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Steeling the Show : John Gilbert Luebtow's latest pieces are a jarring departure in style and medium from his usual lyrical glass works.

April 09, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

For more than a decade John Gilbert Luebtow has been known for his large glass sculptures with their soft sensuous lines. Indoor and outdoor installations composed of diversely shaped glass pieces absorb, reflect and play with light to convey a happy, joyful spirit.

That's why this artist's most recent sculptures are all the more startling. For the past year, he has mustered up knowledge from his 23-year exploration of the glass media's optical qualities, and put it in the service of expressing his fury with our political system.

In almost every one of the 16 large and small sculptures on view at Kurland / Summers Gallery in the West Hollywood area, a variation of the American flag, fashioned from commercial plate glass, has been twisted, wrapped and bound up with metal cables around a steel tube.

"The cables to me speak of the tension and binding and constricting and taking away freedom," said Luebtow, 49, who lives in Chatsworth and works in a spacious studio he designed and built behind his house five years ago. He began to think about this series of work when the Persian Gulf War started.

"Was it to control Iraq or Iran or any of those people? Hell no," he said. "It was to take the American public's mind off of what was going on here. I had so many problems with Bush and the Republican party in general and that whole Republican convention, for crying out loud. I mean all of our freedoms were being taken away. So that's where the binding came from, and from the Rodney King incident."

People familiar with his earlier work were mystified when they saw the new sculptures.

"They said, 'What the hell happened? Where has this been?' " he said. "It's always been there, but there just hasn't been the right time to bring it out, or maybe I haven't felt good enough to bring it out 'cause this is pretty powerful stuff and pretty challenging, and it also can create a lot of negative energy at the same time."

Working first on a small scale, he was able to resolve technical problems--"to get these pieces not to break, not to crack," he said. Among the small sculptures are "Ode to Helms (not the bakery)," and "Ode to Hoover (not the vacuum)."

"Here's old J. Edgar wrapped up in his little flag and all this chrome and the beauty outside, but he can't find the truth," Luebtow said. "I mean we were ripped off for 50 years."

Before producing the flag in color, he started sandblasting flag images into the clear glass.

"The subtlety of the flag is there, but you don't see it unless you really look," he said. "For me, I could just produce a color flag overnight where somebody else would have to do research for six months to figure out how to solve compatibility problems"--that is, fuse and apply color.

Luebtow said the material that the glass surrounds is also an important element of each work. In "What Have We Done to Get Where We Are," the steel is "flaking and kind of being deformed and destroyed at the same time," he said. "It's the internal support, the structure--there's a lot of symbolism there.

"But also just the visual quality is important because I like what the steel is doing, and I like what the glass and the color and the cable are doing. So it's an aesthetic statement as well as a social-political statement."

One of the largest works in the show, more than eight feet tall, is "Family Values."

"I think it's the strongest piece. Scale for me has always been important. When you see the little things on the pedestal, they're neat," he said. But the large sculptures "cause you to look at the form and the media differently, and they force you to do something with your feelings that cute little things don't do," he said.

"What I find most important about John's work is the scale that he can get out of it," said Ruth Summers, the gallery director. "He has the largest private furnace of anybody I know in the United States, and is one of the few artists who can work in large scale with commercial plate glass that is heated and manipulated while it's hot.

"John is very conscious of the human form, and of space and how people relate to the space around them. He has thought out the process of how a large-scale work relates in a human place. Even though it's 11 feet tall, I don't feel dwarfed by it."

Taken aback by the new sculptures when she first saw them because "they are raw and not finished like his other work," she finds them "exciting, and very powerful," she said. "They make you think about things."

Luebtow said he has always been sensitive to what's going on in the world. He has always had problems with it too, but at different periods in his life he has expressed himself differently.

"Like any human being, I'm multifaceted, especially sensorially," he said. "During the Vietnam War, I did a whole series of life-size Dachau kind of figures. I built them out of steel armatures and covered them with plaster and then a metal skin over that. They deal with pain and death and agony. They weren't pretty to look at. They were shocking.

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