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ART : Placid, Puzzling 'Pacific Currents' Show Pools Work From Asia, America

February 19, 1990|CATHY CURTIS

FULLERTON — Some years ago I worked in a Chinese art gallery in San Francisco. I found the job in the classifieds, and I got it--at the munificent salary of $500 a month--because I had studied Western art and lied recklessly about my familiarity with double-entry bookkeeping. The gallery dealt chiefly in scroll paintings from the Sung, Ming and Ch'ing dynasties, a number of which hung near the desk where I labored over the financial records of my Chinese emigre boss.

I found the paintings puzzling, particularly the small images of either fruits and flowers or rocks and bamboo. Why, I asked, did artists keep painting the same dull stuff over and over? Who cared about rocks and bamboo, anyway?

And so began my boss's yearlong series of impassioned lectures on Chinese painting, with pauses only for the rare customer or for me to fetch takeout lunches of his beloved Sichuan-style steamed dumplings and double-dip roast beef sandwiches.

I learned a fair amount and came to appreciate certain aspects of Chinese art. But the philosophical outlook of the Buddhist culture from which the art stemmed still seemed bafflingly alien. If you believe in the primacy of the individual personality, the rugged joy of competitiveness, the clash and fire of conflict and controversy, and the need to plunge into life with the greatest possible energy and gusto, it's likely that you aren't a willing candidate for a life in the pursuit of release from earthly desire.

Similarly, in Japan, the Shinto religion--which emphasizes nature and ancestor worship--is the philosophical basis for traditional art. Viewing nature from a less holistic perspective may have something to do with a Westerner's dismissal of much contemporary Japanese art imported to the United States as overly passive, monotonous and lifeless. Yet one misses the wit, the passion and the overt intellectualism of first-rate contemporary Western art.

In an era when "Pacific Rim culture" has become a cliche and myriad international financial deals and transcontinental flights connect East and West, vastly different aesthetic and philosophical positions still separate us.

The lure of an exhibit called "Pacific Currents"--at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton through March 4--was the prospect of gaining an insight on common links and distinctive differences among artists Here and There. Alas, the show doesn't really offer that overview, largely because the brief brochure "essay" by Michael Laurence is so generalized and cliched. It offers no conclusions whatsoever about the pan-cultural exchange of ideas along the Pacific.

Guest curator Edward Den Lau, owner of Space Gallery in Los Angeles, has assembled work by 16 mostly emerging or unfamiliar artists living in California, Alaska, Washington, Hawaii, Australia and Japan, whose ancestry sometimes encompasses several Pacific Rim cultures. They have in common a general interest in the natural world and a low-key approach to making art. Beyond that, the work unfortunately suggests that the Pacific Rim is the home of a good deal of dull work, marked by dated styles and bland approaches.

Japanese artist Seiji Kunishima, now in his 50s, makes humble, static bronze and granite sculptures. In "Untitled 88-23," two low pieces of granite sit, side-by-side, on a pebble-covered area of the floor. One has an indentation filled with water and both are crossed at precisely the same angle (why?) by bronze branch forms.

Hua Lee, who was born in Shanghai and lives in Alaska, paints gestural abstractions--a style that tends to look pretty tired these days. In "A Sound of Black Motion," the artist infuses his broad strokes with focused energy and the rhythmic essence of calligraphy, but the net effect is more decorative than forceful.

Born in Japan, now a resident of Los Angeles, Echiko Ohira constructs unassuming three-dimensional abstract forms out of such things as cardboard, modeling paste, cheesecloth and wire. Painted black, these components lose their distinctive physical qualities without gaining much in return.

Korean-born Jungran Noh, who lives in Anaheim Hills, tops layers of color with broadly brushed designs. The results--vaguely suggestive of natural forms--don't seem particularly meaningful or allusive.

Seattle artist Barbara Noah paints colorful squiggles and stick figures on top of photo-dye transfer blow-ups of landscape or natural disasters. The results are either baffling or trivially "whimsical." In "Tag (III)," a little figure runs along the bottom edge of the canvas to escape the exploding volcano in the photograph, which sports a pair of painted orange "eyes."

Other work in the exhibit is by Bob Alderette, James Bachman, Rolando Castellon, Pat De Caro, Gregg Miller, Ikko Suguira, Doug Young--and a few other artists whose works seem somewhat fresher than the others.

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