Remember when they used to decorate public buildings and monuments with finely wrought symbolic relief sculptures about important stuff--your local ruler's victories in battle, solemn processions of mythological bigwigs, scenes from the Bible?
Well, OK, it's been a while since the completion of the Parthenon, the Ara Pacis in Rome, Chartres Cathedral or even the Arc de Triomphe. Nowadays, even the glorious surface ornament on the Los Angeles Central Library (built in 1926) has the patina of ancient history.
Granted, such serious-minded architectural garnishes are no longer in style. And in a culturally and politically divergent society, it gets increasingly difficult to find symbols that will be esteemed equally by various segments of the population, or that most people will even comprehend in the first place.
Still, there's nothing to stop an artist making her own private "monument" to a theme she believes to be of the utmost importance. In "Expulsion," a small room defined by zinc-coated fiberglass walls--at Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, through April 28--Santa Monica artist Ann Preston offers what she calls (in an accompanying statement) "a parable without narratives or conclusions, composed of snapshots of repeated action."
Three tiers of rhythmically repeated, sexually neutered figures with stylized, rounded bodies reminiscent of Tom Otterness' humanoids bounce around the inside walls of the room. Preston writes that she drew upon the style of archaic bronze vessels from Northern Italy and Austria, which she finds "interesting because they assume the correctness of their own cultural viewpoint." (Doesn't all art operate this way?)
In each corner, a tall zinc-covered column hangs just above the floor. According to Preston, the wall representing "death" faces the one that represents "the family tree," while "bliss" faces "aggression."
You enter via a doorway in the "death" wall. On the pediment above your head, a bulbous kneeling figure appears to be sucking on his partner's tongue. Below, on the first tier, a background design of ornamental arches is echoed in the graceful arcs of what must be, yes, thin streams of waste products emerging from the mouths and posteriors of bent figures.
On the next tier, figures engage in an exuberant, wide-legged dance with arms raised and head uptilted. On the third tier, figures whose crisscrossing bodies form "X" shapes appear to be hugging themselves.
The "family tree" wall contains a pattern of armless figures copulating, tadpole-like figures missing either an arm or a leg, and concentric fetus-like images representing stages of conception.
The "aggression" wall is animated by a conga line of figures, broken by one who flexes his pretzel-like muscles and others who stand with a hand behind their backs (seemingly representing the converse of the handshake, which originally was intended as a demonstration that neither party concealed a weapon). Other images include a bee buzzing around a flower and running figures who each have one lower leg missing.
On the "bliss" wall, the figures disport themselves as boxers, acrobats (each sensibly equipped with a "spotter") and ballet dancers. Animals rest placidly under trees.
The decorative trim used throughout the room is a chain-like pattern of horizontal figures that turn out (on closer inspection) to be mutants, with either two heads or no head at all.
So, what does it all mean?
Well, given the amount of mutation and mutilation evident in the figures, the piece suggests a meditation on the course of evolution, as it affects both mind and body. Are we doomed forever to be guided in daily life by aggressive survival tactics developed back when people were obliged to hunt down dinner every night?
If bliss--seemingly defined here as self-expression through art, the constrained "combat" of sport and enjoyment of the natural world--is the opposite of aggression, can one plausibly exist without the other?
The "death"/"family tree" dichotomy is harder to puzzle out. In this piece, death is not portrayed as such, but implied as the invisible end product of sex, celebration, excretion and personal isolation. Are we meant to see these activities as somehow indicative of overindulgence? Does such excess appear to doom the continuity of the species ("family tree")?
Preston raises the issue in her statement of whether we are "free to make any decision, take any course of action" or whether "our thought processes are 'corrupted' and constrained by our body's evolutionary history." The most obvious reference for the title of the piece is, of course, Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (possibly symbolized by the trees on the "bliss" wall), which doomed them to a life of hard work, suffering and death.