satanic figures, traumatized trees and cowering monkeys tap the same primal sources as, say, a Salish Indian grave post. But she shows us that "civilized" people are vulnerable and unprotected in the face of forces that seem supernatural. Strokes of paint fly off the edges of her silhouettes as if they were literally disintegrating.

The mantle of Neo-Expressionism enfolds so many artists for so many reasons that the term threatens to become meaningless. Here it applys to Stephanie Weber's work as well as Rothenberg's but what a difference in tone and effect. Weber is also a New Yorker, also working on paper, but there the comparison ends. Weber does big, effusive scribbly compositions aswim with shapes--sperm, starfish and suchlike.

They say Weber is inspired by experiences as a skin-diver, but the work is more concerned with art than life. Basically, it takes the amorphous shapes of, say Kandinsky and Miro, and welds them to realistic space from the world of Arshile Gorky. Despite much chopping the air with the hands the work has a comfortable kitchen-sink feeling with its wallpaper patterns and cozy corners. It takes the magic out of sea life as if anemones and starfish had been tossed up on the counter while we have a nice coffee klatch gossip. The subject is sex and classic modern art at which gentle fun is poked.

Finally, there is one of those environmental installations by the persistent L.A. artist Rita Yokoi. This opus is titled "In Search of Your Soul" and is about as wrong-headed as it sincere.

Dark room. In the gloom stands a canoe pointed in the general direction of a pile of sand topped by a palmy plant and a rock. Betcha that symbolizes an Island. In the background plays music that is a blend of jungle noises, gongs and drums. It is not quite as kitsch-exotic as Martin Denny's "Quiet Village" but it is close. Kaw! Plink! JINGLEjingle jingle. . . .

Right. Gauguin filtered through "The Moon and Sixpence" on his way to Jon Hall and Maria Montez in "Typhoon." The closest thing to a fresh insight is provided by the presence of seven big slightly rough orbs that are a Yokoi trademark. They suggest lunar dreams and other galaxies. They probably do not intend their evocation of large bubbles of toxic waste but it is inevitable in the present climate.

The Rothenberg and Weber exhibitions continue to April 21. Yokoi closes April 14.

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