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ART : Wrapped--but Not Too Tightly--in Texas Mystique

September 20, 1990|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

There's no particular reason artists in Texas should be different from artists anywhere else, but the mystique lingers on. Somehow, you expect imagery right off the ranch, art with a twang that aspires to twirl a six-shooter.

"Deep in the Art of Texas"--a set of mini-displays of selected works by five Texas artists at the Main Art Gallery, Cal State Fullerton--seems to be an attempt at locating individual approaches to art-making that embrace aspects of regionalism without being hogtied to it.

But the point of the exhibit remains foggy, particularly in light of the lack of a curatorial statement--a particularly grievous omission for a university art gallery, which is supposed to be in the education business. Budget constraints account for the lack of a catalogue, according to a gallery spokeswoman, but surely money could have been found for a photocopied handout offering basic information and a considered point of view.

The homespun spirit of James Surls' wood sculptures is married to an acute awareness of modernist art tradition. Artful carving transforms a bulging, partially decayed tree trunk lying on its side into a weathered domicile ("In My House"). Numerous hand-shaped wooden paddles affixed to a looping length of steel ("Whirling") offer a gee-whiz twist on formal values of linear grace and serial imagery. Surls has a weirder, woollier side, but you wouldn't know it from the selection on view.

David Bates' way of paying homage to the landscape of East Texas is somewhat reminiscent of early 20th-Century American artist Marsden Hartley, who painted the Maine coast with a simplified, almost primitivistic vigor. In Bates' "North Jetty," chiseled gray clouds hang heavily over a darkly outlined fisherman perched on a rocky outcropping, and a burst of white impasto dashes over the swirling dark greens of the water below.

Melissa Miller's best-known animal paintings are invested with an almost surreal sense of vitality. In "Salmon Run," the spray and downward urgency of churning water, the wiggling action of orange-and-green fish and even the individual springy hairs on a howling dog are all endowed with the same nervous energy. Other works invoke a quasi-spiritual world that veers between poetic resonance and awkward sentimentality. In "Tears," a weeping bear produces a lake of tears that contain the pale images of humans and animals he apparently once ate for dinner.

Bob Wade's "colorized" black-and-white photographs spotlight cherished aspects of Texas culture, like romanticized portraits of American Indians in ceremonial dress and the leisure pursuits of good ol' boys. In "Waco Boys," four rather beefy men with rifles and a dead snake pose with a couple of rifle-toting young gals. Wade's approach is calmly laid-back--some might say insufficiently analytical--but he seems to be relying on the artificiality of oversized imagery and frankly fake color to draw attention to the distorting power of myth.

Bert Long's mixed-media pieces tend to be long on meandering whimsy and folksiness, short on newsworthy content. In "Search," a Texas license plate, the image of a hand rising from a choppy sea, joke eyeballs set in eyeglasses, the sole of a shoe and an array of (lucky?) numbers suggest the components of a manhunt. On the other hand, they might be just another jumble of stuff that caught Long's genially all-inclusive attention.

What: "Deep in the Art of Texas," sculpture and painting by five Texas artists.

When: Through Oct. 3. Gallery open noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday (closed Saturday).

Where: Main Art Gallery, Cal State Fullerton.

Whereabouts: Exit the Orange Freeway at Nutwood Avenue and drive half a block West to the visitor entrance. Pick up a temporary parking pass at the kiosk and park in Lot D or L, next to the gallery.

Wherewithal: Admission is free.

Where to Call: (714) 773-3262.

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