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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : Not Very Pragmatic : A gallery exhibit of public art offers real emphasis on form and a more abstract aesthetic content.

February 20, 1992|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Art has gone public at the Momentum Gallery. Public art, by its very nature, is out of the gallery and into the public sphere. Which gives art spaces the task of trying to keep tabs on this important area of art practice.

"Public In-Sites" takes the route of a primer in public art and winds up being an entertaining--not to mention educational--hodgepodge of a show.

In the main section of the gallery, we have documentation on the work of "sanctioned" artists working within the system. There is also a brief walking tour of celebrated public art--mostly from the heyday of the '70s as the medium began to grow wings and teeth.

In the other corner of the gallery, we have "unsanctioned" artists. Guerrilla tactics rear their heads in the case of graffiti artists Jeff Newton and Jerry Tejeda, who have taken spray-paint to one large back wall. Angela Frost shows a working model for a huge mechanism that would fling Hostess Snowballs down Palm Street, reveling in playful absurdism and a shameless dismissal of pragmatism (that nagging P-word for public artists).

In its humble way, the exhibition is a valiant attempt to touch on the many facets of public art. With the sanctioned art, organizer Laura Zucker explained, "you have a real emphasis on form and a more abstract aesthetic content. With the other, it's all about its content and the form is secondary."

Formal concerns and abstract aesthetic content are at the core of the exhibit's centerpiece: Ned Kahn's plan for "Wavespout," which will be constructed at the new Ventura Pier in the near future. This is the first work commissioned by Ventura's Art in Public Places Program and, as such, deserves close scrutiny. Here are our tax dollars at work, in a charming display that even Jesse Helms would love.

As seen in a videotape, Kahn's work tends toward the hypnotic reorganization of natural elements--wind, fog and water. "Wavespout" involves a curling length of tubing, to be fitted into a rectangular hole in the pier, which will shoot a spray for the benefit of onlookers.

Kahn was reportedly inspired by a natural blowhole he saw in Australia, but from the looks of it, his piece seems a curious blend of intestinal and proto-industrial reference. Time and implementation will tell.

One locally born-and-bred project celebrated in the show is the Westpark Community mural, designed by Leann Lidz and realized by a team of student artists. Another corner is given to Paul Lindhard, the sculptor and major-domo of Art City, a display not exactly germane to the issue of public art.

But "Public In-Sites" is a rambling, all-inclusive sort of exhibition, extending a warm welcome rather than hard-and-fast intentions. It raises as many questions as it answers, and, in fact, literally poses questions on placards on the walls.

Now, the burning question is: Will the general public, that political mass not accustomed to haunting arts paces, come and take a look? The public is too often the invisible, but critical, equation in the practice of public art.

Taking City Hall: Currently hanging on the walls upstairs at Ventura City Hall is the work of two artists taking distinctly different paths in addressing realism and the gulf between photography and painting.

Patricia Legnon-Baker's skillful photo-realist paintings of far-flung tropical sites are a kind of paradox, intentional or not. The views are pretty as postcards--swaying palms, finer hotels, the "good life." But photo-realism tends to distance the image from its original reality.

A warmer, looser painting approach might have romanticized the paradisiacal mythos of the views. As it is, we're kept at an intellectual arm's length, responding with curiosity (is it real or is it brushwork?). In the end, the work appears to mock tourist havens and tropical paradise kitsch--which may or may not have been the intention.

Photographer/photo manipulator Donna Granata, too, presents a skewed perspective with her art. Milky washes swirl around men who look like models for pictorial Bibles and women lost in some enigmatic reverie. It's as if someone ran amok in the back room of a photo studio, adding brush strokes and deconstructive gestures while the boss wasn't looking.

Art provoking thought such as this isn't something you normally expect at City Hall.

Of sex and traffic: Ojai artist Sharyn Robinson's work can be seen tucked into the Townley room in Santa Barbara's downtown public library, and "tucked" is the apt term for her small, quiet but punchy images.

In conte crayon on clay-coated paper, Robinson's works, according to a statement, serve as "a chronicle of emotional response; it serves not only as a personal release but also a documentary."

What she's documenting is a bit vague, and therein lies its charm. Yes, there is an apparent feminist resonance with the muscular nude figure in "Super Waitress with a Knuckle Sandwich."

But with most of the pieces, strange, wind-swept, semi-abstract imagery allude to traffic, landscape, sexual energy and combinations thereof. Gnarled roads, tunnels and ambiguous strands of hair add up to the general aura of vertigo, in the best sense. Robinson stirs up unsentimental mystery in small packages.

* WHERE AND WHEN

* "Public In-Sites" at the Momentum Gallery, 34 N. Palm St. in Ventura, through March 15.

* Donna Granata and Patricia Legnon-Baker, at the Ventura City Hall, 501 Poli St., through February.

* Sharyn Robinson, at the Faulkner Gallery in the Santa Barbara Public Library, 40 E. Anapamu St. through February.

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