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Art Review : 'Social Distortion' Exhibition

July 11, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

One section in the exhibition "Social Distortion" is clearly not for children. The rest is clearly not for grown-ups. This appropriately limits the show's audience to stereotypic adolescents traditionally obsessed with justice, sex, violence, rebellion, conformity and virtuosity.

The show, at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (to July 26), includes the slick spawn of six image-makers better known as illustrators than fine artists. Not Norman Rockwell-style makers of Post covers; more like the wacko adepts of Underground Comix or acid-rock record jackets. Everybody is out to provoke paroxysms of righteous indignation, pander to our lustful appetites, tweak the old moral conscience and inspire a standing ovation. In short, like all good illustrators, these folks are out to deliver a little harmless entertainment.

Georganne Deen and Greg Metz collaborated to produce "Dr. Caligari's Ark," a sculpture the size and general style of a Mardi Gras float. With "SS Vivisector" stenciled on its prow, the sculpture is a Noah's Ark loaded with cartoony animals undergoing perfectly ghastly torture in the name of scientific research. It is so awful that one is momentarily converted to the notion that we must never give another rat another shot in the name of such an insignificant goal as curing cancer. When the grotesque exaggeration of this nightmare menagerie gets to you, the whole aesthetic argument seems hysterical and flaky. One dismisses the matter in good conscience.

Illustration is the musical comedy of the art world.

An exquisite X-rated draftsman called Tom of Finland produces serial drawings presenting homosexual sadomasochism and rape as healthy fun and tres, tres macho. Robert Williams revives the battle of the sexes in lightning-field compositions that look mildly hip. In fact, this is iconoclasm of the conventional kind. Men are sex-obsessed brutes fueled by self-loathing and women are magnetic harpies angling for blood money. Just a country-and-Western tune played on a synthesizer.

Raymond Pettibone's drawings are too scattered to create much besides an aura of religious paranoia. Jim Shaw, like everybody else, draws like 60. He applies his skills to portraits of famous people, distorted as in a fun-house mirror. There is mild expressionistic content here but they are still the Sardis-style celebrity caricatures they pretend to send up. In fact they feel like mechanical tricks and lack the insight of good caricature.

The exhibition--put together by artists Mike Kelley and Cam Slocum--offers grounds for offense that have nothing to do with its callow, intentional needling. The work deals carelessly with serious stuff. It makes the profound and the lethal appear commonplace and acceptable. That, of course, is the very soul of the humor and satire that we enjoy every day. In a gallery that pretends to seriousness, however, our deeper minds snap on and we realize that this work has been done a disservice. The superficiality that is its lifeblood is made to appear fatuous and cynical. The gallery is trapped somewhere between carelessness and exploitation.

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