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ART : Curious Work, Showcased in Curious Way, at Laguna Museum : Peter Alexander's 'Century' is a view of Los Angeles at night. The display is presented with unnecessary explanations.

May 18, 1992|CATHY CURTIS

Peter Alexander, a former Cool School sculptor turned romantic landscape painter, has been a darling of collectors for years. Others regard the Venice, Calif., artist's recent output with less enthusiasm. Light has been his preoccupation since he began making translucent plastic slabs in the '60s, but since the late '80s he has been painting such unabashedly hackneyed sights as sunsets and city lights seen from an aerial perch.

The Laguna Art Museum has chosen to showcase "Century"--a nocturnal aerial view of Los Angeles that Alexander painted last year--in a curiously elaborate way. It is accompanied by a profusion of related Polaroid photographs, pastels and gouaches (of city lights and fires, mostly) that the artist made in the past few years. A cynic might wonder if the recent Los Angeles riots had something to do with sudden interest in a big canvas that seems to show smoke clouds hanging over the winking lights of the city.

In fact, the exhibit, which celebrates the gift of the painting to the museum by fellow artist Ed Moses, was conceived before the riots. Still, the extended trappings of the show seem excessive. Studying the genesis of a work of art can provide excellent training in connoisseurship, but the task doesn't seem worthwhile when the subject is as comfortably unambiguous and straightforwardly painted as Alexander's landscapes.

Since Moses also donated 22 other works of art to the museum--including pieces by James Turrell, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha and Moses himself--the best of the batch could have been exhibited, perhaps with a discussion of the phenomenon of artists' own collecting tastes, or the different ways artists have tackled similar visual "problems" or responded to a particular geographic setting.

At any rate, stuck in Alexanderland, we zero in on the way life gets pressed into service as art. One group of Polaroids consists of details of aerial views taken from slides shot from the window of a hired helicopter at night; another group was taken from TV images of the Universal Studios fire in 1990.

In some of the slide details, city lights are reduced almost to the pixel level, as colored dots existing in an anonymous black void, a meltdown in outer space. On the other hand, the TV shots--though mediated by choices made by another cameraman and a news producer, and transmitted onto a small home screen--seem utterly lifelike because they fit our general idea (created by movies and the media in the first place) of what fire is supposed to look like.

But Alexander is an old-fashioned artist who does not concern himself with issues of representation or the status of media imagery. He paints tight grids of blurry lights--which sometimes resemble postcard views of airport runways by night--and covers them with painterly skies of one sort or another. Presumably, the tension between the two is supposed to make these paintings "work." But when you come right down to it, these canvases are little more than stylized illustration of cliched themes, achieved with technically able but otherwise unremarkable handling of paint.

In "Century" (it's not clear whether the painting is named for the boulevard in Los Angeles or for a certain fin-de-siecle malaise), unseen air currents seem to be fanning a haze of smoke above the blobs of street lights.

Painted in sober black and white reminiscent of Moses' own abstract paintings (though I thought I spied a bit of blue in the smoke), the roughly five-foot-square image is imbued with a mighty striving to be majestic and impressive. So the flat, restless city of glitz and displaced wanna-bes gets its comeuppance at last, via a softly hovering white haze presaging urban apocalypse--so subtle, it might still be registering as a smog alert to some folks down below.

It scarcely comes as a surprise to learn that Alexander made the paintings used for the 1975 film version of Nathanael West's 1939 novel, "The Day of the Locust," which kicked off the city-on-fire paintings.

(Todd Hackett, West's protagonist, is a young painter who earns his living making set and costume designs in Hollywood. His surrealistic painting, "The Burning of Los Angeles," prefigures the mob scene that breaks out when a crowd of people gathered to see the stars arrive at a movie premiere horns in on a fight between a disillusioned 40-year-old bookkeeper on his way back to Utah and a boy who attacks him on the street.)

The exhibit also includes a grid of black-and-white Polaroids of progress on another painting in which belts of crisscrossing lights contrast with the velvet blackness of the night sky. In the final stage of that painting--which Alexander kept altering until he finally gave it up as a bad job--flames rise bizarrely from the center of the image, as if simply willed into being.

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