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Gnarly : Alvin Light's Oddball Sculptures Make for a Piquant Exhibit in Laguna

February 07, 1991|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

The sculptures of Alvin Light are wonderfully weird. Pieced together with gnarls of driftwood and carved chunks of hardwood, they exude a funky, restless charm. Some look at first glance like towering prehistoric creatures; others resemble bizarre architecture. Still others suggest images of the human body under stress.

His work from the 1950s and '60s is the subject of "The Expressive Sculpture of Alvin Light," organized by the Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art and on view at the Laguna Art Museum through March 24.

Illuminated by a warmly appreciative catalogue essay by composer and critic Charles Shere, who was on the scene during the Bay Area's artistic glory days, this modest show is the kind of sleeper that the Laguna Beach museum does best. Rather than puff up Light as an unsung genius, it lets us discover the oddball personality of his art.

He was born in New Hampshire in 1931 but spent his youth in California and the Southwest, where his father taught in Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Japanese aesthetics seem to have influenced childhood craft projects Light made that were based on the natural shapes and colors of sagebrush and greasewood. His grandfather, a marine architect and boat builder, also spurred his interest in nature and working with hand tools.

In 1951, Light headed to San Francisco and enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts, already past its glory days as a gathering place for the most forward-looking artists of the region. With time out for a stint in the Army, he stayed in school through the '50s and remained to teach in the '60s.

Light was caught between two generations in the Bay Area. He lived the fabled bohemian lifestyle that was already becoming an endangered species--staking out alfresco digs (at first, in the basement of the Cafe Trieste), hanging out in bars, listening to jazz, reading intensively and zigzagging through a series of relationships and marriages.

But although he tends to be lumped together with local colleagues influenced by Abstract Expressionism--such as ceramist Peter Voulkos and painters Clyfford Still, Frank Lobdell and Elmer Bischoff--Light was not part of their scene. He hit his stride when Abstract Expressionism was no longer making news. Public acclaim eluded him, with only eight one-man exhibits in the Bay Area before his untimely death--of lupus, accelerated by alcoholism--in 1980.

By his late 20s Light had figured out how to make bits and pieces of wood do his bidding by gluing them together, hacking them apart and applying all manner of tools to hone and ruffle their contours. A sturdy, workmanlike approach collides provocatively with a streak of childlike fantasy and a brooding self-consciousness in many of these pieces.

Light was indebted to the open-form sculpture pioneered in metal by Picasso early in the century and subsequently modified by Julio Gonzalez, David Smith and others, but gave it a quirky fillip of his own in the organic medium of wood.

"Cone No. 2," from 1958, is one of Light's purest constructions, alluding, perhaps, to the Sputnik era's fascination with rocketry. "September 1961" is a lanky monkey-faced creature that ducks its head, bends over double and balances on a long, winding "leg."

The stiff, awkwardly joined arm belonging to an untitled table-top figure from 1960 seems to be holding out a tool for inspection. Another table-top piece seems to outline the trajectory of a hammer blow; yet another conveys the image of a figure shielding itself.

As the years went by, his work became more subtle and complex. In an untitled piece from 1979-80, a smug-looking, snail-like figure serves as a base for a stiffly flying flag. Here and there, mostly on the undersides and inner surfaces of the piece, splashes of bright color draw attention to the details of Light's deft assembly of assorted wood pieces. Is there a social message here? Hard to say, but the mating of humble animal and patriotic symbol suggests some subversive thinking is afoot.

Perhaps the most delicious piece in the show is "Spring 1974," a piece that snatches up allusions to all sorts of things: the sole of a shoe, the jaws of an animal, uplifted limbs, architecture (the lintel balanced on top of the piece). What does it all mean? Light leaves interpretation to the viewer, but the piquancy of the image is never in doubt.

What: "The Expressive Sculpture of Alvin Light."

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, through March 24.

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach.

Whereabouts: From the San Diego Freeway, go south on Laguna Canyon Road. At Pacific Coast Highway, turn right; the museum will be on your left.

Wherewithal: General admission is $2, seniors and students $1, children under 12 free.

Where to call: (714) 494-6531.

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