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Art Review : A Show That Is Wired For Brightness

June 09, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

Fluorescent light tubes and wire. Time was when these were unorthodox art materials. Now they are so closely identified with artists of note--Dan Flavin and Alan Saret--that it's difficult to recall why these hardware-store commodities ever looked out of place in an art gallery.

Flavin's light installations and Saret's wire sculpture, in concurrent exhibitions at the Margo Leavin Gallery (through June 28), have become so familiar in high art places that they have acquired the dignity of modern masterworks. The latest installment in their careers, as seen in Los Angeles, brings no revelations--just assurances that, yes, indeed, these guys have something special.

With characteristic restraint and clarity, Flavin has transformed Leavin's larger gallery (at 817 N. Hilldale Ave.) with banks of pink and yellow fluorescent tubes. Eight-foot triangular fixtures, each holding four tubes, are variously positioned. They turn in on each other in one corner near the entry. Inside, they meet at right angles, extend into 16-foot lines or join back-to-back on the floor, forming a triangular ridge that juts out into a central walkway. A piece consisting of alternating circles and stripes of fluorescent light illuminates the small upstairs gallery.

Correctly lined up in sharp horizontal and vertical positions, these fixtures stand in corners, lie on the floor and float high on walls. Obviously keyed to the vast open room--and its dividing walls that stop short of the open-beam ceiling--the colored light subtly alters the space. As the two colors mix, softly reflect auras on white walls or cast shafts of light into space, they accent corners, subdivide planes and extend architectural lines with ethereal ones.

If this description makes you think of searchlights and grand openings of shopping centers, forget it. The effect is much more like that of a chapel: refined, quiet and meditative. As has often been noted, Flavin was a soprano in a church choir and an altar boy in his youth. He also studied in a seminary for five years before coming an artist. Though he has said that this background is incidental to his work with light, there's a pervasive clam and austerity to his art that seems an outgrowth of his religious training.

At this point in his career--about 25 years after he first exhibited "electric light icons"--Flavin seems a wise man of art's spiritual sphere. The most interesting aspect of his art is his ability to transform bald-faced hardware into a contemplative environment without hiding the fixtures or dressing them up with cosmetics. His is a straight shot and no matter how often we've seen it, it's still effective.

Saret is also a transformer of materials, but his best known medium is wire--of more descriptions than you've ever imagined. He uses coated magnet wire; wire that's round, flat or triangular; homemade stuff and the kind you find in trash bins. It comes in the usual metallics and with bright green or orange coatings. He twists and loops great hanks of wire as he fashions sculptural forms that range from weightless poofs suspended from ceilings to sedentary snarls of heavy-gauge material.

Though his gallery shows consist almost exclusively of wire sculpture, Saret is actually far more versatile than is usually known. Much of his work has mystical overtones, but he was trained as an architect and he has abiding interest in modular structure. In addition to his wire works he has built architectural installations and produced drawings ranging from fanciful figurative meanderings to computer printouts of diminishing squares.

At Leavin's smaller gallery (812 N. Robertson Blvd.), Saret appears in his familiar mode. He shows about a dozen wire sculptures and a batch of color pencil drawings that make masses of colored line look like buoyant clumps of life, bounding through space for the sheer love of it. As usual, his sculptures display a range of personalities--from those suggesting magical burning bushes to witches' wigs and spiders' hammocks.

During an interview at the gallery, Saret said that critics have tended to see "the loose ends" instead of the structure of his work. The frazzled aspect of his sculpture is what sets off the imagination, but the dishevelment is misleading. His wire work is often based on geometric volumes and constructed of what he calls "number stuffs"--hanks of two, three or four strands of wire that are quite methodically twisted and interwoven. His works are definitely handmade, so the sizes of their loops relate to the reach of outspread arms or the length from a wrist to an elbow.

What's fascinating about this seemingly sterile approach is that it yields art that looks so undisciplined. It's startling to learn that the emotional qualities usually ascribed to Saret's sculpture actually arise from a mathematical structure. Appearances are deceiving, but in art they lead to discovery.

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