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NICE 'N' SUBVERSIVE : Long Beach Exhibit of Art by Women Offers Visceral Surprises Using Unlikely Materials

March 18, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

Floor sweepings, pillows and monkey fur--variously undesirable, humble or sensual materials--are among the ingredients of "Sugar 'n' Spice." Although all the art in this exhibit--at the Long Beach Museum of Art through May 23--is by women, it isn't specifically feminist--at least, not in the traditional sense. Rather, it's subversive in a sneakily anarchic way, offering open-ended reflections on such topics as power, sex and the relationship between imagination and experience.

Of the 13 Los Angeles-area artists included in this daringly, successfully theme-free survey--assembled by curators Noriko Gamblin and Carole Ann Klonarides--nine are showing work on the walls, ceilings and floors of the museum, which (fittingly enough, considering the domestic nature of some of the subject matter) was formerly a private house.

The other four artists--Hilja Keating, Erika Suderburg, Jean Rasenberger, Rebecca Allen--are represented by a program of videotapes. Overly elliptical, tediously long-winded or embarrassingly banal, they don't share the visceral immediacy that makes the rest of the show so captivating.

If there is a guiding perspective in the exhibit, it may be simply a generously inclusive, hierarchies-be-damned notion of what's worth putting on public view in a gallery. Most of the work succeeds by invoking mess, confusion, failure, insignificance, insubstantiality and diminutiveness--as well as a lust for sensory overload. In a general way, most of the works on view also deal with the body as vulnerable, private, malleable, alluring, dangerous and capable of stimulating disorientation.

Anne Walsh's installation, "Mound," consists of a heap of bed rests--those large pillows with "arms" that cradle the bedridden--covered in motley fabrics. By cutting openings into some of the pillows, turning them this way and that, and inserting the "arms," Walsh suggests that these hunks of fabric and stuffing are engaging in various forms of sex--jarringly depersonalized group activities that contrast with the restful, private aspect of bed.

The rest of Walsh's heavily self-absorbed work conjures up feelings of loss, emptiness and isolation. A series of fragmentary drawings ("I Am Eloise") of the suspendered, perennially flipped-up pleated skirt belonging to the fictional Eloise, a naughty, precocious child, suggest a fruitless attempt to disappear into the persona of an eternally beloved, safely pre-pubescent mischief-maker.

In "Everything and Nothing," Walsh inscribes a list of such private and public activities as weeping, playing with a cat, talking on phone, making money and worrying on a drawing of a pillow, which--as her other works indicate--she views as a masturbatory aid.

Lauren Lesko's idiosyncratic pieces of furniture--replete with come-hither tactile effects; small, deep cavities, and aloof golden dazzle--offer ironic versions of stereotypical female sexuality. Women's sexual "wiles" are coyly domesticated in "Fur Muff," a black monkey fur muff hanging low on the wall, above a small saucer of milk. "Solar Anus"--a svelte trumpet-shaped form upholstered in gold lame mounted on a metal rocker--radiates a bitchy allure.

The small objects minutely rendered in the middle of Judie Bamber's neutral-toned paintings are normally insignificant things, scrutinized as if through the wrong end of a telescope. In "Because She Is Always Anxiously Expecting the Onset of Pain (Canned Pea and Bruise)," a single pea casting a tiny shadow adjoins a field of peach (invoking the thin-skinned fruit) with a painted bruise.

The reference is to "The Princess and the Pea," the tale of a lass who won the hand of a king because she was sufficiently deli cate to feel a pea beneath layers of mattresses. But the painting, of course, is heavily ironic. The unseen woman the title alludes to is apparently involved in an abusive relationship.

In Jacci Den Hartog's helplessly mutable universe, a stack of elephants fuses into milky globs ("White Elephant Pour"), a pile-up of white plaster shoe tips and dropped trousers create a monument to exhibitionistic or scatological impulse ("Cascade"), and a tiny fairy-tale castle in the mountains melts into a cheesily atmospheric pool ("Purple Fog").

Is this work about a culture of wretched excess? About loss of control? The impossibility of establishing a normative viewpoint? The reductio ad absurdum of serial formats in contemporary art? Den Hartog invites a multiplicity of readings.

Far more narrowly dogmatic, Laura Parker offers playful ways of boosting "women's work" into the realm of recognizably important activities. She turns scientific researcher in "Findings: A Cleaning Document," a collection of anonymous-looking scurf neatly labeled by origin ("bedroom floor under dresser") and species ("floor varnish, thread, two blueberries"). In her revisionist view of astronomy, delineated with thread on paper, constellations assume such forms as "Washer Woman" and "Mess."

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