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ART REVIEW : UCSD Fountain Is a Drink of Cold Water : Aesthetics: Michael Asher's bland addition to the Stuart Collection fails to make a splash.

April 14, 1992|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LA JOLLA — Michael Asher's new work for the Stuart Collection of outdoor sculpture is no ordinary drinking fountain. But neither is it an extraordinary work of public art.

The granite-clad fountain, situated on a grassy median strip on the campus of UC San Diego, occupies a juncture between the past and the present. Down a path from the fountain stands a stone monument that marks the site as the former Camp Matthews, a military training facility from 1917 to 1964. On the fountain's other side looms the Price Center, the university's social hub and one of its newest, flashiest buildings.

At this potentially profound juncture, Asher has planted the most mundane of objects, a conventional, free-standing, rectangular drinking fountain. He has replaced the fountain's standard metal skin with a gleaming coat of gray granite, but otherwise the fountain is as bland and invisible as that in any institutional hallway.

Like Jackie Ferrara's "Terrace," added to the Stuart Collection last December, Asher's work has a retiring personality--it fades into the environment rather than energizing it. Most of the other eight works created for the privately and publicly funded collection over the past 10 years are far more gregarious, imposing or otherwise engaging.

Asher, from Los Angeles, has spent decades trying to mine the relationship between art and the institutional contexts in which it is presented, using such elusive materials as light, space, and the absence and presence of architectural supports. In the early 1970s, he sandblasted the walls of an Italian gallery in order to call attention to the space as sculpture--as both a container for art and for its own formal qualities. More recently, he melted down the old furnaces of a French museum and converted the iron into paperweights stamped with a message about housing rights.

Whether taking on a purely perceptual, aesthetic issue or a political hot potato, Asher tends to keep the form of his works painfully simple. The untitled fountain at UCSD, like many of Asher's endeavors, is a visual one-liner propped up, crutch-like, with an obtuse conceptual subtext.

In the words of Stuart Collection director Mary Beebe, Asher's work "is a play on sculpture's historic role in representation. . .an ironically monumentalized fragment of any banal administrative environment." Although yesterday's monument is a stone marker, an environmental paperweight with no real poignancy, today's is a drinking fountain, slick, functional, anonymous and no better at catching the eye or inflaming the spirit. Together, they make a pathetically strong case for a new approach to the public monument.

Asher probably didn't design his fountain as a sacrifice to a higher cause, but just what he did intend is feebly conveyed, if at all. If he meant to link the older granite marker with the new fountain, he did so only obliquely, by using the same kind of stone. But strangely, Asher has positioned the fountain so that its user does not have a view down the path to the other monument but instead looks 90 degrees to the right, across a narrow parking lot toward an administrative building. If the two markers were to mingle, as it were, in the minds of the fountain's user, then Asher has committed a social faux pas, facing one away from the other.

If Asher meant to enact a displacement, a la Duchamp, skewing the identity of a common object by altering both its natural materials and context, he did not go far enough. The fountain does not look subversive at all in the shadow of the slickly designed Price Center. Instead, it appears, like the neighboring building, to be an expensive bauble in an environment dedicated to the pursuit of substance over style.

Issues of historical continuity and discontinuity abound on this site. Diverse architectural forms converge here and, even more interesting, the area's past is summoned and brought to the present. An artillery range, where violent power is honed and perfected, has become a university, a center for intellectual might.

Though Asher has developed a reputation over the last 20 years as an artist fluent in the politics and power of context, here, in his first permanent public outdoor work, his lips are sealed. The context, the site itself, is tremendously rich. His art, alas, is not.

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