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ART REVIEWS : Joe Deal Focuses on the Wilting of Lotusland

May 02, 1992|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

California appears tangled in a no-win dilemma. Recent news suggests a state faced with the Hobson's choice of either letting its ecology go to pot or losing massive numbers of jobs. Businesses see environmental restrictions as Draconian and threaten to decamp. A Municipal Art Gallery survey of the photographs of Joe Deal addresses the whole nasty conundrum.

Titled "Joe Deal: Southern California Photographs 1976-88," the work is part of the "New Topographics" movement whose best-known California practitioner, Lewis Baltz , is on view at the County Museum of Art. Deal's show is the first full-dress round-up of his work in the Southland and comes with a 147-page catalogue published by the University of New Mexico Press in association with the Muni. Director Edward Leffingwell is understandably proud of the book, a first for the city showplace under his aegis.

Deal ruminates on the erosion of Lotusland in several portfolios. One image seems especially apt. It shows a new house on a barren site overlooking a valley in Chino. The structure is a stark Frankenstein melange of modernist boxiness and niggling Post-Modernist "amenities" like an octagonal window and senseless brick columns. Such structures conform to the new dictum, "Form Follows Finance." This grim dwelling was clearly intended to justify its ugliness by commanding a magnificent view. The trouble is the vista is shrouded in smog.

Working with apparent impersonality, Deal tends to rather distant high-angle shots of local landscape in the process of change. Locations range from Colton to Indio, from Brea to Bunker Hill. If the deadpan approach is similar to that of Baltz, the results are notably different. Baltz's objectivity is scolding and accusatory. Deal's has a gentle, quizzical edge that participates in the complexity of the problem. His pictures may not be as crisp as Baltz's but they also avoid the dictatorial tone that formalist art exudes when it's attached to ideology.

Deal shows affection for things. His most aesthetically moving compositions are views of tangled vines and branches taken in Carbon Canyon. He clearly loves their Pollockesque texture. Such pictures call to mind the work of Eliot Porter and show that Deal is an artist before he is a social commentator.

He has an artist's way of not responding to certain things. Commissioned portfolios of the construction of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the J. Paul Getty Center in Brentwood are but affectless documentation of building sites.

He has an artist's way of seeing the paradox in things. People play a small but significant role. A lot of the time Deal's art seems to be asking itself, "What is this aberration on the land, this humankind? Why doesn't it fit in?" A shot of a denuded hillside is further defaced by a stretch of asphalt road. It's ugly but it allowed a mom to drive there with her son to fly his kite.

Deal sees a kitsch dingbat house and winces. Then he sees its owner hopefully watering a scraggly lawn. The artist seems to remind himself that what may be bad taste to the aesthete is home to some honest working stiff.

\o7 Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd. to June 7, closed Mondays, (213) 485-4581.\f7

Life in the Arena Yet: The Museum of Contemporary Art's recently closed "Helter-Skelter" exhibition was subtitled "L.A. Art in the 1990s." That implies that the only significant thing going on here is the media-culture-oriented, CalArts-style marriage of Conceptualism and cartooning represented in the show.

That narrow view happens to be simply wrong. Among several others, a group of under-recognized neo-abstract painters and sculptors clustered around the Ace gallery is doing superior work in an arena regularly pronounced defunct. The gang includes, among others, John Millei, Roger Herman, James Hayward and Charles Fine.

Fine's current museum-worthy show finds him transformed. He has been known mainly as a painter of odd, spectral dun-colored abstractions of interesting but rather wan demeanor. He now re-emerges as a sculptor of impressive heft.

The touchstone of the artist's new aspect is "Mortals and Immortals," a glass-encased table loaded with hundreds of found objects ranging from rusty obelisks to seed-pods, from bits of Egyptian glass to hose nozzles and skull bones. Initially fascinating as a strangely homogeneous collection of curios, the whole finally melds into an implied tableaux resembling an ancient fabled city, Ur, perhaps, or Atlantis.

Fine extends the felt presence of phantom animistic ancestors into works by his own hand. "Alga" monumentalizes a seed-pod, "Forest of Awls" becomes a Stonehenge of power fetishes, "Collection Box" puts a giant urn in a huge sarcophagus.

Occasionally Fine falters. There is a bit too much B-horror movie in "Pressure Head," an overdose of UPA cartoon in "Patterning Device." On the whole, however it's a brilliant revelation of the artist's hidden side, bringing new meaning to his encaustics, imbuing his sculpture with the painters exquisite sense of surface.

\o7 Ace Contemporary Exhibitions, 5514 Wilshire Blvd., to May 30, closed Sunday and Monday, (213) 935-4411. \f7

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