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ART REVIEWS : An Affecting Mix of Folk Idiom, Commercial Polish

July 29, 1993|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The imagination is a strange and terrible thing--sometimes. Other times, it is a banal thing, extraordinary only in its tireless pursuit of the ordinary.

The wonder of Cameron Jamie's work is that it is strange, terrible, banal and ordinary all at the same time. At Robert Berman Gallery the adolescent's vaguely addle-headed query--"Wouldn't it be neat if . . . ?"--is tossed around for a few sets, and then, in one deft stroke, transmuted into a sophisticated meditation on the nature of authorship, the paradox of realism, the warring orders of representation, and the mechanics of fantasy and projection.

Jamie does all this the Postmodern way--without actually making a thing. Instead, he appropriates artifacts from the popular culture, among them a plastic doll called Weepy the Wee-Wee, who urinates when filled with water; a caricature of the artist, posing with Bart Simpson; a coconut shell wearing an eye-patch and an earring; and a color photocopy of his own clenched fist.

Jamie then hires an artist to execute a police-composite-style drawing of each object; another artist to make an oil painting of each composite; and a caricaturist to interpret the oil portraits. Along the way, Weepy becomes a velvet-eyed orphan; the coconut becomes a biker chick; the clenched fist becomes a bald man with a cruelly disfigured face; and the long-haired artist, accompanied by his pal Bart, becomes an unexpectedly beautiful Madonna with child.

The exhibition also features a series of custom-made wrestling masks of "Super Filthy Cameron" and "L'il Weepy"; ink drawings of the same, executed on grains of rice; and a group of comic-book fantasy images depicting, among other marvels, a pumped-up, loincloth-clad Jamie, protecting the feminized Jamie from the now-witchy coconut-head, with a massive Weepy hovering overhead, like an ever-benevolent god of kitsch.

Jamie relishes scrambling it up: the dime-store and the art gallery; commercial polish and folk idiom; high and low. His work recalls projects as disparate as Jim Shaw's thrift-store paintings and Meyer Vaisman's repainted caricatures of the cigar-puffing, fat-cat, artist-hero of the '80s. But Jamie bears none of Shaw's intermittent self-consciousness, nor Vaisman's unconquerable slickness. His spirit is altogether different and surprisingly affecting: overtly dumb, covertly smart, and mostly, seductively weird.

* Robert Berman Gallery, 2044 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 453-9195, through Aug . 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

An Inspired Mess: "The Layered Look," a large group show of abstract paintings (and a few, idiosyncratic sculptures), is an inspired mess--a miscellany of dripping paint, swirling lines, irregular shapes, obsessive patterns, mottled surfaces and clashing colors.

Organized by art dealer Sue Spaid for Jan Baum Gallery, this provocative, overstuffed show features the work of 16 accomplished artists. Among them are perennial scene-stealers Sabina Ott and Adam Ross, eccentrics Phyllis Green and Robin Mitchell, and low-key perfectionists Selma Moskowitz and Claude Kent.

In an ambitious essay that accompanies the show, Spaid groups these disparate artists under the makeshift rubric of "Superimpositionism." As opposed to an aesthetic of reductive purity, the Superimpositionists celebrate complexity. They produce self-consciously historicized objects, in which layers of paint, agglomerated images, aged surfaces, buried information, missteps, false starts and other accumulations of pictorial elements over time are not merely uncovered, but laid bare.

An implicit utopian impulse runs parallel to a formalist mandate to purge painting of dreaded illusionism. What Spaid champions, however, is not painting stripped down to its so-called essence, but painting that doesn't lie or obfuscate its constructedness. It acknowledges its status as an interim moment, instead of an immutable form.

The signature artists of "The Layered Look" are collaborators Erik Otsea and Jan Tumlir, whose magnum opus is a single painting, passed back and forth between the two since 1988 and continually reworked. The painting--currently a Surrealist abstraction--stands at the entrance to the gallery, along with a dozen photographs of previous incarnations and nine paint discs taken from a "core sample."

The idea of a "transparent" art object, whose present discloses its past while insinuating its future, is nothing new. It is a key tenet of Post-Minimalism and all subsequent variants of the process-oriented art of the 1970s. Yet Spaid does an impressive job of charting the centrality of this idea for a particular group of artists, mostly painters, at a particular moment. If it doesn't define a new movement or school of "Superimpositionism," that's OK. It is certainly more than one has come to expect of this kind of crowd-pleasing, summertime feast for the eyes.

* Jan Baum Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (213) 932- 0170, through Aug . 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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