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ART REVIEW : Substance of Light, Minimalism at ACE

April 09, 1993|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

We haven't seen much of James Turrell's art since he left town to transform an extinct volcano into an artwork. It's nice to get some sort of clue of what he's up to these days through a show at ACE Contemporary Exhibitions, running in tandem with two devoted to New York Minimalist sculptors.

Turrell displays nine plaster-on-wood maquettes for structures to house and create those noted light effects that make viewers feel as if they are floating or that light is a solid substance. The maquettes have the severe restriction of showing us everything about the work except its final effect. They do, however, demonstrate the tendency of California's Light and Space art to blend with the environment and get involved in everything from landscaping to architecture.

Any lingering doubts about Turrell's status as a visionary will be cleared up by the look of these shells. They take the form of everything from Mayan temples to UFOs. One, called "Boule Boola," tips its hat to the 18th-Century French utopian architect Etienne-Louis Boulee.

Substantial shows by Jene Highstein and Richard Nonas prove once again that Minimalist sculpture is more prepossessing seen than talked about. It plays with the most basic grammar of form so repetitively that it always seems on the brink of running out of anything new to say. The fact that it hasn't is testament to its resiliency.

Nonas has several installations of steel ingots, slabs and beams. None is more interesting than a museum-size gallery filled with carved granite and titled "Slow Dance."

The largest modules look like chairs made for viewing Stonehenge. About 15 of them are disported around the space. Scattered among them are about seven smaller blocks shaped like primitive portals. They change the scale of the piece so that the chair-shapes grow monumental by contrast and might be ruins from some archaic civilization.

There is a hint of emotional association here that goes further in "RSIIG (Real Snakes in Imaginary Gardens)." It's made up of 50 pairs of birch logs. Crossed, they advance down a hallway to mass in uneven ranks in a large space. Triggered by the title the mind sees them as malevolent beasts readying for attack.

Highstein is a purer formalist. His black shape drawings recall Richard Serra. His works rely almost purely on a dramatized sense of mass and thrust.

"Pipe Piece" uses three galleries. In the first, a single centered tube runs vertically, creating the impression it continues through floor and ceiling. Then there is an empty gallery. The third contains another length of pipe suspended horizontally halfway up the wall, also appearing to pass through the whole building.

In "Conical House" and "Hogan" Highstein makes plausible dwelling-size lumps of black concrete that seem to complete their shapes under the floor. "Barge" is a huge, gray cement hull that leaves one with the same slightly awed feeling we get standing next to a great ship at anchor.

* A CE Contemporary Exhibitions, 5514 Wilshire Blvd., through April 25, (213) 935-9988.

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