SAN DIEGO — "Sometimes I think they have better shows here than in the other museums," an enthusiastic visitor said loudly enough for others at UC San Diego's Mandeville Gallery to hear.
They may not be the most prestigious shows. They may be uneven, as this one is. But they are fresh and provocative. They renew your interest in what's going on in contemporary art, and you leave them with a few images registered in your memory.
The new show is the fourth of a continuing series begun in 1982 and devoted to emerging artists; hence, the title "Young American Artists IV." The university supports the exhibition with money, but not sufficiently to allow publication of a catalogue. A modest brochure is the only documentation.
Director Gerry McAllister, who discovers new talent at the winter meetings of the College Art Assn., explained: "Well, it's our business to seek out young artists and research what's happening."
The five artists with works in the exhibition represent five different approaches to the human condition. All use abstraction to some degree, not as an end in itself but rather as a means to accentuate their works' humanistic content.
The first works a visitor sees are the knockout paintings by David Klamen. They are beautifully composed, immaculately painted surreal visions. We can identify the parts: a dog's head, a picket fence, a quadripartite house (steaming in one case), a woman's legs.
There's a theme here. Perhaps it's the same alienation so effectively conveyed by artist Edward Hopper in his mood-filled representational paintings of an earlier era. But it doesn't really matter that you find your own rather than the artist's meaning in a work of art. At some point the interpretations converge and relate.
One of Klamen's most powerful images is an imprisoned Nazi officer weeping as a reptilian creature gnaws at a booted toe. Weird! And the artist, who recently received a master of fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is only 25. He may have a brilliant future.
Sculptor Rod Baer, who for a dozen years lived in San Diego, is also concerned with communication and its failure, or alienation. He represents this theme in a small wall piece, "Table for Two," composed of two four-inch carved chairs at either end of a five-foot-long table. He repeats it in a grander scale in " . . . Pardon?" composed of a platform supporting four parallel pairs of 2-by-4s, perhaps 12 feet tall, topped by miniature carved chairs. Some face each other, others face away. Two human-size chairs face each other in ambiguous communion.
Baer's hacked surfaces complement his theme. While visually seductive, they are tactilely off-putting.
Alienation seems to be the fad these days. It appears again in the paintings and drawings of San Francisco Bay Area artist Squeak Carnwath. In all the works on view, a woman engages in a solitary activity. In "Companion," a work of great beauty and pathos, an alert dog sitting by a slumping woman balances the composition and counterbalances the mood of dejection. Carnwath's drawings have an authority that seems to dissipate into Joan Brown-like mannerisms when she paints.
Marin County artist James Patrick Finnegan is playful rather than dolorous. Some years ago he made beautifully crafted structures in a Pop vein epitomizing such cliches as McDonald's. They were fresh and very funny.
Finnegan's new painted aluminum sculptures present distorted multiple views of human figures; for example, a seductive, bare-breasted woman in black stockings and high heels. The work, in all candor, looks like a reversion to early 1960s Bay Area imagery, and not of the strongest. Perhaps that's the point, that it's a parody this time around.
Alison Saar, now of New York, though formerly of Los Angeles, is a master at making small, wall-oriented sculptures that resemble the works of a brilliant and sophisticated "naive" artist. A piece like "Jesse Owens, 1936," with a small figure of the great black American Olympic champion attached to the front of an old-fashioned plow, evinces an authority that we usually associate with monumental works. Saar's painting "Vertical Man," in contrast, is flaccid despite its large scale.
The exhibition continues through March 2.