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'Disarming Images' Puts Nuclear Age On Trial

March 08, 1986|CHALON SMITH

I can light a sun in your backyard as you can light a sun in mine. But I will never do it to you even under any provocation for any reason. --Helen and Newton Harrison's inscription on their painted photograph of an atomic explosion.

The Harrisons' tender, almost childlike plea for nuclear restraint illuminates what's at the heart of "Disarming Images: Art for Nuclear Disarmament," an exhibit that opened Thursday and runs through April 5 at the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery.

The Del Mar couple and 44 other artists have provided nearly 50 pieces, most revolving around one unthinkable theme: global nuclear holocaust.

The exhibit has attracted some of the stars of the international art community for what amounts to a protest against hostility between the superpowers that risks war. This anti-nuke lineup boasts Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Longo, Claes Oldenburg, Red Grooms, Joan Brown, Keith Haring and John Baldessari, to name a few.

"I think it represents a remarkable grouping of some of the most influential artists around," said exhibit spokeswoman Phyllis Lutjeans. "You've got people with tremendous talent focusing on the most dramatic fear of our lives. It makes for an important show."

To spread the disarmament message, the exhibit has toured the country since early 1984, when it was organized in New York by curator Nina Felshin for Bread and Roses, the cultural project of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. The exhibit debuted in Cincinnati, Ohio, then moved on to New York, Washington, West Virginia, Nevada and Santa Barbara and San Diego.

The works--including paintings, sculpture, collages, drawings and photography--vary widely in style. Many of the images are unflinchingly serious and direct, while others are tempered by gallows humor. Grooms' "Nuclear Nuts," for example, is a wooden sculpture of President Reagan and former Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov atop a missile and stuck in a giddy, never-let-go handshake.

Most focus on nuclear war, but several also investigate the threat of misused nuclear power and hazardous wastes. What they all share is the message that our world may be more dangerous than we realize.

"There is a great variety of aesthetic statements in this show, all representing the huge sense of horror that comes from the idea of war," gallery director Melinda Wortz said. "By necessity, most of it has a political quality, which is good. This type of protest has a real effect on the psyche, an immediacy that's probably strongly felt (by viewers)."

That accessibility is just what Helen Harrison is hoping for. Characterizing herself as a political artist "more interested in issues and ideas than (political) parties," Harrison believes that the show has an opportunity to impress people who don't usually consider such issues as disarmament or toxic wastes.

The exhibit is not too preachy, although its perspective is unmistakable, she said.

"You can see these pieces, and you can say either 'no' or 'yes' to what's being provided," Harrison said. "We're offering some options. What I want it to accomplish is simply getting people to think."

Baldessari, who submitted the abstract photograph "Lizards to Pianist," agreed that it is up to the viewer to decide. All the artist can do is trigger the emotion and let that direct the insight, he said from his Santa Monica studio.

"I don't consider myself a political artist, but I do have something to say about what's inside. I want my work to go right to the emotions," Baldessari said. "I have my own opinions about how this country should react to certain concerns, and I can communicate them. But in the end, everyone has to figure out his own way."

It was a fortunate coincidence, organizers say, that the exhibit opened just a few days after the Great Peace March across America got under way last weekend. Wortz and Lutjeans believe that there's a "nice symmetry" in associating "Disarming Images" with this demonstration for global nuclear disarmament, which involves about 1,400 marchers who plan to trek 3,235 miles (from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.).

The media's coverage of the event, and the public's perception of its goals, may add momentum to the exhibit at UCI and help generate a steady crowd, Lutjeans said.

Wortz added that the time may be right for such an exhibit at UCI. Students and faculty seem less apathetic than in previous years, she said.

"I like what I'm seeing here; I think this (the show) is very welcome," she said. "We hope it has some impact on the local community."

If impact can be equated with drama, the exhibit is likely to be influential. When "Disarming Images" was in Santa Barbara last July, Times art critic Suzanne Muchnic described it this way:

" . . . Odors of a civilization simmering dry or going up in smoke seep through (the art). . . . The scents would putrefy into an unbearable stench if the art were less interesting as art and if the exhibition were not fired by the force of strong individuals, temporarily united.

"They preach to the converted, but their delivery is convincingly impassioned."

The gallery, near UCI's parking lot 11, is open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.

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