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AN ART OUTING FOR THE BAH-HUMBUG SET : The results are so engaging that the visiting critic feels like a rat and a Scrooge if he's inclined to utter a discouraging word.

December 17, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

The smartest holiday tradition in this man's town is the Municipal Art Gallery's annual "Magical Mystery Tour" exhibition. For a decade it has managed to twinkle the blinkers of kids while providing something subliminally serious for the humbug set who secretly wish the holidays would either vanish or not arrive in the first place.

The general image lurking behind this exhibition is that of professional artists of the under-recognized kind setting their imaginations roaming over the notion of the old-fashioned department-store vitrine--with its motorized dancing elves, electric trains and plastic snowflakes--to see how that spirit might cheer up the stultifying art-world conception of the "site-specific installation."

Usually the results are so engaging that the visiting critic feels like a rat and a Scrooge if he's inclined to utter a discouraging word. In a way it's a trap: Knock this show and you offend against the spirit of yuletide.

Well, as usual, there is little to grump of here other than a general observation that for real artistic rigor, almost everything would profit from some clarifying pruning. Karyl Sisson, for example, has made a convincing-looking desert copse out of clumps of clothespins and other stuff. The perceptual flip-flop between the natural and the artificial is magical, but on close approach the details smell too much of a notions counter.

That's not the point. It's closer to Nancy Mooslin's forest of Jabberwocky flora. One may approach these stalking on stocking feet along soft mats prepared for the purpose. They have been wired for electronic sound and it doesn't take long to realize that their wanks, eeks and screeps change depending on where you tread. Even staid persons soon find themselves doing little jigs if they have any rhythm at all.

This puts us in a good mood for wonders as variegated as a black-light environment by Neal Taylor or an entire room made out of colored lint by Slater Baron. The one is like walking into a San Francisco poster of the '60s, the other a meander into somebody else's no-date-Saturday daydream, woozy, sweet and sad.

Hold it. There is something a tad different about this year's "Magical Mystery Tour." It feels more than usually like a regular art exhibition with a theme separate from holiday ho-ho. Most works are about primal landscapes or living environments situated somewhere in the Wild West L.A. imagination. Blaine Mitchell's goony Day-Glo jungle could be the yard outside Taylor's punk pad off Melrose.

Gilbert Lujan's corral of stylish desert doggies is a kid loser's fantasy of freedom. Ihnsoon Nam's cave full of huge hanging lumpen tablets is like the beginnings of religion in the outback. Susan Wilder's overdramatized drawings echo the theme.

Katherine White's desert is populated with extraterrestrials and mutants and feels a little too much like a special-effects set. Connie Ransom's tableau is a rock garden fantasy wafting with visionary space travel but it's not clear where we are, even in fantasy.

No such problem with Rod Baer's "Eyes of the Hurricane, Visions of the Flatland," a work as unsettling and smoothly produced as an old Eagles album. In the center, eroded metal chair skeletons levitate crazily, while off to the side stands a painter's easel and gear. The whole poses for a camera on a tripod but everything is abandoned and rusting.

Despite a marked debt to Roland Reiss, this mise en scene is direct and expressive. The artist--representing the sensitive souls of the world--has retreated to the nether end of both geographical and psychical precincts, but even there he can't escape the apocalyptic vortex.

There is an edge to the show that wavers between tingling fun and genuine oddness. Nancy Webber's photographs are an exception in both substance and theme. For several years she has made considerable hay out of what appears a simple trick. She finds people who look like personages depicted in classic paintings, dresses them up to heighten the effect, snaps the shutter and presents the results side by side with a reproduction of the famous painting.

The results get ever slicker and her casting ever sharper. This batch's look-alikes for self-portraits of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are amazing. But the novelty has worn off. Works that aren't right on look like Pageant of the Masters tableaux and everything naturally suffers by contrast to the originals. At a very minimum, it is probably time to get subtle and remove the reproductions.

There you go again, Ebenezer, grousing over the Christmas goose, goosing over the yuletide grouse.

The festivities continue to Jan. 11.

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