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An Artist With an Attitude : If Nothing Else, the Obfuscation in Gunther Forg's Work Is Clear

January 31, 1989|CATHY CURTIS | Times Staff Writer

For most of us, clarity is a virtue right up there with cleanliness and honesty. But to artist Gunther Forg, an ironic, deliberately obfuscated view of things is immensely more satisfactory.

In a Sunday afternoon lecture at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Stephen Ellis, a painter and a critic for Art in America magazine, discussed the work on view in "Gunther Forg: Painting/Sculpture/Installation," an exhibit introducing the German artist to Southern California.

"If (Forg's work) were completely clear, then there would be no point in looking at it," Ellis said. "It's more about raising questions than answering them. It's about throwing the situation into doubt."

For example, Forg's tall, free-standing bronze slabs--in the museum's sculpture garden--are textured with traces of a brush and gouges made by his own hands. The inherent beauty of bronze, as Ellis explained, is a 19th-Century cliche, and the touch of the artist's hand in these pieces harks back to the carefully worked, highly tactile sculptures of Auguste Rodin.

Looking at the slabs, the viewer indoctrinated with the truisms of modern art is likely to think: "This is art." But in fact Forg takes only "about 3 seconds" to make his mark on each of the wet plaster molds from which the bronzes are cast, Ellis said. This "sarcastic, maybe even cynical aspect" is built into the work.

Yet, it is perversely still possible to appreciate the bronzes as the kind of rarefied objects we call "art," Ellis said. He suggested that Forg, 36, deliberately keeps the viewer in a state of tension between the heroic days of Modernism and the disillusionment of the current Post-Modern art world.

The tension perhaps accounts for the other major element in this work: its aura of death. The untitled slabs are collectively called steles --grave markers.

Forg's world view also manifests itself in his photographs of architecture. As Ellis writes in the exhibition catalogue, these are "appreciations of the ephemeral. . . . The architectural images refer to the public realm of the past, the portraits (of women in the architecture) to the private world of the present. Together they form a meditation on our relationship to history."

But the exact nature of this "meditation" is something viewers are obliged to figure out for themselves. Forg's photographs are like "stills cut at random from a movie," Ellis said. "(They portray) no particular narrative but any possible one."

At Newport Harbor, the eight oblong color photographs--each almost 8 feet tall--are views of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, an elegantly simple house with walls of onyx, marble and green-tinted glass that was commissioned by the German government for the 1929 International Exposition in Spain.

Looking at these photographs, viewers repeatedly see their own images--either in the glass covering the photos or in a mirror of the same size that hangs next to the photos. But in one photograph, viewers are confronted with another viewer looking at them: a woman sitting on one of Mies' Barcelona chairs. This multiple-viewer phenomenon, Ellis said, is Forg's "dislocating effect."

The artist uses it in part to undermine the "absolutism" of Modernist architecture.

And yet, as Ellis remarked, "reflection and illusion are also part of the idea of (Mies') house."

Impishly, Ellis noted that the artist's "sarcasm" probably also motivated his decision to show his photographs of a Modernist masterpiece in the unremarkable architecture of the Newport Beach museum, which the critic called "a fairly standard Modernist building."

Discussing the other component of the exhibit--a dozen identically sized paintings of solid-color stripes and rectangles on lead-wrapped wood--Ellis differentiated Forg from his compatriots, Gerhard Richter and Blinky Palermo, whose work embodies vivid chromatic qualities unusual in contemporary German art and shares the notion of paintings as neutral "place holders."

In Forg's work, Ellis said, "the hues have a civilized, almost brittle refinement. The color, darkened by the lead that shows through, . . . radiates coolness, even ennui."

Bored, cool, ironic, brooding--Ellis' low-key, sometimes rather elliptical portrait of Forg showed him to be very much in the mold of major European artists of our time.

Works by Gunther Forg remain on display through April 2 at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: $2 to $3. Information: (714) 759-1122.

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