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Mixing Media : 'Words and Symbols' spotlights age-old art elements--and the varied language of their combination.

March 04, 1994|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

WOODLAND HILLS — Within the visual language of art, words and symbols have established a secure place.

Symbols have been an important element since cave-dwellers left their marks on cave walls. The inclusion of words in art was not so prevalent until the early 20th Century, when collage began to flourish.

In the exhibit "Words and Symbols," at Artspace Gallery in Woodland Hills, curator Scott Canty brings together the work of nine contemporary artists who use these elements to convey a broad range of ideas and emotions.

"I've always been fascinated with artists who use symbols in their work," Canty said. Some of the symbols "are very personal, others universal."

In his curator's statement, he reflects on the progress of words and symbols in art from prehistoric times to present day, and writes: "In this exhibit we see how words become symbols and symbols become words. . . . Individuals have continued to develop a symbolic language in order to communicate their innermost feelings, thoughts and desires."

Michael McCall employs abstract and representational symbols to journey through the universe from the beginning of time to its end in "Alpha / Omega." With sand and acrylic, enamel and gold lacquer paints, his luminous grid (read left to right, top to bottom) takes us from the cosmos and the world's genesis through the advent of plant life, basic to complex animal life, human life, philosophy and religion. A money bag is followed directly by bombs, atomic energy and the end of the world.

In a decidedly more upbeat work, McCall presents the Japanese and Chinese symbols for "Long Life . . . Good Luck." The colors are bold, the characters sharp and alive in the four oil-on-canvas paintings that make up this piece.

Paul Bouchard focuses on dual cultures in cast-paper works such as "Line in the Sand 6." Combining cast paper with sand, gauze and acrylic on canvas, this work juxtaposes Hebrew and Arabic in a peaceful coexistence.

"His early work dealt with peace and conflict with flags," Canty said. "Some had gone through war, were torn apart, but they were still flying. He's still taking the idea of flags as a way of identifying groups."

The X and the Y, symbols for female and male chromosomes, can be found in Tony Ramos' abstract mixed-media visions of dreams. The snake and the moon may also be there, or a dome with a half circle over it.

The latter symbolizes "a myth that relates to the aborigines," Canty said. "Ramos talks a lot about his roots in his work, and who we are on this planet."

Doug Cluff's steel and carved wood pieces covered with black varnish are manifestations of personal emotions. Canty explained that "Accumulation of Effect" was inspired by Cluff's reading of a book about a plague-affected village. We, the living, look in on the dead. The long, punching-bag-like forms represent bodies, the holes in them the wounds of disease, starvation and war.

Nicholette Kominos captures the simplicity, fragility and richness of life by setting objects from everyday life--spoons, plates, cups, flowers--against textured white backgrounds made from drywall and foam. "The drawings and the way the pieces are made seem to be very innocent, but they have a sophistication that a child couldn't do," Canty said.

In charcoal-on-paper drawings such as "Bust, Vessels" and "Infant Saviors," Brad Coleman renders familiar symbols of Christianity in dramatic, highly emotional ways. Dennis Hollingsworth uses words or parts of words to play with space. The letter forms of "Untitled (Flowers in Jail 2)" stand in front of the central image of the flower, giving the impression that there's a third dimension to this painting.

Though in one artwork the words may foster understanding of the piece, in another they could be the core of its mystery.

The writing in Kathi Martin's constructions and collages "carries you through the piece," Canty said. One "Game Table" contains Little Rascals images, another Tarot cards. "She attracts you with the images and color, and then hits you with a good one (with the narrative). They're more about the games in life."

One can try to pick out individual words in Barbara Romain's large mixed-media work, "Herstory and History," and succeed, but that would only suggest part of the story. The cacophony of words in these life-size images--"History" done in blue, "Herstory" in pink, he somewhat bigger than she--creates a frenzied aura that communicates the larger picture here.

Viewing her work, Canty said: "I feel like I'm in the midst of the busiest city with lights and neon, and everyone wants your attention. You are being so over-sensitized with all of this coming at you."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Words and Symbols."

Location: Artspace Gallery, 21800 Oxnard St., Woodland Hills.

Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Ends April 16. Also, "Conversations With the Artists" begin at 1:30 p.m. March 12.

Call: (818) 716-2786.

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