If ever a theme demanded an uncluttered, contemplative exhibition space, it is "The Spiritual Eye: Religious Imagery in Contemporary Los Angeles Art." What the show got is a busy lounge at the Loyola Law School. Art resides above sofas, clusters on columns and sometimes hangs so close to signs that you can't see the Pietas for the placards.
Don't get me wrong. I'm for Loyola's enlightened effort to make its campus a place of visual interest and cultural importance. I love the idea of a downtown college with the unorthodox good sense to hire Frank Gehry as its architect, enlist Ellie Blankfort's curatorial services, launch an art collection and encourage local talent through exhibitions and commissions.
Trouble is, the large room, called a gallery and used for temporary exhibitions, is not a gallery. Any art installed there will always be secondary to student activities. The art enhances the room, but the room doesn't enhance the art. In the case of the current "spiritual" exhibition--intended to do much more than decorate--the thematic intention hasn't a prayer of making a significant impact.
More's the pity, for a rigorous investigation of contemporary religious imagery and spiritual content is definitely in order. Now that sacred subjects have moved from taboo status to high fashion--and are probably already on the way out--we might profit from a serious examination of both the apparently quick shifts and continuous flow within that movement.
"The Spiritual Eye" doesn't provide that opportunity. Instead, it merely takes note of some of the ways Los Angeles artists have reworked traditional subject matter and expressed their spiritual longings. The show's overly broad focus encompasses the abstract and the specific, the vaguely mystical and the obviously Christian, the humorous and the sober.
The exhibition lends itself to accounting rather than analysis, but its strength is in individual artworks that convey something more authentic than affiliation with transient art movements.
Take Ruth Weisberg's oil-on-canvas lineup of children in front of the Danzig synagogue. This washy, unstretched painting has a spectral iridescence about it that suggests the fragility of human existence and revives terrifying memories of a culture threatened with extermination.
Another work that gets under the skin is Leo Robinson's pastel painting, "My Mother and Jesus' Mother." Here, a larger-than-life-size woman's face looks sharply over her shoulder at the audience while a little draped figure of Mary and her smaller shadow float in the background. The effect is not so much a comparison as a continuum that recedes into space and fades into history.
Paul Knotter's "Witch Doctor With Mask" is a wonderfully comical pairing of a hirsute, woven mask with a blurry photograph of someone wearing a similar face-covering. Neither object nor image is scary, yet each calls up the sense of strangeness and wonder most Anglos still feel when confronted with trappings of primitive cultures. Knotter seems to be questioning meanings as much as masks' transformations, but such conceptual matters seem less important than the art's curious visual impact.
Artists throughout history have grappled with ways to invoke spiritual power. The struggle goes on at Loyola in dozens of guises. Kent Twitchell confronts the problem directly through a mesmerizing image of Christ holding a Bible in a tiny Pointillist painting. Craig Antrim deftly compresses a strong spiritual pull in a red-and-white textured canvas called "Parsifal." That his configuration of an encircled cross with handprints in lower corners works so well is as much a matter of formal purity as of emotional complexity.
While Lita Albuquerque addresses cosmic questions in a long panel of copper circles hovering over blue fields of writing and Betye Saar builds a magical assemblage encased in a wood-framed window, most artists represented direct their energies to Christian iconography.
There are crucifixes aplenty, crosses plain and fancy, as well as a varied array of saints and clergy. But the most outrageous of the Christian-centered art is Bobby Ross' mad interpretation of electronic-age music and religion in an obsessively detailed painting called "Bach Had Many Kids." Christ appears as a computer image of flickering squares, while Bach's legacy explodes in electric cords, speakers, a tape recorder and unfurled rolls of music.
The exhibition continues through May 31, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.