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ART REVIEW : The Literal Universe of Ruth Weisberg

December 23, 1988|CATHY CURTIS | Times Staff Writer

If only Ruth Weisberg had gone into films--not as an actress, but as a power behind the camera, conjuring up poignant or sensuous moments with actors in a landscape and a battery of lights and lenses.

But she chose instead to be a painter and printmaker, doggedly continuing for more than 20 years to offer up her passions and introspections in a conservative, rigidly programmatic style uncomfortably close to illustration.A selection of this work is on view through Jan. 8 at the Laguna Art Museum.

As the exhibit catalogue piously explains, Weisberg deals with "universal human themes." They are primarily keyed to the Jewish experience as seen from a low-key feminist perspective: not hostile to the ways of a male-dominated world but sort of pensively introspective.

The problem is the wide-eyed literalness of Weisberg's approach. Every figure has a specific particular identity or a rather ponderous symbolic meaning, and once such matters are accounted for, the viewer has little else to chew on.

For all the honest feeling behind them, Weisberg's major pictorial device--juxtaposing figures from different moments of history, or the same figure at different stages in life--generally looks hollow and stagey. All too often it come across as kitsch.

Chicago-born to cultured, liberal parents, Weisberg fell in with a simpatico crowd at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (source of this mini-retrospective) during the early '60s. Some members of her circle of scholars, artists and political radicals appear in her 1968 painting "Community," which looks rather like a poster advertising the varieties of Old Line Leftist Behavior.

The specifically Jewish themes in Weisberg's work date from 1969 (shortly before her move to California), when she was inspired by her grandmother's book of reminiscences of shtetl life. One sentimental image from a set of etchings memorializing this village is a hulking, ramshackle cottage with a portrait of a sad-looking older woman swathed in a shawl superimposed on top of it.

Viewers get a dose of Weisberg's touchy-feelie approach to human psychology in "Aura of Becoming," from 1982, a painting of self-absorbed individuals in various states of undress, each encircled with a yellow-rose aura.

More recently, Weisberg has embarked on larger projects like "A Circle of Life," a painting cycle in which figures from Renaissance painting share space with images of herself and others to dubious effect. In "Pentimento" from this series, the slender, barefoot artist appears as a nearly transparent figure, casting a fat nude shadow on a dirt road, while Masaccio's Adam and Eve figures from "The Expulsion From Paradise" huddle in the lower right corner.

Catalogue essayist Thalia Gouma-Peterson's explanation of the work involves such hazily defined issues as "confront(ing) the reality of (one's) body." We're hip-deep in feminist terrain here, apparently, and the viewer without a map and guidebook should have stayed home.

Weisberg's art does intersect with the movies in at least one instance: in "Children of Paradise," a 24-foot-long mixed-media drawing based on the crowd scenes in the Marcel Carne film. But this is just copy-cat stuff.

The "filmic" side of her artistic personality comes out in little things: her sensualist's delight in the feeling of being outdoors in sunlight or her observation of the way an anxious child holds her head. Some of the paintings could be envisioned as stills from bitter-sweet Cinemascope vignettes, with swelling music for the matinee crowd. But as static works of art, Weisberg's images look too brightly obvious, too tensely willed to have the enduring kind of meaning their creator so fervently intends.

A further sampling of Weisberg's recent paintings is on view at Jack Rutberg Gallery (357 N. La Brea Ave.), to Dec. 31. Alas, the grouping together of versions of the same composition--in different media or with minor variations in placement or coloring--only points up the narrowness and superficiality of Weisberg's visual world.

An angel standing on a low stone ledge to observe what appears to be a side street somewhere in Los Angeles (in "Vision," a painting) reappears in a different color scheme in a mixed-media drawing, "Arrival in the City." Similarly, the numerous reworkings of the expulsion from Eden with anguished contemporary couples and the artist's near-obsession with a group of young girls from her childhood (they also appear in "The Dunes: The Persistence of Memory" at the Laguna museum) fail to enlarge on a particular impression or idea.

The barefoot women posing in long skirts in "The Story of Ruth and Naomi" could be a duo from Batsheva, the Israeli modern dance company. But as happens all too often in Weisberg's work, the "choreography" seems trite and banal and the "dancers" have no soul.

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