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Art Review : Cityscapes On A Shaky Foundation

November 11, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

"Small Scale Sculptural Interpretations of the Urban Landscape--Los Angeles," at USC's Fisher Gallery (to Dec. 13), delivers a twisted message about architecture's imposing nature.

When it's crumbling in decay and its drained swimming pools are strewn with rubble, as in David Furman's miniature clay brick buildings, urban architecture seems nasty. Blown apart, collapsing or wavering on stilts, as in Cindy Iles' "Surburban Life" series of ceramic sculpture, an ominous wind blows through it.

Perched on impossible heights or rubber-banded to cliffs, in Rod Baer's towering sculpture, architecture is dumb little boxes that exude proprietary pretensions as they declare their residents' rights to privacy and exclusivity.

Suburban houses are the focus of bourgeois unrest--from divorce settlements to whirlwind escrows--to Gifford Myers, who plays out these dramas in awkward little clay dwellings rudely sliced out of their neighborhoods.

No bland survey of contemporary sculpture's architectural themes, this exhibition organized by Trevor Norris suggests that even Los Angeles' sweet and lovable varieties of urban architecture are awkward and fundamentally aggressive. Most of the art implies that buildings are human intrusions that rarely belong where we are inclined to put them.

Furthermore, the show seems to say, we don't have sense enough to leave bad enough alone. John Phelps and Louis George Patrou, who call themselves Architects From Mars, make compressed panoramas of the city in photographic tableaux as many-layered as puff pastry and as overripe as yesterday's garbage.

Peggy Schaps' abstractions constructed of cut-out swaths of city textures (tire tracks, street surfaces, manhole patterns) speak of collisions and interchanges. Steve Tannen spells out the same theme more obviously in painted wood constructions with clumps of buildings and freeways stacked up on whirling vortices.

To Michael C. McMillen, the side of an old wooden building is like a threadbare tapestry of ignoble human history. Mel Rubin makes a painted relief of a row of an ice shed and bus bench, presenting it like a snapshot of banality.

There's nothing in the exhibition catalogue to indicate that Norris intended to teach a lesson about architecture as a misfit. But all these uprooted buildings stranded in a gallery seem to intensify architecture's transitory aspects and portray it as hopelessly out of sync with nature.

The idea, however inadvertent, works to the benefit of the show. As the concept grows, it lends weight to some rather trivial art works. The whole, as they say, is greater than the sum of its parts simply because many of the pieces join a sort of collaborative chorus of moralists.

Those that don't sing along with the group set up a fairly compatible counterpoint. Eileen Senner's crusty, skeletal sculptures, for example, could have been dredged up from the sea as remnants of a civilization that finally succumbed to the superior forces of nature. Stephanie Chiacos' angular white buildings might have grown from the rocks of a modern Santorini among the Greek islands.

Rick Ripley's neutral industrial structures are rather like fortresses for America's work ethic. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, sees buildings as gathering spots for human aggression. His terra-cotta reliefs teem with blood-thirsty fight crowds at the Olympic Auditorium, dramatically pointing out the absence of people in all the other artworks.

Funny thing is, we hadn't missed them. Human presence is all too obvious in its misplaced monuments and disintegrating palaces.

Talks by some of the artists in the show will be given on Tuesdays at noon in the gallery as part of USC's new Tuesdays at Fisher program. Call (213) 743-2799 for information and reservations.

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