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February 19, 1988|Leah Ollman

"Simulation Meltdown," Justen Ladda's installation at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, is a frustratingly cynical statement on the role of art in modern society. Ladda, a German artist who has lived in New York since 1978, models his installation after traditional gallery and museum presentations of art: paintings hang on the walls, interspersed with sculptures on pedestals.

This is the view from afar. A few steps closer, Ladda's paintings reveal themselves to be nothing more than variously colored, patterned and textured fabrics stretched on frames.

From a distance, the three-dimensional works resemble recognizable masterworks of 20th-Century sculpture--Giaccometti's "Man Pointing"; Boccioni's "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space"; Max Ernst's "The King Playing With the Queen," and others by Picasso and Brancusi. But upon closer inspection, the likenesses dissolve, and the works become merely monochrome renditions painted onto assemblages of such mundane objects as ashtrays, hair curlers, toasters, golf clubs and ketchup dispensers.

According to his gallery statement, Ladda is attempting a critique of art's absorption into consumer society, its reduction to a pawn of fashion. But, like many artists with similar concerns and approaches--nearly all of whom live in New York, where the maneuvers of the art market are most blatantly apparent--Ladda's conceptual musings yield work whose critical edge is blunted by an overriding lifelessness. By re-creating works of sculpture already well ensconced in the canon of modern art rather than creating something anew, Ladda suggests that true originality is no longer a viable option.

Like Sherrie Levine, who has exhibited re-photographed versions of important works in the history of photography, Ladda sends the message that art is exhausted: It has nowhere to turn but back in on itself. Like Levine, however, Ladda finds himself trapped in a conceptual snag, because in critiquing the notion of originality he is also aspiring to it. Moreover, his dead-end view of art is proved wrong by the provocative and relevant work still being created--even now, in this era of regurgitated signs and symbols and the placement of priority on commercial viability. Art itself is not dead, but Ladda's is.

The installation remains on view through March 2.

"All profoundly original art looks ugly at first," wrote critic Clement Greenberg, with the implication that the veneer of ugliness gradually gives way to reveal a meaningful core. "Oil on Palm," an installation of paintings by Lynn Engstrom at Sushi (852 8th Ave.), certainly subscribes to the by now historically valid aesthetic of the ugly. But the works fail to redeem themselves as containers of substantial meaning or emotion.

Engstrom, an instructor in the San Diego Community College District, paints on palm bark armatures, irregularly shaped surfaces that curve outward, convexly, like breastplates or shields. She bombards these with smeared, squeezed, oozed and agitated pigment to create teeming, sculptural surfaces.

Applied in massive quantities, to grotesque effect, the thick blanket of paint smothers the lyrical and evocative possibilities inherent in the organic palm bark surfaces. While some of the paintings vaguely suggest mask-like features, none use to full advantage the eloquent contours and curves of the armatures, which at times recall twisting torsos or animal heads.

Engstrom's paint spectrum rarely transcends a muddy sameness, the palette crude and loud but indistinct. The textured surfaces of the paintings seem equally arbitrary, and for all of their pained and efforted depth, these appear no more than shallow exercises.

The show continues through March 5.

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