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ART REVIEW : 'Morality Tales' Offers Bent History in Laguna Beach

November 27, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

There is plenty to shriek about down Laguna Beach way these days if one is inclined to hysteria. The howler is an exhibition titled "Morality Tales: History Painting in the 1980s," a traveling baker's dozen of oversize paintings visiting the Laguna Beach Museum of Art to Dec. 27. Wails are likely to emit from a coalition as odd as the Moral Majority allied with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Bluenoses can get into a lather over Eric Fischl's "First Sex" which shows a beach party where a young nude boy looms over the form of an attractive and equally nude lady old enough to be his mama while even younger kids lounge nearby. Or they can rocket into a Vesuvian snit over "This Little Boy" by Attila Richard Lucas. It depicts an exotic homosexual seraglio where monkeys lounge near tiled fountains while nubile youths lie about zonked, trussed up like Christmas turkeys. A compassionate savior figure who kneels among them could be either a priest or a politician who looks vaguely like New York's soft-eyed governor. That circumstance may remind the guardians of decency that the whole show is saturated with an aura that looks askance at the anointed forces of law and order. Take Vincent Desiderio's huge triptych, "A Pathetic Rumor of Freedom." It's a dreamy painting whose central panel suggests that armies are just gangs of thugs killing each other while side panels see suburban life as a graveyard and an avenging angel as a male rapist.

Meantime the liberals--played here by hard-line modern art aesthetes--can fly into a righteous rage over an art that takes a giant leap back in time, overstepping everything from abstract art to Cezanne. This lot makes pictures in the image of everything the modernist revolutionaries struggled so hard to discredit. Why, Jerome Witkin's "Division Street" is scarcely more than an update of one of those trashy British 19th-Century narrative paintings like "The Last of the Old Homestead" with its cheap, soap-opera narrative. (The Witkin is a three-panel painting showing a man leaving a tawdry flat. The wife throws dishes at him and bangs the door shut.)

The whole shebang is a re-creation of old French salon pompier painting complete with hollow bravura skill and sneaky doses of sex and violence serve up honeyed in the hypocritical trappings of social criticism and ethical teaching.

Savoring these imagined reactions is almost as much fun as looking at the show. One does that with the reasonably firm conviction that the whole caboodle is something of a game of curatorial wish fulfillment. It was put together with undoubted good faith by a New York outfit called Independent Curators Inc. and it has all the earmarks of an idea exhibition whose theme is more deeply rooted in the mind of the curator--Thomas W. Sokolowski in this case--than in reality. One painting each by a dozen artists doesn't prove much at a time when virtually every sort of art is being simultaneously made, affording the possibility of illustrating just about any curatorial notion.

One reason for skepticism lies in the fact that there is every bit as much difference as similarity in this art. Leon Golub's well-known paintings of the obscenity of gang violence are of a radically different order than Jo Ann Todd's "Maw." It juxtaposes images of a pretty upscale American housewife against an East Indian ceremonial procession and seems to read more firmly as a domestic-romantic dream than a piece of social criticism. Radical differences in style emerge between Ida Applebroog's Neo-Ex-Sentimental "Tomorrowland" and Odd Nerdums' revivalist "The Ultimate Sight." It looks like something painted by a failed German Romantic that wound up collecting dust in a provincial Spanish museum.

The quality of painting roller-coasters from the astonishing control of Witkin to the embarrassing struggles of Gregoire Muller and Sue Coe.

With no ax to grind, regular art watchers will likely find most everything about this show too obvious, from the content of the work to a catalogue that kicks off with a reproduction of a newspaper page about the fall of Gary Hart. Mark Tansey's "Forward Retreat" typifies the whole show with an upside-down image of four horsemen riding backwards. It combines chilly if admirable French Salon skill and silly, ham-handed jokes about art and life. The show feels too superficially timely, curatorially manipulated and too out to deliver a message to an audience that does not have to be art-literate.

It's too bad to lose faith in this exhibition because one then also suspects the accuracy of its most interesting subtext. The collective scan of the work suggests an artistic conscience that sees the decline and fall of the Imperial American Empire. There is riveting stuff here about covert colonialism abroad and smug decadence at home but these themes wind up as some species of hip underbelly cliche, a Masterpiece Theater series for the disenchanted. It's a better-dressed version of the tiresome Apocalyptikitsch posturings of Neo-Expressionism. If you are inclined to believe this culture is going to hell in a handcart, the cant in this show will talk you out of it.

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