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THE ART GALLERIES

Santa Monica

July 18, 1986|COLIN GARDNER

In his first gallery show since the mid-1970s, William Tunberg makes a welcome reappearance with a series of exquisitely crafted wooden boxes/assemblages notable for their visual puns, black humor and ambiguous reverberation of meaning. At first glance the works appear to be glass-sided display cases containing found and made objects in idiosyncratic arrangements and juxtapositions: an example of neo-Dada stripped of its vitality by slick commerciality and a finish fetish bordering on the obsessive.

On closer examination, however, this benign presentation turns out to be a clever and deliberate disguise for the ominous contradictions manifested within. Surface becomes yet one more part of a tantalizing open text where metaphors and visual puns play literal and enigmatic games with each other, where language, object and representation are never what they seem and are rarely easy to decipher.

In this respect, Tunberg owes a strong debt to H. C. Westermann, an L.A.-born sculptor and individualistic practitioner of assemblage a la Cornell, Herms and Berman. Unlike his peers however, Westermann eschewed the aesthetics of junk art and combined sinister themes with high craftsmanship. Tunberg exploits this strategy as part of a larger political, religious and social commentary that is based largely on contrasting dualities that die and then reconstruct themselves in a never-ending cycle. For Tunberg, pleasure is inseparable from pain, religion and myth are inextricably linked with anger, fear and guilt, while passing time and changing contexts become catalysts for evolving ideologies and reactions.

None of which should be taken at face value. While much of Tunberg's symbolism seems to be obvious--Janus is a clear metaphor for the two-faced nature of every personality--his use of the Bible seems to reduce religious dogma to the arbitrary nature of the printed word. He also works in more subtle ways. The boxes contain no 90-degree angles, so that every context is slightly off-kilter, a hidden warning concerning the slippery nature of the contents within, as well as Tunberg's aesthetic. (Tortue Gallery, 2917 Santa Monica Blvd., to Aug. 23.)

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