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ART / Allan Jalon : Expert Remembers L.A.'s Giant Step From Ferus Gallery to CalArts

February 15, 1988|Allan Jalon

It's no secret that Los Angeles has evolved dramatically over the past 20 years. Comparing two current shows in Orange County offers an especially rich perspective on some of the changes.

Howard Singerman, a publications editor for the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles, has a bifocal view of the shows: He wrote a catalogue essay for the Newport Harbor Art Museum's current show of work by 58 graduates of the California Institute of the Arts. He also visited the Laguna Art Museum last week to discuss the Ferus Gallery, which nurtured key Los Angeles artists in the 1960s. His talk embraced a show at Laguna of work by one of those Ferus veterans, Larry Bell. Singerman said the current generation has shed a regional stereotype of the Los Angeles artist as the "finish fetishist," whose works emulated the shimmery quality of a Southern California sunset.

The work associated with Ferus, founded in 1957, became cast as part of an "L.A. Look," a stereotype rooted in analogies to the city's sensuous landscape and ephemeral light. People, he said, do not--cannot--draw such conclusions for the newcomers' work. He said that such early comparisons to a specific place underestimated the artists' intellectual interests: Bell and the others were trying to mount an assault on the boundaries between art and nature. "They were doing work that tried to become nature," Singerman said.

Talking about Bell, Robert Irwin, James Turrell and other so-called "light and space" artists who made their impact in the early 1960s, he emphasized the paradoxical quality of the work: The artists strove for physically perfect surfaces in an attempt to transcend physicality. Deftly manipulated glass or plastic created visual sensations of depth and shape. "Irwin called his pieces 'opportunities for perception,' " Singerman told about 30 people at his talk.

He showed a slide of a round, untitled disc of cast acrylic with which Irwin creates the optical illusion of three-dimensional roundness. Subtly lighted, the white disc casts four round shadows that further enrich the impression of depth--of being dematerialized. Singerman showed a tubular piece of vacuum-formed plexiglass by Craig Kauffman that seemed to absorb and reflect light at the same time. He showed the highly reflective glass boxes that made Bell's career. In an interview after his talk, Singerman contrasted the Ferus crowd with the much younger contributors in the CalArts show and said that the distinctions are stark.

Of the CalArts group, Singerman said: "They have learned an important lesson that these earlier artists didn't learn--and that is that style is iconographic, that shininess must mean something."

As an example, Singerman pointed to the approach used by Tim Ebner, a 1982 CalArts graduate whose works at the Newport Harbor museum include a series of squares coated with semigloss paint. Some of the panels have the texture of magnified brush strokes; others are smooth planes of one color.

"(Ferus artist) Billy Al Bengston liked shininess because cars were shiny," he said. "Tim Ebner likes shiny because cars are shiny, (because) Bengston's work was shiny and . . . because the shiny was modern and modern has a sense of nostalgia about it. Shiny belongs to the world of commodities and the commercial. That is the shiny of Tim Ebner."

Modern is nostalgic? "You know how when you used to drive by hamburger stands in Los Angeles, they would have names like 'Astro Burger,' or 'Space Burger?' That was an image of the new, and the new is no longer seen as such a positive thing. Now we sell hamburgers by saying they're 'old-fashioned.' . . . Now, people are making art after the dream of the new no longer has the power it once did."

The CalArts work does not strive to be a transcendent experience, he said. Rather, it tends to be more detached, art as a commentary on history and culture.

"These artists are looking for readers, not perceivers," Singerman said. Some of them insist on readers by including text in their art.

One such work is a witty installation piece by Mitchell Syrop, a 1978 CalArts graduate, called "In the Can." It is a separate room cooled like a refrigerator by an air conditioner and contains enlarged photographs of microbes positioned above the freeze-dried phrases that turn aspects of modern life into a series of cosmetic definitions: "The Layered Look," "Open Marriage," "Routine Reorganization."

CalArts, in Valencia, has produced some of the best known artists of the 1980s, including David Salle, Erich Fischl and Ross Bleckner. Those three live in New York. Singerman noted that many members of this generation have stayed in Los Angeles but said that the Los Angeles tag does not stick to them the way it did to Bell and his peers. Work by the CalArts graduates usually cannot be compared to the city's natural surroundings. Also, CalArts students closely watch global art trends.

"It doesn't mean anything to call them Los Angeles artists," Singerman said. "CalArts might as well be in Soho!"

It is, he said, truly a case of physicality transcended.

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