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ART REVIEW : Painter, Sculptor See Conflict of Ideals Differently

January 19, 1988|CATHY CURTIS

Like a teen-ager in a punk haircut, chains and leather who buys a bouquet of flowers for his girlfriend, today's up-and-coming artist is often torn between striking a hostile or ironic pose and giving in to more romantic impulses.

Painter Lawrence Gipe and sculptor Michael Davis both seem to be struggling with different aspects of this dilemma. Packaged together in "California Contemporary Artists 39," on view through Feb. 25 at the Laguna Art Museum, the work of the two artists is otherwise quite dissimilar in approach.

Steeped in the 19th-Century view of the Industrial Age as a great engine of progress, Gipe paints brooding silhouettes of factories and smokestacks, a close-up of locomotive wheels and a majestic skyscraper of the '30s rising above the inky confusion of what appears to be a tar rig working on the pavement.

With a bow to the soft-edged images of the turn-of-the-century pictorialist photographers, Gipe borrows his special brand of furry blackness from the gaslight era. Reminiscences of the styles of Monet and Turner drift into these scenes via roiling, impressionist-style skies in pink, white and gray-blue and dreamy veils of smoke and steam.

But no smart young artist looks backward these days without having a special agenda. Gipe, who is only 25, spells his out literally in widely spaced gold letters across the lower edge of most of his paintings: "FAITH."

Faith is, of course, precisely what the Victorian Age had and what the '80s lack. Faith in the future, faith in human betterment, even shreds of faith in what later came to be known as the military-industrial complex. So the word serves as an ironic commentary to the picture: "Look at that darkly brooding, romantic scene," it suggests, "and realize that it is a product of false hopes and misguided dreams."

And yet, Gipe's images are undeniably seductive, feeding fantasies of a poetic union of industry and nature. In "Untitled No. 1 (from the Factory Series)," a factory on the edge of a river bank is as dreamily insubstantial as a fairy castle, casting picturesque reflections onto gray-blue water. The red-tinged sky might be a striking natural phenomenon, or even some bizarrely beautiful form of pollution.

In a splendid charcoal drawing, "Factory Study D," a churning rush of steam, a pair of softly rounded tanks and the thin fretwork of a distant bridge offer a frankly idyllic view. A sooty aerial view, "Factory Study A," owes its mottled, atmospheric texture to Gipe's dexterous handling of the side of a stick of charcoal.

If the viewer teeters momentarily between accepting the frank romanticism of the image or the cynicism implied in Gipe's single-word commentary, the image inevitably wins out. It's bigger and stronger. And perhaps, like the audience at "Peter Pan," we want to believe, so long as the fantasy is sufficiently delicious.

Michael Davis' sculpture looks backward, too, but in a more generalized way. By embedding materials in variously carved and cantilevered wood posts, he combines aspects of contemporary urban culture with a feeling of architectural ruins discovered hundreds of years hence.

But Davis' big problem is how to accomplish all this without allowing his pieces to acquire the vapid boutique look that comes of falling in love with materials and losing the essential grittiness of an idea. This glitzy approach negates the serious intent of the columnar piece he made a couple of years ago for the Coast Highway facade of the Laguna museum and pervades much of the work he has done before and since.

In "For the City of Now and Then/On-Ramp" of 1982, the "freeway" (a bright mosaic set in blue cement) that spirals around a cast-off old column with cracking blue paint and pushes through a wood-and-metal enclosure has the casual, friendly appearance of patio paving. The stubby gold edifice on top of the column smacks of decorator chic. Whatever message or passion lies in back of this piece is buried under a load of cuteness.

"Fire," of 1984, is simpler and stronger. Long irregularly hacked-out openings on one side of a hunk of red-painted wood and--on other sides--scatterings of angry little glancing arcs presumably created by the edge of a grinding wheel are evocative of the heat and energy of a conflagration.

Last year Davis made a pair of oddly unrevealing pieces ("Gulf A" and "Gulf B") that each contain a generalized metal sculpture of a ship sitting on a ledge in front of a tall, framed sheet of wood painted with the stuff used to make blackboard surfaces. Inexplicably half-buried within the frames (you have to look at the piece sideways to see them) are lengths of either copper pipe or bamboo.

Based on the titles, these pieces might possibly be about tankers invading foreign waters. But Davis' penchant for coyly artful construction once again stands in the way of getting a fix on whatever notion lies in back of this work.

His most recent piece, "Above and Below," created specifically for its story-spanning installation at the museum (and involving the temporary removal of part of the Steele Gallery ceiling), mines a much deeper vein of allusiveness. By forgoing the pretty packages, he allows his metaphors to speak passionately for themselves.

A pumpkin-colored globe bisected by an oxidized sheet of copper hangs from the outer glass membrane of the roof above the opening to the lower level. Below, on a sort of trestle table, two mysterious, wood-and-metal contraptions (engine housings?) hunker down on opposite corners. A blue object in the center of the table (a covered dinghy? a coffin? a sluice?) suggests the futility of an endless shuttling activity between the two machines.

If the piece is seen as a metaphor for the world's enslavement to machine culture, the space below is a sort of metaphysical boiler room and the metal-sliced globe above is a divided world hanging by a thread.

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