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ART REVIEWS : An Apartment Furnished With Intellectual Stimulation


An untitled group show in a modest Santa Monica apartment neatly summarizes a host of issues currently facing the art world. Notions of what art is and how it functions come into crisp focus in this intelligent selection of objects and projects by Jorge Pardo, Sarah Seager, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Lincoln Tobier.

Organized by Brian Butler, whose small home doubles as a gallery on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the humble exhibition ambitiously explores various approaches to the making and display of contemporary art. After the art market's extreme contraction a few years ago, it makes a virtue of necessity, combining cutbacks in scale with a fruitful search for more meaningful ways of bringing viewers and works together.

Upon entering the living room, you immediately feel that you've just missed the exhibition. Cartons of empty bottles, a poster advertising a community radio station, and a transistor radio playing songs by the Beach Boys make the otherwise empty room seem as if it were in the middle of being cleaned after a party.

In the kitchen, a large pot of spicy Thai curry simmers on the stove. A transcript of a telephone conversation among the artists rests on the table. If you're a regular visitor, you might notice that the cupboard doors, counter drawers, refrigerator and floor have been tastefully altered.

The casual, do-it-yourself quality of the show signals its flexibility and strength. At first, its open-ended, propositional quality is accompanied by the suspicion that there's precious little art here. Eventually, this unsatisfying sentiment gives way to a budding recognition of the wide-ranging potential of the art. Most of the works make up for their lack of visual interest with plenty of intellectual stimulation.

The delicious curry, which is freely served to every visitor, was cooked by Tiravanija and is reheated daily by Butler. When a similar version of this participatory performance took place in New York, it had the unsavory flavor of a high-brow soup kitchen--of a pretentious, tongue-in-cheek mimicry of the free meals shelters sometimes serve to the homeless.

In the private apartment, however, Tiravanija's intentions are more clearly realized: His work suggests that art is meant to nourish, and that dealers must work like waiters, politely serving their guests. The hot curry also implies that the consumption of art requires as much time as eating, should stick with us at least as long, and ought to be as intimate and physical as sharing a meal.

For his part, Pardo quietly insists that art is most effective when it's almost invisible--when it nearly disappears into the design of one's domestic environment. He has replaced all of the cupboard doors and drawers with unpainted particle board. He's also spray-painted the refrigerator doors a pretty shade of turquoise, switched the overhead light, and retiled the floor. As a result, the kitchen hovers between high art and mundane design, drawing as much from Mondrian's paintings and Imi Knoebel's sculptures as from the local hardware store.

Tobier proposes that artists expand their audiences by transforming themselves into radio stations, by broadcasting programs over the readily accessible airwaves of community AM radio. Seager contends that art's role is primarily documentary. Like a historian of the recent past, she presents a photocopied record of a conversation about the show's organization.

As a whole, the down-scaled yet optimistic exhibition casts about for new models to guide art-making and viewing. The best works maintain a place for aesthetic pleasure somewhat apart from the goal-oriented behavior of everyday existence. The least effective totally dissolve art into pre-established activities or practices.

Butler's experimental approach is exciting, adventuresome and risky because it gives a lot of control back to artists. It also demands that visitors think actively about the exchanges that take place when we come into contact with art, wherever we might find it.

*1301, 1301 Franklin St., Santa Monica, (310) 828-9133, through Sept. 4. Only open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.


Comic Relief: The middle-age white guy who appears in all of Chuck Agro's cartoonish portraits looks as if he's the type of character who would never think of correcting others when they mispronounce his name. It seems he'd be happy to get any kind of recognition, even if it meant being mistaken for someone else, being taken for a schmuck, or getting ridiculed for being hopelessly pathetic.

Agro has a talent for making his viewers feel more than a little sympathy for his awkward, comic-strip character. His 14 brightly colored paintings at Earl McGrath Gallery elicit a tinge of tenderness from even the toughest critics. They fuse a modicum of Pop irony with a sappy desire for expressive sensitivity.

Despite knowing that your easiest sentiments are being cheaply manipulated by the New York-based artist, it's difficult to attack his hapless man. It's easier to feel sorry for him, maybe even wishing you could help him out of his down-and-out slump. Part of his charm is that it simply seems unfair to criticize a defenseless, dim-witted and two-dimensional figure.

It would be ridiculous to give the artist the same latitude we allow his overweight, seemingly confused simpleton. Agro has a talent for creating painterly surfaces that combine the softness of watercolors with the slick impenetrability of resin-coated objects. His facility with paint, however, is sadly overshadowed by his fixation on a subject better suited for the funny pages than large-scale paintings.

*Earl McGrath Gallery, 454 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 652-9850, through Sept. 1. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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