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ART REVIEW : California Visions : The new Frederick R. Weisman Gallery has added luster to the San Diego Museum of Art's collection of works by the state's contemporary artists.

April 02, 1991|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ollman is a free-lance art critic who contributes regularly to The Times

SAN DIEGO — If the San Diego Museum of Art's new Frederick R. Weisman Gallery for California Art contained only Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz's "Pedicord Apartments," that work alone would make the gallery an important art-viewing destination.

As luck would have it, the Kienholz installation is one of more than 30 works in the gallery, most of them donated to the museum late last year by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation in Los Angeles, and a few, like the Kienholz, on long-term loan from the foundation. All are by contemporary artists who either live in California or who have made substantial contributions to the development of art here.

Last week, the Museum of Art unveiled the collection in the newly created Frederick R. Weisman Gallery for California Art. Though not all of the works are of the same high order as the Kienholz installation, most are solid examples of their makers' styles and, together, they breathe vibrant, fresh new life into the museum's collection.

In compiling this gift, Weisman, a prominent Los Angeles collector, focused his energies exclusively on the art of Southern California. Mary Stofflet, curator of modern art at the museum, has supplemented the installation of Weisman's gift with several works by Northern California artists from the museum's collection.

As a start, the current collection is extremely promising.

It touches, sometimes briefly, sometimes more deeply, on major movements and styles in California postwar art, such as the "light and space" school of Robert Irwin, the hard-edged abstraction of John McLaughlin and the "finish fetish" work of artists such as Craig Kauffman. Despite the collection's gaps and leaps--it is weak in the area of figurative painting, for instance--it makes an impressive case for California artists' innovations with diverse materials.

Peter Alexander's painted assemblage on black velvet is a dazzling surprise, for instance, and Tom Wudl's perforated painting on delicate rice paper has a sprightly beauty. Irwin's untitled translucent acrylic disk, wall-mounted and lit from four corners, literally dissolves into its shadows. Similarly, DeWain Valentine's free-standing cast polyester resin disk seems to shed its materiality to become simply a fluid pool of blue.

Several strong works in the assemblage tradition are included here as well, such as Alexis Smith's nostalgic, visually punning "Christmas Eve, 1943," and Bruce Conner's shrine-like "Suitcase," covered with scraps of paper, fabric fringe, beaded lace and topped with melted-down candles.

While Smith and Conner both used objects from daily life to shape a personal vision, the Kienholzes have re-created an entire, life-sized environment to make a work that feels painfully intimate.

"Pedicord Apartments" is a walk-in installation in the form of a dingy apartment lobby and hallway. The too-bright lobby and too-dim hallway are both thick with oppressively musty air. Clear shellac drips from the lobby mirror, the standing ashtray and the apartment doors as if time itself was sloppily preserving this place, fossilizing its sense of defeat and resignation.

As one walks down the claustrophobic hallway, sounds and voices can be heard from beyond the doors. Dogs barking, a television blaring, a domestic squabble, a woman's incessant sobbing all fill the air with an unsettling tension.

There are other rich and provocative works here, too, by Edward Ruscha, Matt Mullican, Michael Dvortcsak and others. And there are also a few works that fall flat, such as Bruce Cohen's slick, lifeless painting of an interior, and David Hockney's photo-collage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, a lackluster example from a series of otherwise exuberant and whimsical works.

In a few cases, the installation of the works allows them to play off one another. Jonathan Borofsky's "Chattering Man" (on loan from the Weisman Foundation), a larger-than-life, anonymous gray everyman, emits a continuous drone and chant, and provides a witty foil to John Baldessari's photo-collage, "Horizontal Men."

But otherwise, the installation of the collection is not particularly sympathetic to works with links in style or substance. Irwin's and Valentine's disks are not placed in proximity to one another, and even multiple works by individual artists are not installed together.

This makes for a somewhat choppy experience, in which every work speaks only for itself, and few voices are heard in unison. This problem is compounded by the collection's location in a gallery far from the rest of the museum's holdings of American art. The spacious, nearly 4,000-square-foot-gallery now housing the Weisman collection was formerly used for temporary exhibitions, and, according to the terms of the gift, the California works can be moved or stored on occasion to make more room for such shows.

Though this solution respects the donor's wishes to keep his gift intact and self-contained, it prevents the work from being shown and understood in a broader context. Perhaps ultimately the Weisman collection can be more closely integrated with the rest of the museum's collection, in the name of continuity and clarity.

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