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November 20, 1987|Leah Ollman

SAN DIEGO — Group shows of relatively unknown artists often evoke a sense of deja vu , a vague familiarity with their derivative forms and techniques.

The San Diego Museum of Art's Artists Guild Annual Juried Exhibition (through Dec. 13) subscribes, in part, to this phenomenon by including objects heavily in debt to such widely known artists as Joseph Cornell and Tony Berlant.

Most artists in this and similar shows suffer the syndrome of having technical competency that far surpasses their conceptual ingenuity. Sincerity abounds, but content tends to be shallow.

It is to the credit of the local artistic community (as well as to this year's juror, artist Russell Forester) that the current show does challenge this phenomenon in more than a few instances. Many of the 45 artists represented have attained individual voices manifesting individual visions.

Ellen Phillips' "Passage No.5," one of two award winners, is one of the most provocative works in the show. Atop a small platform of barbed wire, Phillips has set a tunnel fragment constructed of metal sheeting and mesh. Within, wires and cellophane strips dangle and dance around a tilted chair, emblem of the emotional imbalance that accompanies tumultuous passages.

Vivien Leigh Vaughan's "Journey Through the Place of Thorns" also grapples with the concept of transition, with elegance and a touch of dry humor. Here, passage is symbolized by a miniature ladder that seems to float fluidly through a thick bed of cactus spines. Vaughan's sense of materials is solid, her use of them delicate and effective.

Other highlights of the show include Genie Shenk's "1001 Nights Dreampiece," a large diaristic assemblage composed of small daily installments woven together in grid fashion; Darcy Abraham's clever mixed-media work, "Intrusion and Disclaimer," and Holly Weston's intimate, expressive landscape painting, "A Call Away." Angela Kosta's "Artful Stool," a witty consolidation of the image of the artist's studio, received the other award.

"Art of San Diego," at U.S. International University's Walter Library (10455 Pomerado Road), also focuses on local artistic activity, this time of the collecting variety. The show, organized by USIU art exhibitions director Antony di Gesu, presents a sampling of works donated to the City of San Diego and ordinarily hung in office buildings or kept in storage.

The work, ranging from an art reproduction poster to an early 20th-Century series of monumental paintings on the theme of labor, forms an amorphous group, with only a small fraction of the 61 objects exhibited (culled from more than 400) possessing any substantive artistic merit. But even this mediocre melange could have been transformed into an informative historical presentation, with a bit of effort and research. No such effort was made, however, and as it stands, the show is little more than a wasted opportunity.

Wall labels bear only the names of the artists and the works, omitting such fundamental data as dates and media used, much less any comments on the artists' careers or the manner in which the work entered the city collection.

Several pieces by Mildred Bryant Brooks, C.A. Fries and Milfred Zornes, made as part of the Depression-era Public Works of Art Project (and identified as such on their frames) are rich with historical content. But this exhibit, ironically situated in a university library, blatantly ignores the works' potential to inform and enlighten.

The show, presented in cooperation with the Public Arts Advisory Board, continues through Jan. 12.

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