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ART / Cathy Curtis

Inert Art Settles for Merely Filling in the Background

June 26, 1989|Cathy Curtis

The teen-ager had painted a still life, and she was burning to know what her father thought of it. His words would mean more to her than just fatherly approval, because he was the painter Philip Guston, one of a handful of major artists in the United States:

"Don't you see?" he asked.

"See what?"

"That background here. Just look how it's painted. Now, what was going on inside you when you painted that?"

I looked carefully. I couldn't remember what I'd been thinking. It looked perfectly OK to me. "What's wrong with it?" I asked.

Suddenly he seemed irritated, almost angry. "There's no feeling in it, that's what's wrong. It's flat. Filling in. Like painting a house . . . . I don't mean to hurt you darling, but you have to understand--that's simply not painting." That conversation comes from a powerful new book, "Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston" (Knopf), by his daughter, Musa Mayer. It provides a close and candid look at the artist's personality and struggles, and the way his family was affected by them.

The passage came to mind the other day at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, where "All Media '89"--featuring nearly 100 works by county artists--is on view through July 18. Although this show is somewhat better than last year's--when the Irvine Creative Arts Guild first turned to a juried format for its annual exhibit--it remains a repository for a lot of depressingly inert art.

Juror William Otton, president of the Art Institute of Southern California, is partly at fault in turning a blind eye to the deficiencies in most of the 98 pieces he chose from the 284 entries. It did not help that he was obliged--as is common in juried shows--to pick enough pieces to fill up the gallery.

But ultimately the fault lies with the artists themselves. Most give no impression of trying to make subtle and serious work. Instead, they seem to be aiming no higher than lower-level gallery fare and second-rate commercial art.

While it would be ridiculous to expect dazzling execution or rigorous conceptual standards from the artists who enter such shows, it is not out of place to expect a glimmer of imagination and a degree of awareness of what serious contemporary art is, or can be. Looking at a sea of tepid landscapes and hackneyed figurative work and flatfooted abstraction, a viewer begins to wonder whether the artists realize how distant their work is from the real stuff.

Juried shows do seem to attract a small percentage of genuinely naive artists who may see the world in wonderfully skewed ways, even if they are ignorant of the difference between gift-shop kitsch and serious art.

But most of the artists whose work is on view seem to be doing little more than "filling in the background," like the teen-aged Musa Guston. Unlike her, they may not have heard the brutal truth from a respected teacher. Perhaps part of the blame lies with community art classes, in which so much attention is paid to technical matters that the passions and ideas that feed into art do not receive their due. Perhaps teachers are also afraid of losing enrollments if they get too critical.

If only everyone who takes an art course could emerge with one big idea emblazoned forever in their minds: In fine art, as opposed to the lower slopes of commercial art, technical ability does not substitute for fresh ideas. Based on his drawing, "Looking Back at Youth," for example, a viewer is convinced that Ron Elstad could probably draw anything under the sun. But his image--of a paunchy older man looking at a couple of pretty teen-aged girls at the beach--is trite. It tells us nothing new about youth or age.

A few artists do seem to be reaching for big things that elude their grasp. Martha Jackson's "Stasis," a painting on wood with whitened, canceled-out images, seems too carefully controlled, too clamped-down and consciously perfectionist to come across as a trustworthy personal vision. In Lynn Kubasek's "Five-Day Record"--a series of tubular lengths of gold material knotted in various ways--the glitz factor makes it unclear whether the piece is to be read as a kind of "process" art.

Among the brighter spots in the show, Phora Gerdes' "Ol' Lady on Cane" ranks high. It did not even win an award, but it has a vitality lacking in many other pieces. Made of castaway objects, the sculpture is a fragmentary portrait of an elderly woman. Her single arm holds a metal cane planted in a circle of brown rug. Inside her cotton-stuffed brain, we see the image from her youth that sticks in her mind: two little girls on a tiny, revolving teeter-totter.

The witty "Rose Parade" title supplies the oomph factor for Sally Goldberg's color photograph of rows of rose corsages in their little plastic vials, stuck in a piece of plastic foam. The piece won an Irvine Art Center Special Exhibition Award.

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