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ART REVIEW : Claes Oldenburg on a Comic Roll With 'House Ball,' Sculpture of the Commonplace

January 11, 1988|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

"It needs something up there, maybe an ironing board--or try a chair," said Claes Oldenburg to an assistant who scrambled up a ladder and stuffed foam-rubber facsimiles of household goods under ropes wrapped around a giant, paint-spattered sphere. The 12-foot-high "House Ball" was already bristling with orange chairs, green doors, purple rugs and red ladders, but when the 57-year-old artist had finished assembling its parts, the imposing sculpture resembled an overblown basketball that had rambled through a freshly painted house, picking up everything that got in its way.

"House Ball" currently sits quietly along with dozens of other creations that propel ordinary objects into a fantastic realm in a show that opened over the weekend at the Margo Leavin Gallery. But the ball actually made its debut rolling through a plaza and over a narrow bridge in Venice, Italy, during a 1985 performance called "Il Corso del Coltello" ("The Course of the Knife").

The collaborative production, dreamed up by Oldenburg, art historian Coosje van Bruggen and architect Frank O. Gehry, was performed by a star-studded cast including the three principles plus Italian curator and critic Germano Celant and Pontus Hulten, former director of Paris' Georges Pompidou National Center of Art and Culture and Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.

"House Ball" (a reconstruction of the original, which took a beating during its Venetian roll) and other props, costumes and designs for the performance compose a museum-size exhibition continuing through Feb. 13.

It's the first show to occupy both of Leavin's galleries (at 817 Hilldale Ave. and 812 N. Robertson Blvd.) and the first U.S. appearance of the improbable artworks. They were shown last summer at the Pompidou center along with Oldenburg's "Knife Ship," a motorized sculpture resembling a mammoth Swiss army knife that floated on a barge down a Venice canal during the performance. The second version of "Knife Ship" is now installed at MOCA where its mobile corkscrew, opening blades and paddling oars entertain visitors at the year-old museum.

With "Knife Ship" and the related exhibition in town, Angelenos finally have a chance to catch up with "Il Corso del Coltello," but it's a challenge to imagine how all the pieces fit into the production.

Consider, for example, an enormous knife blade that pierces one gallery wall, a floating "Expresso Cup Balloon," a charming lion skillfully crafted of foam, huge bubble-style letters and soft replicas of architectural fragments that hang on a line.

There are also gigantic pieces of clothing that resemble architecture, wooden crates in the shape of letters and a guidebook that sprouts a knife. Everything, it seems, leads a double life, and therein lies a tale.

The project began with a seminar in Milan that was to deal with architecture and performance, Oldenburg explained during an interview at the gallery. Celant had invited Oldenburg, Van Bruggen and Gehry to design a course for his students at the Facolta di Architettura di Milano. Van Bruggen envisioned an investigation of reality and fantasy, with architecture representing reality and performance being fantasy, Oldenburg said. But the concept of duality eventually evolved into the theme of a production based on the tension between old and new Venice, riddled with double-entendres and performed by characters who had two identities.

Oldenburg played Dr. Coltello, a souvenir salesman who wanted to be a great painter; Frankie P. Toronto (Gehry) was a barker yearning to be a famous architect. Georgia Sandbag (Van Bruggen) was part travel agent, part George Sand. The lion, called Chateaubriand, was a cross between a statue symbolizing Venice and a real beast. Primo Sportycuss (Hulten) was a boxer who aspired to be St. Theodore, the original patron saint of Venice, and fought Chateaubriand to reinstate the saint.

For the exhibition, Oldenburg has turned some of their costumes into artworks in greatly enlarged form. He has re-created Gehry's clothes, for example, as a 6-foot-tall pair of trousers that look like a stone arch and a jacket that emulates a Greek temple. Dr. Coltello's hat is now a huge baseball cap with an extended bill in the shape of a knife blade.

The whole mad affair is related to Oldenburg's involvement with happenings in the late '50s, though "Il Corso del Coltello" was far more intricately planned and required government approval. "Venice is not a place you can change. If you spill a little paint, you have desecrated a monument," Oldenburg said. "But we thought it would be a stimulating change from our large (permanent) projects," and it was. The experience has whetted his appetite for doing more transitory work, he said. But meanwhile, he and Van Bruggen have a dozen or so sculptures in the works.

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