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EIGHT IS ENOUGH : Thank Goodness, 'New Spanish Visions' Narrows Its Focus to a Poetic Octet

March 05, 1992|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

Anyone who has reveled in the flamboyant pop vision of filmmaker Pedro Almodovar knows that Spain has changed massively with respect to cultural energy and permissiveness since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. Still, with some notable exceptions, contemporary Spanish artists are not particularly well known in the United States.

"Imagenes Liricas/ New Spanish Visions"--at the University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach through March 15--might have been one of those ghastly warehouselike exhibitions, crammed with indifferent work by a hodgepodge of unfamiliar names, that are frequently created to "introduce" the artists of a less-familiar geographic area. Thank goodness, the exhibit is just the opposite--a refined selection of work by just eight artists, most of whom share a low-key romantic approach despite their divergent styles.

All eight--as University Art Museum director Connie Glenn says in the introduction to the elegantly produced bilingual catalogue of the exhibit--are "essentially poetic" in their otherwise distinct approaches, and their art derives from "a special empathy with Iberian light, landscape and ornamentation."

The most enchanting body of work is by an artist who goes by the name of Perejaume. In an interview printed in the catalogue, he discusses his vision of landscape as "the nostalgic souvenir" of the encounter between an individual and nature.

In a sequence of photographs called "Postaler," a young man is seen carrying a peculiar metal object across mountainous terrain. It turns out to be a postcard rack, the kind you find at tourist shops. We see it in various guises and locations in succeeding photographs: empty, by the ocean; rusting and empty on a mountainside; filled with mirrors that reflect the open sky at a high altitude or a carpet of dead leaves in a forest. (The three-dimensional mirror-filled postcard rack also is part of the exhibition, where it reflects works of art in the gallery.)

The piece is about memory, expectation and perception, and how they fuel our experience of landscape. As Perejaume says, "We look at the world with inconstant attention . . , and our incomplete, momentary vision surveys a world that is itself fragmented, both spatially and chronologically."

In "Tres Vestidos," the artist cuts a trio of old postcard photographs of landscape or cityscape views into the shapes of three identical little dresses. Various possible meanings come to mind. Postcard views are normally considered about as unimaginative, ordinary and interchangeable as paper doll cutouts. Indeed, each of the three images shows a similarly framed view into the distance.

And yet, such views have served for hundreds of years as the foundation for the landscape tradition in art. It pays homage to specific, unique places, but it is also part of a codified, standardized tradition of human perception. The predetermined shapes of the little dresses control the area of the postcard landscapes that the artist permits us to see; similarly, human experience of nature is conditioned by the expectations and memories we bring with us.

Jose Maria Sicilia specializes in odd glimpses of things. He renders them as if they were visible only out of the corner of his eye or had already vanished into thin air, leaving only a mysterious pale imprint.

In one of his small, square untitled paintings, an ornamental blue fishtail curls up teasingly at the lower left corner. The rest of the painting is just soft, crumbling whiteness, like a plastered wall (a motif reminiscent of the modern Spanish painter Antoni Tapies). Large canvases hold the luminous traces of objects with ornamental, flowing silhouettes.

This work seems to be about the transitory quality of vision--in particular, as it operates under the brilliant light of the south of Spain, where Sicilia lives part time--and the role of memory in fixing fleeting optical impressions in the mind.

Linear or colorfully patterned ornamental devices and landscape images are both of interest to Patricio Cabrera, who juxtaposes and superimposes them in ironic ways. Decorative patterning is a major legacy of the Arab culture of southern Spain; in a way, ornament has become virtually part of the landscape. And, of course, ornamental shapes and patterns are generally based on natural forms (vines, flowers). But ornament also has its kitschy side, and landscape painting is a prime repository of cliches.

Cabrera noodles around with these ideas in his eye-catching, tightly executed paintings; his suite of mix 'n' match drawings offers a more adventurous, less elegant approach to the intersection of nature and culture.

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