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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN / THE ART SCENE : Variety Strength of 3-Man Show : The Carnegie museum in Oxnard offers a diverse exhibit that hangs together despite its differences.

June 10, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In one of its strongest shows in memory, Oxnard's Carnegie Art Museum is currently offering a diverse three-man exhibition that manages to hang together despite its differences. More to the point, its strength may be thanks to those very differences.

What these artists have in common is the bond of friendship forged at a formative period. Karl Benjamin, Arnold Schifrin and Douglas McClellan came of age at a certain place and time--in Claremont--in the late '40s and early '50s.

And what emerges in this show, however incidentally, is a summary of strains in the polyglot California art scene over the past 40 odd years.

Benjamin is the cerebral abstractionist, cool to the touch, deep in thought. Schifrin is the funky chronicler of everyday life, with his tentacles in Beat Generation consciousness. And McClellan is the literate, late-blooming assemblagist, coralling found objects into ingenious small packages.

Together, they demonstrate--to some extent--what has made California a fairly free-thinking, artistically rich shore of the artworld.

A seminal figure in West Coast abstract painting, Benjamin's recent "hard-edged" abstractions now trigger impulses of both nostalgia and retroactive interest. He was one of the artists honored in the important 1959 exhibition, "Four Abstract Classicists," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Abstraction, as a valid avenue of artistic exploration, has gradually re-entered the Los Angeles art sphere of late, and Benjamin's emotionally distanced hard-edged approach suddenly looks contemporary. Again.

Triangular, wedge-shaped and trapezoidal forms in solid colors float and abut each other on neutral backdrops. These images, rational and flat-planed, assume almost a classical sense of order, rather than taking on the cathartic and/or navel-gazing function of the abstract Expressionists.

Upstairs, Schifrin's paintings are almost diametrically opposed to Benjamin's insular formal world. Where Benjamin adheres, almost ascetically, to crisp edges and a fuzzy relationship with real space, Schifrin is all about loose-jointed brushwork and breezy anecdotal scenery. He uses windows as literal framing devices, out of which he spies a banal world in motion, of Santa Monica beaches or Brooklyn neighborhood vignettes.

The window frames themselves create compositional grid patterns. They segment the picture plane in Diebenkorn-like patterns while doubling as a handy metaphor for the artist's perspective on the outside world.

Transformation of the commonplace is his goal, as he weaves together reportage and expressionistic flamboyance.

Of the three artists, McClellan's work occupies the most gallery space and invites the closest and longest inspection.

McClellan is the most academically grounded of the three, having worked at various art departments throughout the state. His assemblages owe inspirational debts to such icons as Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, as well as California artists such as Edward Kienholz and George Herms.

They stem from what must be a multiplicity of interests and experiences, in art and literature. Compact in dimensions, McClellan's art is "staged" in proscenium-style theatrical spaces or in rectangular wire cages.

As McClellan explains in a statement, "I am stimulated by the idea of shells waiting for some great ideas . . . I collect (objects) with nothing specific in mind and hope to outwait the stuff."

As found-object mongers go, McClellan is an exacting scavenger. He doesn't merely get high on junk art. He avoids literal narrative connections, but allows for the accidental resonances between carefully selected objects. A surrealist at heart, he seems to court dream logic and distrust ham-fisted messages.

That process may be the very subject of "Theater of Secrets: Alchemy," a delicate arrangement of candles, rusty pliers, a chemist's tube turned upside-down, and dried, bony remnants of life gone by.

"Family Closet" is an essay in suppressed information stuffed behind the elegant wood surfaces of tiny furniture. There is an aura of drama given off by the stage-set format.

Whereas his "Theater of Secrets" series involves flat, frontal presentations, the "Cage" series pieces are viewable from all angles, and are funnier and more sinister.

Evocations of incarceration, torture and religious ritual mix with the playful organization of shapes and hues. The cryptic petit guignol of "Little Beirut" is as menacing as "Civic Light Opera" is sheer fun, a gentle dance of amorphous objects.

In his whimsical "First Book of Advice," from 1985, McClellan at one point writes, "Irony is to be avoided like the plague that it is. It is poorly misunderstood by many and can easily be turned against you. Puns or light anecdotes on the other hand are generally well received. Overloud laughing and slapping parts of the body to register mirth should be suppressed at all costs."

Of course, irony virtually drips on the gallery floor around the display case. Watch your step.

A broad-minded show-and-tell of ideas and instincts, "3 Artists: Common Origins/Different Paths" is a California story well worth looking into.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"3 Artists: Common Origins/Different Paths," the art of Arnold Schifrin, Karl Benjamin and Douglas McClellan, through June 27 at the Carnegie Art Museum, 424 South C St. in Oxnard. For more information, call 385-8157.

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