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Sculptor Gives New Meaning to the Mundane : Art: Chairs, ladders and washtubs provide some of the fodder for Richard Wentworth's contradictory creations.

December 04, 1990|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Richard Wentworth didn't talk much about his art during a recent two-hour interview, but he really didn't need to. The motivations for his work unfurled on their own in the course of a conversation about travel, landscape, comfort, expectations and the mechanics of conversation itself.

Wentworth, 43, left his "dinosaur of a studio" in London's financial district last month to work in a spare, 1,000-square-foot warehouse near the Miramar Naval Air Station. He is the third artist--after New Yorker Gary Lang and fellow Briton Eric Snell to come to San Diego to participate in an unusual artist-in-residence enterprise called Quint/Krichman Projects.

Mark Quint, a local dealer in contemporary art, and his partner, attorney Michael Krichman, began the program earlier this year. Each artist they invite stays in a small La Jolla cottage for one month and works in the Miramar space. At the end of the residency, the warehouse becomes a gallery for the artist's finished work, and the public is invited to view the show by appointment.

Wentworth's show opened Saturday and continues through the end of the year. Two Polish artists and a Dutch and a German are scheduled for residencies during the coming year.

Wentworth, a sculptor whose work comments coyly on the idiosyncrasies of place and behavior, arrived in San Diego with no work in hand and no set plans.

"I thought it was more truthful," he said. "It's more risky. I could schedule a month's work very easily, and I think it would probably have some interest, but it feels slightly immoral. It feels pointless. Why come here and sit under this (the roar of the Miramar jets) and not try to be a bit more responsive?"

As the blanket of white noise lifted and descended, smothering the conversation, then sucking it in new directions, Wentworth spoke of the veracity of using materials and ideas in their own context. Shopping at the swap meet and a Santee depot--something akin to an indoor swap meet--has felt "like checking out the culture's digestive system," he said.

Like a number of British sculptors of his generation, including Tony Cragg (whose work is the subject of a major retrospective currently at the Newport Harbor Art Museum) and Bill Woodrow, Wentworth fashions his work primarily out of humble everyday objects. Chairs, ladders, washtubs and drinking glasses appear often, but only after he has rendered these familiar forms slightly unfamiliar and playfully negated their function.

In his show last year at Mark Quint's La Jolla exhibition space, he made solid objects appear sinuous, and the inanimate seem alive by soldering three steel washtubs together in a squirming line and titling the work "Eel." For the current show, he has enrobed a tall steel ladder in a skirt of wire mesh, calling attention to the nature of an object usually taken for granted.

"Ladders are quite comical," he said. "When they're necessary, they're very necessary, and when you don't need them, they're incredibly irritating--where do you put them?"

He has also mounted a pair of crutches high on opposite walls, one of them upside down. Normally used to recover from a disaster, Wentworth's crutches seem to be part of the calamity itself. His title for the work "Magnet" refers to the tense attraction between the separated objects and makes a private pun on the Italian word for magnet, calamita.

A spirit of contradiction, thwarted expectation and humorous defiance characterizes all of Wentworth's work, which has its roots in the keen observation of human behavior as well as the shifting sensibilities of 20th-Century British sculpture.

Trained as a sculptor at Hornsey College of Art and the Royal College of art, both in London, Wentworth is also a photographer. He uses the camera to record arrangements of objects brought together by chance or by the unspoken procedures that govern our actions, that dictate, for example, that an interviewer's notebook belongs on her lap while her purse hangs from the back of the chair, and not vice-versa.

"Broadly, if you look at the world that humans operate in, they mimic nature. Very occasionally you find a rock balanced on the wrong edge, but for the most part, the landscape is completely coherent. Everything is of an order. Underneath all of our formality and our manners, we are very like that. Essentially, that's what I took photographs of.

"In its extreme form, it was the way people would resolve a predicament, precisely when the formal, normal method wasn't available to them," such as in his 1979 photograph of a damaged car fender, patched with a remnant of carpet.

"There was a very slow recognition," he said, "that this is what I see all the time."

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