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ART REVIEWS : Diane Arbus: Pictures From the Institutions

May 15, 1992|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

During the year before her suicide in 1971, Diane Arbus traveled to several institutions for mentally retarded women outside of New York and photographed their inhabitants. Of the 29 pictures she decided to print, 22 are presented at Jan Kesner Gallery. These rarely seen photographs are some of the most hauntingly compassionate images made with a camera.

Almost all of the photographs were taken on Halloween, when the members of these strangely exclusive societies put on masks and acted out childhood rituals common to the rest of society. In these deeply moving pictures, Arbus abandoned her trademark use of tight cropping, exaggerated angles and the harsh light of the flash in favor of a more softened, emphatic presentation. Individual trick-or-treaters and some in small groups look directly into the camera before barren, out-of-focus landscapes cast in the long shadows of the late afternoon sun.

The range of expressions Arbus has captured is remarkable in its startling shifts from carefree glee to utter trepidation, ecstatic self-abandonment to shy withdrawal, and simple boredom to neighborly love. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of her photographs is the way they combine sentiments we all share with experiences we can imagine but never know.

Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 938-6834, through June 6. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Half-Way Measures: Cady Noland's installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art looks as if it ran out of funding before it could be finished. Push-pins stick through blurry color Xeroxes on the gallery's walls. Leftover aluminum scaffolding is scattered in a corner and partially hidden behind a sheet-metal barricade. And the tools usually used in installing an exhibition, including hardware and paint buckets, lie around the room as if the installer were fired without warning.

The unfinished quality of Noland's work is deliberate. "Accidental" marks made on the museum's normally pristine white walls are meant to alert us to the fact that real labor is involved in creating the atmosphere of timeless perfection in which art is usually exhibited. Chain-link fences and adjustable steel blockades make physical the fact that museums function by establishing boundaries, between good and bad art, as well as between different social groups.

By focusing on issues outside aesthetics, Noland's art demands that the privilege and elitism associated with museums be dismantled. Her images of a grisly plane crash, the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, and Patricia Hearst--as a flower girl, member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and Barbara Walters' interviewee--propose that tabloid journalism captures more dramatic and compelling stories than those that unfold in art galleries.

The problem with the ideas underlying Noland's work is that they are exactly like her installation: half-finished. By illustrating the fact that labor is involved in art installations, the artist restates the obvious. Noland's objects are based on the notion that we, as viewers, are so gullible that plain white walls immediately transport us to some realm of otherworldly transcendence, making us forget that we had to drive across town and pay for parking before we could have this experience. Her supposedly materialist critique of institutional dominance is really an idealistic recapitulation of the cliches that opposes art and life, seeing and doing.

The scuff marks and drill holes Noland leaves in the walls are based on the pretense that they are aesthetic--that they by-pass the institution and connect her installation to the real world of authentic experience. These supposedly egalitarian gestures themselves forget that they already inhabit a prestigious museum. The boundaries they tear down are wholly symbolic. If they didn't utterly dismiss the museum as a site in which serious propositions could be made, they wouldn't be able to maintain their simplistic dismissal of its potential.

Likewise, the sensationalistic news stories that Noland appropriates grab one's attention more swiftly than many objects of art, but base their effect on ignoring the more nuanced kinds of attention required by aesthetics. To be recognized as anything more than throw-away bits of diversion, they need to be in a museum. Once here, they claim that this realm represents nothing more than a denial of the outside world's ugliness.

Noland's installation thus embodies the contradictions of contemporary institutions that are uncomfortable with their apparent elitism and want to serve the interests of a larger, and largely imaginary, public. Her artless art acts out the guilt and bad faith intrinsic to organizations unwilling to distinguish between elitism and rigor, arrogance and difficulty, insulting exploitation and the social implications of art.

Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. (213) 621-2766, through July 5. Closed Mondays.

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