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ART REVIEW : Outterbridge: Assembling Stories : LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL: "HOME, PLACE and MEMORY" A city-wide arts fest.

September 02, 1993|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

"John Outterbridge: A Retrospective," which opened Saturday at the California Afro-American Museum, contains moments of great power, especially in a wrenching group of doll-like sculptures made principally in the late 1970s, and in a recent, large-scale installation that may signal a lyrical new direction for the 60-year-old artist.

The exhibition, organized by guest curator Lizetta LeFalle-Collins, also shows that Outterbridge's assemblage sculpture has been decidedly erratic. In some 50 works dating from 1966 to the present, certain threads of continuity become self-evident. Occasionally, they all come together in a dramatic crescendo.

Following Outterbridge's trajectory as an artist can be difficult, but it was almost impossible since the exhibition almost didn't happen. Earlier this summer the precarious financial condition of the state-run museum threw its opening into doubt. Although some corporate and civic funds came through, no proper catalogue could be produced.

It's too bad. The absence of a critical and scholarly historical context for this show is not just disappointing--it is also sadly ironic, given the layered subject of Outterbridge's art.

History--both personal and social--is the engine that drives his work. Outterbridge attempts to bring into resonant play episodes and events from his own past, as well as from the history of black America and the African diaspora, in order to create objects of critical consciousness. His assemblages aim for a poetic elucidation of the ways in which history shapes the platform on which one stands.

Artistically, the medium of assemblage is well suited to the task. Assemblage is the sculptural form that puts modeling, casting and carving on a lower rung, in favor of joining together materials and objects that have had a utilitarian life before and outside the context of art. When brought into the realm of sculpture, these assembled fragments of a salvaged world retain a distant echo of their former lives--of their material history.

Outterbridge began to make assemblages in 1966, three years after he arrived in Los Angeles (from Greensboro, N.C., by way of Chicago, where he studied art) and five years after assemblage had been officially codified with a modern history in a sprawling exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Typically he has worked in series, rather than making discrete or independent sculptures.

The "Containment Series," a group of flat wall reliefs of salvaged and soldered metal, has the look of pictures composed from fragments of urban walls. The motif recurs periodically throughout the exhibition, most recently in a group of wall pieces collectively titled "Aesthetics of Urban Blight" from 1989-1993.

The wall reliefs demonstrate Outterbridge's interest in the mixed-media work of Robert Rauschenberg and the sculpture of Mark di Suvero, which is made from urban and industrial detritus. They show how his art has always tried to arise from the reality of the street.

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However, the wall reliefs also rely heavily on a poetry presumed to be intrinsic to any aged or weathered object. More than Rauschenberg or Di Suvero, these reliefs remind one of the carefully composed still lifes of the 19th-Century American painter William Harnett, albeit made abstract. The big difference is that Harnett produced classically arranged compositions of used but genteel domestic objects, which suggest a stable continuity from past to present, while Outterbridge forges a classical structure for hitherto discarded objects. His degraded cast-offs have been reborn in art, and they're meant to be sanctified in the process.

Not surprisingly, this implied transformation sounds vaguely religious. It fits right into the Parisian Surrealist tradition, with its Catholic overtones of sin and redemption through the mystical body of Christ, which brought assemblage into the artistic mainstream more than a half-century ago.

For Outterbridge's art, there's a slight twist: Evoked is the historic position of the Protestant church in black American life.

The abstraction of the wall reliefs is too generalized to sustain their evident narrative purpose, however, even when painted bits of writing are included. Not until the "Ragman Series" (1970-76) and, especially, the "Ethnic Heritage Series" (1976-1982) does Outterbridge's art find a truly pungent voice.

Andre Breton and his fellow Parisian Surrealists may have engaged in aestheticizing the modern flea market and second-hand store, which were born of the newly industrialized world, but Outterbridge uses cast-offs in a slightly different way. Rag-picking isn't solely an aesthetic observation about cultural situations. His cast-offs become the raw materials for highly specific icons of personal and social history.

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