A couple of weeks ago the whole town got shaken like a pack of hounds in the back of a pickup truck. The temblor was just one more reminder of what an exotic place this is, an unstable oasis imposed on a shifting desert, vast as an ocean, in thrall to primitive forces.
Those vibrations seeped into two exhibitions at the Long Beach Museum of Art to Nov. 1. A brace of solo shows for three lesser-known local artists was put together by senior curator Josine Ianco-Starrels. Video curator Jacqueline Kain surveys the work of independent veteran video maker Shirley Clark. The fact that all of the artists are women appears to be incidental. The aesthetic Richter scale registers no subterranean feminist subtext.
The shows are separate, but they lie along a common fault line (which is not to fault them). A Romantic Neo-Primitive impulse threads through beads of timeless intuitive brooding and the depopulated forms of modern art. At a glance, the gallery devoted to the sculpture of Sana Krusoe looks like a collection of elegant African artifacts made of shell and bone. "Breastplate and Shield" is like a chain-mail vestment of tubular beads flanked by black "shield" shapes that are, roughly, notched quarter circles. Nearby, float objects that look like polished antlers.
Actually, much of Krusoe's work is fashioned from manure-fired porcelain, a combination that conjures both archaic simplicity and refinement. Most pieces hang from transparent cord that gives them a magical, levitated look. The trouble is, there is no particular aesthetic sense to the suspension, so it feels vaguely artificial, like a window dresser's trick.
Krusoe's art is at once the most intriguing and the most problematical on view. Traditional, primitive forms threaten to suffocate growth in the work. One object, called "Moving Woman," looks like sections molded on a woman's breast. It drifts into the realm of the psychological with allusions to emotional protection, brittleness and vulnerability. (Well, OK, so there is a little feminist subtext.) The most promisingly open-ended work is "Breastplate, Kourous" a Brancusi-like relief that looks like it has somewhere to go.
Deanne Belinoff makes black abstract paintings of arches that will do for Byzantine niches or philosophers' caves. "Tehira" is typical, staring out of a square window onto a vague golden orb that could be the moon breaking up. This is the apocalypse viewed with a stoic calm that is not supposed to be typical of the Southland's legendary crackpot mysticism.
After decades of black-on-black paintings by Ad Reinhardt and cosmic brooding by Mark Rothko, Belinoff's work is not especially challenging and does not seem to intend to be. It is more concerned with being well made and surprisingly accessible to any thoughtful viewer. It's like a personal testament to the nobility of facing chaos with Platonic aplomb and Oriental detachment.
Pamela Holmes is more excited. The youngest of the trio, she makes wooden cutouts whose abstract shapes border closely on the tropical vegetation many of us see in our yards and patios. Spear-shaped leaves crackle, weird shell shapes are monster sea urchins. Everything is in blacks, earth tones and olives, so it is night. A shadow appears from behind the garage. Cat, or cat burglar?
There is too much formula Neo-Expressionism here and the work is so frazzled it doesn't seem to have any direction, but there is a nice mystery about it.
The museum is trying to integrate its video program with its gallery shows but an aesthetic fissure about a mile wide opens up when you sit down to view tapes by Shirley Clark. I looked at "Savage/Love." Oh, it has much of the Neo-Primitive ambiance of the tangible work but it's the New York variety, not L.A. It is set in a white stucco room populated by black musicians in mufti. They play exotic jazz while actor Joseph Chaikin declaims poetic-prose concocted, one gathers, by himself and playwright Sam Shepard. It's all about this guy falling in love and then out. Talk about vulnerable. He looks like a Caravaggio thug, but he's as tender as a lass on Communion day.
He's also very good, as is much of the text, at once funny and painfully revealing. The trouble is, the whole megillah is mired in every cliche that ever satirized '50s poetry-and-jazz readings in Greenwich Village. Chaikin must be a stage actor. He's just too intense for the little screen so he gets a little lugubrious. Clark's freeze-frames and animated cuts are sophomorically self-insistent. It's a pretty tape. Saturated romantic color. You want to like it. They want you to like it, but everybody is just trying too hard.