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ART REVIEW : Ruminations on the Resistance to Nature

January 28, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

A few days ago, in the pre-dawn dark, millions of Angelenos shared the terror of feeling they might not see the dawn. It was an experience designed--once panic subsided--to put survivors in thoughtful moods. What was it that so frightened us in the blackness and so comforted us in the light of the sun? First we were blinded, then we could see. We were suddenly grateful for mere appearance.

Art, at its best, shows what is happening behind the simple look of things. A keen modest exhibition at Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts is soberingly apt. It speaks in sharp detail of a neo-Medieval world on the edge of chaos. A quality of moral parable laces much of it, but it is more mythic than biblical. It ruminates on modern humankind's resistance to accepting nature as it resides both within and without.

The show, titled "Beyond Appearance," was organized by independent curator Josine Ianco-Starrels. Here she is admirably up to her old trick of presenting the work of gifted L.A. artists who get less than their due because of the prejudice of fashion. There's a valuable, nicely produced catalogue with contributions by Starrels and Armory Director Jay Belloli and also an informative essay by Richard Tobin.

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The seven artists involved share a common profile. Virtually all found that the learning offered them in art school was not what they wanted to know. All want to make art mirroring a world that for them individually seems real. All place high value on traditional craftsmanship and timeless intuition. Inspirations range widely, from Hieronymus Bosch to French salon academics such as Jean-Leon Gerome. There are whiffs of Surrealism, Photorealism and Assemblage.

This work addresses aspects of life and art that are timeless and without conscious style. It uses humor and foolery to stave off desperation and hopelessness. Since society is mightily leery of people who insist on being themselves, it sticks such art with the pejorative label "eccentric."

Steve Galloway's "House of Hand" is the tour de force masterpiece of the show. A big, tight two-sided painting, it stands on a pedestal in a heavy polished wood frame. One side shows a building constructed in the shape of an alligator or crocodile. Its roof sign spells out the title, like a grotesque version of L.A.'s old theme eateries. The reverse side shows two men in a swamp, each wearing half of a suit shaped like the reptile. It's about our monstrous deformation of nature and our failure to unite our animal and human aspects.

Peter Zokosky likes to pretend we have. He paints his self-portrait with a monkey's body. In "Disciple," he depicts a lovely nude woman looking admiringly at a wise ape. He brings a sweetness to his complex work that recalls the Italian primitives.

Animals by Randall Lavender have a quality of humor and hope that contradicts their bruised coloration. His "Moose on Stilts" trucks along with blithe fortitude. His "High Wire Goat" looks at us anxiously but will probably bridge the chasm. His critters are both human and animal, lending dignity to both.

The magic of the natural world is real to Margaret Nielsen. She convinces us in small paintings of dark forests in which a stag sees a great bird aglow, fish fly above the pond and a great cat's stare sets a cabin aflame.

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The other artists are closer to cities, sex and moral dilemmas. Jon Swihart's sharp-focus miniaturized figure paintings seem to bring Old Testament parables to the suburbs dressed in Levi's and Hawaiian shirts. Cain and Abel live as a blond hunk attacks a wine picnic to grab the girl and threaten her guy with a baseball bat. Flesh and spirit confront each other as a nude woman faces a man who fancies himself protected by the flimsy temple of his rationality.

If the theme of what-fools-these-fellows-be is spice to Swihart, it's sauce to John Frame. His exquisite small wood carvings are classic memento mori, morality plays updated through Samuel Beckett. In this world, every man is his own philosopher, with a wise long nose that lies to itself while knowing perfectly well the grinning skull is ever at its nostril.

Michael McMillen extends rumination on our capacity to outwit ourselves in his models of fantastic empty warehouses and jerry-built towers festooned with pulleys and cables of ingenious pointlessness. Even the citizen who recognizes the hollowness of it all and escapes gets his. He moves his trailer out into lovely nature. He's got all he needs there on the water's edge. But it's a lost lake. The water vanishes and the smart guy is left in a desert.

In a town where Atlas' simple shrug left innocence dead and cleverness impotent, these artists traffic in truths we need to heed.

* Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena ; (818) 792-5101 . Ends Mar ch 13 .

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