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The Best Intentions Don't Mean Good Art

October 25, 1987|CATHY CURTIS

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And if good intentions were all that counted, every artist would strike gold. Los Angeles-based artist Nixson Borah--whose paper-based work from the past two decades makes up a retrospective exhibition at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton--is an artist who can't seem to keep himself from sliding into a sort of beach-town-art banality no matter how noble his aims.

Borah generally is at his best when he turns to themes absorbed on a trip to India and Indonesia. In a 1983 monotype, "R.E.M. Ramayana XIII," his distinctively wavy contours seem related to the complex shapes of Indonesian paper-cuts, and his free-floating sensual figures acquire a certain Hindu-tinged spice. An elephant perches on a man who blends with his sexual partner, an upside-down wiggly-shaped woman. A cross-legged figure rides on a bull poised on a camera. A camera? Well, maybe it represents the tourist presence or the simulated "rapid eye movement" of the camera (the "R.E.M." of the title).

Lacking such exotic themes, however, Borah's attempt at a delicate visual poetry seems destined to turn into leaden prose. If the 1968 date partially excuses the embarrassing, flower-power look of the "Adonis Suite" paintings, with their frolicking nudes, Art Nouveau-ish flowers and liberal use of purple, subsequent work does not inspire confidence.

Borah's mingling of ancient Greek and modern beach-town themes nearly always fails to stake out a fresh point of view. A large cast paper work from 1985, "Red Ladder Victor," for instance, presents a leafy-armed athlete in a sweatband (a modern laurel wreath, presumably) and jogging shoes who holds a mask between his upraised hands. Terribly obvious, it keeps no secrets and offers no nuances.

Alas, the drawings that don't lean on ancient imagery are little more than brightly colored renderings that would pass as competent illustration ("James as Subway Commuter") or passing entertainment for a boardwalk audience ("Stroboscopic Skater, Venice").

The three-dimensional pieces seem painfully destined to make grand statements that go unheard because the means don't jibe with the ends. "Canyons of Silence" of 1982--steel poles bearing a crutch hung with heavy cast-paper elements, stamped with abstract forms and slung with bicycle locks--suggests nothing in particular except (possibly) the desire to express something about physical or psychic injury.

In "Zen Sound" of 1981, Borah again fails to project a plausibly metaphoric tone. The piece offers only the literal, nonsensical aspect of the Zen koan, or nonsense question, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" without suggesting the contemplative state that the Zen student hopes to attain by pondering such imponderables. Plastic and metal elements seem jarring in a piece that should resonate with delicate sensory effect. Unfair as it is to contrast Borah with the high priests of contemporary art, it's hard not to wonder what Jasper Johns or John Cage would have done with such a theme.

Guest-curated by Edward Den Lau, with a catalogue essay by Michael Laurence, the 68-piece exhibit remains on view through Dec. 27.

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