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Art Review : Big Range Of Styles, Not Talent

October 16, 1987|CATHY CURTIS

Trends in art come and trends in art go, but one thing that never changes is the difficulty of getting work accepted by prestigious galleries--or even any galleries at all. That's where such shows as "Variations III," on view at the Fine Arts Gallery at UC Irvine through Nov. 7, continue to fill a need.

The third in a series of exhibitions sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Fellows of Contemporary Art to expose newer artists to a larger public, this installment offers work in a rather bewildering range of styles and media by 13 artists.

Bewildering, but not necessarily bewitching. Gallery director Melinda Wortz checked out 85 Los Angeles-area artists' studios before making her choices, but they don't seem destined to send viewers into raptures over "undiscovered" talent. Some of the work, which was on view at Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in May, is either disconcertingly bland or ploughed under by fancy theories and a tendency to invest work with meanings so private they've become invisible.

With a five-part installation of large textured relief and three-dimensional shapes made of black-painted paper pulp, Ihnsoon Nan appears to be trying for a powerful, primitivistic aura. It doesn't quite come off. The addition of thick, red-tinted rope, skewers made of two-by-fours, fragments of weathered wood and road-map-like markings adds a self-consciously arty veneer, rather than the stark, elemental values the artist seemingly wished to evoke.

Rena Small's 21 Polaroid photographs of herself wearing the flags of different countries--and gesturing (according to her statement) in ways that supposedly subtly evoke the "personality" of each nation--falls flat because her symbolism seems locked up inside her mind, inaccessible to the rest of the world.

Granted that, as Small says, flags have "all the complexity and simplicity of minimalist or color-field paintings." And, sure, maybe owning a wardrobe of flags is equivalent to possessing "a personal wardrobe of (political) thought." But the only images that came to this viewer's mind when looking at the artist's dead-serious face and strained postures were musty photographs of semaphore code in an old Book of Knowledge.

Yet several pieces in the show--by Deborah Small, Ed Nunnery, Tom Knechtel and the video team of Hildegarde Duane and David Lamelas--do work, thanks to a convergence of style, means and point of view.

Deborah Small's installation, "Crocodiles Without Tears," packages truths about civilization versus savagery in a deceptively cute guise. Arrayed on a long sweep of gallery wall, images of Babar the Elephant in evening dress, children's alphabet blocks, perky three-dimensional bird silhouettes and brightly colored two-dimensional elements suggest smart design components for a youngster's bedroom.

But the blown-up print of a Victorian great white hunter, the field glasses and the dismembered toy birds and even Babar himself (who, as Wortz reminds us, was anthropomorphized by his creator into a French monarchal type) point up Small's heavily ironic view of colonialism.

The artist also uses simple words and brief sentences in deadly ways. In one printed passage, she throws barbs at tidily racist thoughts: "They don't use napkins. They forget to ask permission. They don't bathe in tubs. They don't say grace. . . . They don't believe in private property. They give away their things."

Ed Nunnery evokes happy memories of the ingeniousness of American primitive art in his cardboard sculpture, "Man and Dog," with its 14-foot-tall Lincolnesque figure and stylized mutt.

Nunnery's paintings, on the other hand, are swirling neoexpressionist scenes of possible contemporary apocalypses involving sharks, robots, televisions, crumbling cities and a pervasive figure that looks like a cross between Abe Lincoln and cartoonist R. Crumb's Mr. Natural. There's a lot of energy here, but it tends to wallow in the self-reflexive pop universe of the TV generation.

Tom Knechtel's pristine, enigmatic little story panels are appealing primarily because of his immense control over the watercolor and gouache media. Although he sometimes veers dangerously close to a greeting-card sweetness, the best of his images preserves a sense of wonder and paradox rare in this cynical age.

Duane and Lamelas' funny video parody of Marcos family as "designer dictators" drops in on the couple at three moments of their notoriety. They smile and pontificate at the beginning of their reign in the '50s, grab and run after Aquino's victory in '86 and hole up in relative splendor in the '90, during a nuclear winter. Relying on camera techniques borrowed from TV sitcoms and a keen but not overblown sense of parody that Duane, as Imelda, carries off with the most aplomb, the duo only occasionally stoop to sophomoric overkill.

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