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Art Review : Illusion At Heart Of Exhibit

October 21, 1987|LEAH OLLMAN

LA JOLLA — Three new shows at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, though separate, prove to have some common conceptual underpinnings.

The museum's central show, "Faux Arts: Surface Illusions and Simulated Materials in Recent Art," focuses on contemporary art made with materials that appear to defy their natural weight, texture or age. Organized by senior curator Ronald J. Onorato, the show introduces several issues also relevant to the two smaller, one-person shows on view.

The title "Faux Arts" (meaning "false arts") makes punning reference to the tradition of illusory techniques taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (the Academy of Fine Arts) in Paris. Though the works in this show have other stories of their own to tell, as a group they exemplify the current interest in creating visual contradictions and conflations. Lynda Benglis' large metal knots, for instance, look as fluid as fabric; John Willenbecher's painted panels have the cold smoothness of stone, and Joe Guy's graphite on paper constructions appear as tough and impenetrable as steel.

Jasper Johns' 1958 "Light Bulb I" serves as the modern foundation for this practice of substituting one texture for another. Rendered in dull gray sculpted metal, the light bulb's familiar, functional identity shifts to one of decorative, artistic intent. In the transition, the object also shifts from the modest to the monumental, the real to the slightly surreal, the temporary to the permanent. Johns' work shows that illusory art has the potential to transform thoroughly, not just superficially, the subject portrayed.

An untitled 1984 work by Jill Giegerich is one of the liveliest recent examples of this transformative vision. Giegerich melds plywood, roofing tar, wax, ink and pencil into a cubistic vision of fractured planes that calls more attention to the perception and representation of depth than to the ostensible subject of the work, a geometric cone form.

Works by Howard Ben Tre, Robert Glen Ginder, Jay Johnson and Bryan Hunt also excel in evoking dialogues between surface and substance. Considering the show's concentration on this dialogue, however, a surprising number of works fail to provide visual interest sufficient to spark such extended consideration.

A show based on the theme of illusion could easily reach back through the centuries to early, even ancient, examples of illusory practices. Onorato refers to these precedents but homes in on the current generation's distinctly post-modern approach to illusion, its self-conscious use of illusory techniques to comment on the very process of creating illusion and art.

This practice of simultaneous employment and examination of a technique is also evident in the solo shows of Thomas Lawson and Al Souza. Both use images and signs imbued with meaning in our culture, while forcing a break between these established meanings and their current context.

Their use of recognizable signs--from stars and stripes to cartoon imagery--as a means of expression relates to a syndrome described by Onorato in the "Faux Arts" catalogue: "All the faux arts are clustered around the implication of absence. This cultural tristesse , this loss, this inability to experience reality acutely pervades our culture."

Instead, reality is known through its signs and surfaces. Lawson and Souza use images from this outer layer of reality to examine how meaning is conveyed through them.

Lawson, a Scottish-born artist and critic, presents paintings, altered photographs and an installation that all feebly attack the sanctity of institutions and artistic creations by revising the context in which their emblems or signs are understood.

His most successfully biting work, "Home of the Brave" (1985), portrays in the vaguest of tones the facade of the Whitney Museum of American Art behind a layer of stars and stripes that recall Johns' flag paintings. Lawson's painting mocks the institution as well as the works within, by cynically associating both with an inflated, patriotic grandeur. Ultimately, though, most of his works function only as glib, art world in jokes.

Souza, a Dallas-based painter, is also infatuated with the signs that make up the languages of information and entertainment, but he uses this vocabulary toward a much more intriguing and personalized end than Lawson. Souza combines extracts from comic books, textbooks, advertisements and illustrations in multilayered explorations of particular themes.

"Arc de Triomphe" (1987), for instance, merges an image of a rocking chair, a branch curved to fashion an animal trap, and an outdated illustration of a father and son golfing. All of these variations on the theme of the perfect curve are rendered in simple lines or flat tones and overlaid in a web of intertwining planes.

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