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SIGHTS : Sculpture Brings an Air of Levity to Staid Public Setting : Bill McEwen's looming structure of irregular organic shapes offers 'sly hum of irony' at the county Government Center.

January 27, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

News of the unveiling of a public sculpture often elicits yawns, at best; cynical smirks, at worst. There is nothing inherently suspect about art in public places, or the possibilities thereof. But when it comes to art made public, and at least semi-permanent, what tends to get approval is work that has been deemed safe and decent for general consumption by the general public.

And the general public can be infamous for fearing infamy.

But something funny and intriguing happened last week outside the Ventura County Government Center, where Bill McEwen's spindly and looming new piece was officially welcomed to the entrance of the courtyard area. McEwen's gangly steel creation, far from being generic, brings levity and individuality to a utilitarian, often authoritarian, property.

There's no pithy euphemism for a title here: The plaque reads, with an almost comical artspeak literalness, "Organic Form, Activity at Transition Points, Defined Space." That it is, and then some.

A bundle of contrasts and contradictions, McEwen's work embraces discontinuity, but also disguises its rebellious intentions. Irregular organic shapes, such as a fragmented tree or animal limbs, form the sculpture's base. But its dramatic height is scaled by more symmetrical, industrially rendered poles, set at an angle.

These two varied elements are joined with a seeming precariousness by loosely wrapped cables. The poles teeter, as if verging on collapse. From the haphazard look of it, you wouldn't want to be nearby in the event of an earthquake. But subtle welding joints assure its stability.

At root, McEwen's piece is a subversion of the tradition of heroic and monumental sculptures placed out of begrudging obligation to the arts. The tall cylinder, ascending 30 feet, resembles a flag pole--appropriately enough, for a place of official, government-related business--or a ship's mast.

All it lacks is vertical solidity, or the other typical aspects and cliches of formal rectitude. A sly hum of irony envelopes it.

"Organic Form..." has all the right accouterments to be just another pleasant excursion in public art. A surrounding flower bed gives it a colorful home. A concrete base announces its status as an artwork worth looking at. It is placed in a key spot, flanked by the three wings of the Government Center.

But, instead of being just another inert sculptural ornament, McEwen's piece turns out to be the best and wittiest example of public art the county can presently call its own. Activity at transition points, indeed.

T.O. POTPOURRI

The first show of the year at the Thousand Oaks Community Gallery is a mixed-bag. The four artists share little common ground, except that they definitely qualify as contenders under the show's title, "All Things Under Heaven." Here, African elephants, Dante-fied figurines, equestrian abstractions and Orient-loric screens are the reference points under said heaven.

Although curiously lacking basic information about the titles of works or the artists behind them, the show has an unfinished, strangely scattershot appearance. But closer examination reveals some admirable artistic ideas at work.

The sculpture of Karen Coburn ranges from straight-postured Robert Graham-like nudes, at best, to a series of figures illustrating moral attributes taken from Dante's "The Divine Comedy." There, any sense of free-standing artwork gives way to literary reference.

In 2- and 3-D, Lyla Fernandes Paakkaanen's lavishly painted screens, fanning out accordion fashion, come decorated with serpents and other free-flowing exotica.

Patricia Mason-Sica's "Vanishing" series takes as its subject African elephants, which, as her statement reads, "are symbolic of all the things that we humans are systematically destroying in our greed and shortsightedness."

Whether or not the symbolic resonance rings true, her finely detailed graphite pieces show skill and playful compositional approaches. On the gallery's floor sits a sculptural shrine to the elephant, a gathering of bones and tusks with a garland.

But the drawings themselves are more clever than mournful, as she lionizes her elephants by blending their ears with the form of the African continent and placing them on ethereal backgrounds.

The question of background vs. foreground becomes a central conceit of the "Horsescapes" of Randy Osherow, the finest work in the show. As if representing a sort of cheeky cowboy minimalism, Osherow's equestrian images are deceptive, looking from a distance like monochromatic panels.

Straight, realistic renderings of horses appear discreetly, tucked along the bottom of the frames. Pieces of leathery, unstretched canvas behind plexiglass are thickly painted, mostly in one color.

Tactile skeins and ridges add to the surface texture, underpainted with markings that suggest either brands of ranches or equations out of a physics class. The result is a strangely poetic convergence of ideas on a theme. Agrarian and aesthetic elements meet and find a way to get along.

Josef Woodard is an avowed cultural omnivore who covers art and music.

Details

* BILL McEWEN's new public sculpture at the Ventura County Government Center, 800 S. Victoria Ave. in Ventura; 654-3964.

* "TIAN XAI: All Things Under Heaven," group show through Jan. 30 at the Thousand Oaks Community Gallery, 2331-A Borchard Road, Thousand Oaks; 498-4390.

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