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ART REVIEW : meettheaccomplishedpetershelton : LACMA offers the first major museum solo show for an artist who creates originality through synthesis.


Peter Shelton is funny. He's funny like the Goodyear blimp stuffed into the Watts Towers. He's funny like an eccentric English inventor describing an odd dream over tea while masking an anxiety his bladder won't hold to the end of the story. Or that he might possibly murder his hostess.

Shelton, 43, is an L.A. artist of considerable accomplishment showing some 40 works made since 1986 at the L.A. County Museum of Art. Organized by associate curator Carol S. Eliel, the show will be a revelation to most of his audience since this is the artist's first major museum solo, complete with catalogue. Its title gives a clue to the slightly antic nature of the event: "bottlesbonesandthingsgetwet" is not a typographical error. It's supposed to be like that. All lower-case letters run together in the fashion of poet e.e. cummings.

Shelton was born in Troy, Ohio, moved to Tempe, Ariz., and then here, where he attended Pomona College, majored in premed, sociology, anthropology and theater before settling into art that, not surprisingly, reflects his other interests. He got a bachelor's degree in 1973 and returned to Troy, where he earned a certificate in welding from the Hobart Brothers School of Welding Technology. The fact he valued learning a trade over taking a graduate degree speaks well of him.

At this point in his development any artist with a proper sense of career moves to New York. The rest settle in Los Angeles. Shelton thought he'd be more in his element in the geography that spawned great assemblage artists from Ed Kienholz to Michael McMillen, not to mention those indefinable bricoleurs of style like Bruce Nauman. He was right and he's a prime example of L.A. artists' genius for creating originality through synthesis.

The first section of the exhibition is simply titled "thingsgetwet," reflecting Shelton's knack for making art that at first seems complex, then simplifies itself only to grow complicated again.

"churchsnakebedbone" consists of a bed suspended from the ceiling. On it rests a coiled snake; beneath it hangs an upside-down scale model of Chartres Cathedral. A human thigh bone is wired to one leg of the bed. The whole is interlaced with narrow copper piping that pours delicate streams of water on significant points, all of which eventually dribbles down to buckets resting on the floor.

A piece of cake, Dr. Freud. This young gentleman is clearly having a regressive anxiety dream. His fear is that mandatory socialization imposed as toilet training by the superego will fail. He will wet the bed through his personal snake and thus defile the holy social taboos represented by the cathedral. Perfectly normal.

Perfectly corny too. Rendered in any other medium--paint for example--this work would be the kind of psychoanalytic pun that would make Rene Magritte groan in his grave.

But this thing is solid cast bronze. You feel the weight of it hanging there the way some people's dreams involve physical sensations of turning to stone, water or air. Shelton equates the whole tableau to a human body through the sparse, bony bed, the allusion to the skeletal structure of Gothic architecture, the human bone.

He doesn't just signal symbolic meaning to the mind, he uses materials to communicate to our senses so we get a gut reaction like schizophrenics who think they can feel their organs at work.

He's also wonderfully adept at changing the meaning of that water that gently bathes every piece in this section. In "waterchair" it becomes absurdist black humor. You just know some mad scientist wants to carry out the death penalty with his new hydro-chair. Sometimes Shelton's water is blasphemy, sometimes it's baptism. It's always the stream of consciousness, now murderously dark, now sunny as a kid in spring.

The second half of the show consists of large individual works whose favorite trick is a kind of impersonation of the Michelin tire man. The basic technique is to weld a linear grid in whatever shape you want, cover it with a softer material so the lines of the grid show and cast it.

"blackdress" is supposed to be a three-dimensional re-creation of one of those elaborate Spanish court gowns Velasquez painted in the 17th Century. Shelton's version gets off a zinger about how those cumbersome costumes must have rivaled the torture machines of the Inquisition. Solid existence makes it even funkier. It looks like two ebony igloos making love with such heat they need a chimney in the arctic.

In a wonderful variation on this theme the grid is stuffed with softer rubbery material so it puckers out of the framing suggesting everything from a cartoon balloon being strangled by a belt to a zaftig lady in a tight dress.

Works like "bulgebone" are really Shelton's musing on the idea of the exoskeletal, a world where even our bones need bones. Shelton, however, stands by himself.


* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., through May 15, closed Monday and Tuesday, (213) 857-6000.

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