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ART REVIEW : Fun and Deep Thoughts Afoot at Muni's Christmas Fun House

December 22, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

Uh-oh, the season is upon us again, like a bucket of ale tossed from a second-story window. Cheery chaos descends, drenching us in good spirits and bitter foam. There is so much to do between laughing it up and avoiding the holiday blues that it is a veritable wonder people go even further out of their way seeking distraction from being distraught. Well, that's the way we are, and for darn good reason. Deck the walls with Boston Charlie, as Walt Kelly used to say.

Suppose the kids are home from school and you're obliged to perform merry old family bonding rituals. Take them to some harebrained amusement park and they're enchanted while you are bored blind. Try to read aloud from your copy of "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" and they fidget and whine while your brain boils with mature stimulation. This is a problem even if you are a burgeoning bachelor living in your first studio apartment or a penurious pensioner in your last one. It's the time of year when the sparkly eyed tot that lives in all of us wants to play while our grown-up part seeks deeper meaning in the carnival of life.

Traditionally, the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park gallops to the rescue with an exhibition called "The Magical Mystery Tour," but there has been a change of the guard up there and this year the holiday exhibition is laconically titled "Red Grooms, Michael C. McMillen: A Collaboration."

Ugh. Sounds like a routine art show.

Hallelujah, it's not.

Should have known better. Is Red Grooms not renowned as the maker of Mardi Gras environments where ordinary citizens can consort with life-size papier-mache cartoon characters on the Chicago El? Is Michael C. McMillen not Los Angeles' maker of brooding mini- and maxi-size environments of mysterious and philosophical bent? Sooth.

Over at the Muni they pooled their talents to transform the whole space into what looks like a spooky fun-house environment for Halloween (that's not Christmas but it's close. Well, sort of).

Creak. A rickety door opens onto a dim maze of corridors where hangs a tavern sign depicting two louche characters quaffing tankards of rum. Yo ho ho. Bottles over the bar dance to the sound of their own rattling. Nearby a huge treasure chest emits uneasy sighs.

Creak. We are in the ship painted on the wall. The captain broods over his log while drunken sailors sleep in the hold. Out the portholes laps the sea, and birds and fishes go by casting sneaky looks. Something's afoot. Don't like the cut of its jib, matey.

Saints preserve us. The ship's going down to Davy Jones' locker. Only the sails remain above a briny deep of heaving muslin.

Creak. Ahoy. A somewhat lumpy giant whale capsizes a huge boat. His mouth opens, revealing figures sitting peacefully inside. At his nether end are the skeletons they will become.

OK, we get it. Grooms and McMillen teamed up to make some easy-looking art for the holidays. Post-Mod accessibility with no meat on its ribs. Disneyland for artniks, but not as good as the competition.

Hold it. Something else is afoot. At one end of the whale-room stands a funny metal chair covered with dead leaves, flanked by lamps with goldfish in the light globes and a vintage typewriter before it.

We notice that the capsizing ship looks almost like a "Star Trek" space vessel. Some writer has been imagining this whole thing, and so have we. The pirate stuff took us back to Treasure Island and now we are getting doses of the Bible, Pinocchio, Melville, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The artists are playing a fine game of unspoken word-association to whisper of many things--how adventure gets turned into art and memory and how it becomes civilization and how civilization becomes history.

Creak. The next room seems to be about how civilization tries to preserve things in libraries, museums and zoos. There's a mummy and a huge coffinlike crate with a candelabrum on top and a miniature poolroom inside. The way culture turns funky, intimate poetry into awesome monuments? There's a pen of live chicks being fed by a robot. The way culture makes art more important than life?

Creak. In a fashion that has become tiresomely de rigueur for art these days, McMillen's finale is a post-apocalyptic vision. At least his is funny. A wooden chair and two lawn mowers are arranged like an altar on a brick chimney. It stands before an open hearth from whence snakes a drainpipe. It climbs into a box containing a TV set broadcasting the usual inanities. Either the pipe has mutated and learned to watch the tube or the folks are underground using it as a periscope.

Best of all is a plashy junk fountain made from ladders festooned with bikes, trikes, watering cans, hubcaps, scrub buckets and, of course, the kitchen sink. Well, all right, the bathroom sink. The thing casts a note of daffy optimism in the prevailing climate of doom.

The Grooms-McMillen union has borne imperfect fruit. Busy as it is, the show feels scrappy and sometimes includes pointless space fillers. It is right on conceptually and good in realized spots, but they couldn't entirely tame the gallery and things like exit doors and carpets intrude on the completeness they wanted. At that, it's a good start that could develop, and worth a holiday visit before it closes Jan. 10. The kids will have fun and the folks can think deep thoughts.

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