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ART REVIEW : A Suggestion of Cultural Edginess : The ambitious 'Love in the Ruins' at Long Beach Museum of Art tries to paint a picture of L.A. through the work of 23 artists.

March 10, 1994|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Exhibitions that enlist the aid of art in the service of explicating the sense of a city or locale are notoriously difficult to pull off. "Love in the Ruins: Art and the Inspiration of L.A." is but the latest casualty.

The show, which opened Friday at the Long Beach Museum of Art, is an ambitious effort to articulate a complex picture of Los Angeles through the work of 23 artists. As its title (borrowed from novelist Walker Percy) wryly suggests, the dystopian aspects of the region's popular profile, rather than its sunnier mystique, have taken center stage of late, while hope springs eternal. Although not as aggressively as "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the '90s," the notorious 1992 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, "Love in the Ruins" means to suggest a cultural edginess.

Two-thirds of the exhibition consists of work with a basis in photography or other forms of reproduction, such as printing or video, but it's not monolithic in its aim. Long Beach Museum Curator Noriko Gamblin is conscientious in acknowledging a broad range of viewpoints, while also managing a thumbnail sketch of 25 years of history.

From the 1960s there's Edward Ruscha's wonderful fold-out book of deadpan photographs, which chronicle its descriptive title: "Every Building on the Sunset Strip," and Vija Celmins' 1968 graphite drawing "Untitled (Ocean)," which is both a bracing meditation on the surface of the ocean and a slyly poetic rumination on the artistic uses of the surface of a piece of paper.

From the 1970s and 1980s, Edward Kienholz is represented by an assemblage made from an automobile door, Robert Yarber by a personal apocalypse painted in the jittery colors of nighttime neon and Judy Fiskin by small-format photographs of the desert, sites in old Long Beach and dingbat apartment buildings throughout L.A.

John Divola's luxurious and well-known Ektacolor photographs of beautiful Zuma Beach seen through the window of a burned-out, graffiti-scarred house are here, as are Anthony Hernandez's less familiar Cibachrome pictures of trash-cluttered freeway underpasses, where the residue of homelessness lingers. Hernandez records marginal landscapes for marginalized people.

Mostly, though, this is a show of rather recent art, or of work by younger artists. Some, such as video-based installations by Eileen Cowin and by the team of Max Almy and Teri Yarbrow, as well as Russell Crotty's ballpoint-ink doodles of battleships, installed as wallpaper, were conceived expressly for the show.

Notable examples by such established figures as John Baldessari, Karen Carson, Larry Johnson and Lari Pittman cohabit with work by newly emergent artists. Steven Criqui's cheerfully spooky paintings, framed like diner decor, act as signs for abstract landscapes in an oddly compelling, thoroughly contemporary reworking of Arthur Dove. And Catherine Opie's intentionally old-fashioned Pictorialist style, used for lovely platinum-print photographs of swooping, soaring freeway overpasses, disconcertingly represents these famous symbols of L.A.'s promise of a golden future in a historicizing manner: Progressive optimism is deftly memorialized as a thing of the past.

Art always responds in at least a general way to the environment in which it is made, even if it doesn't happen to illustrate current events. The show's post-recession/riot/flood/fire/earthquake/mudslide motif isn't addressed with specificity. When a distinct sense of shift shows up, as in Opie's smart photographs or Criqui's charming paintings, it's more oblique: Her pictures, notably untitled, could just as easily be photographs of freeways in Texas, while his paintings are equally evocative of strip malls in Illinois.

The difficulty with the show is that it makes you look at this work as if Los Angeles, as factual place or fictional idea, is these artists' exclusive focus, when it almost never is.

In the 19th Century the Impressionist embrace of landscape was unthinkable without the wholesale urbanization of the era, while the explosive drama of 17th-Century Baroque art could not have occurred without a consolidation of power by the Catholic Church. Impressionism isn't just about Paris, however, and Baroque art isn't just about Rome. Nor is the Postmodern art in the Long Beach exhibition just about L.A.

Inevitably, "Love in the Ruins" encourages you to narrow your response to the art it offers. By contrast, the best exhibitions are those that are most expansive. The "ruins" of the title should be as suggestive of the rubble of a Modernist conception of the world, which is no longer tenable, as they are of a charred or shaken piece of real estate.

As for the "love" part of the title, it's the show's strongest feature. What's encouraging about the exhibition is the Long Beach Museum's enthusiastic willingness to sift through generational layers of art produced in Southern California, without the overweening regard for safe celebrity that has come to characterize so many museum programs, here and elsewhere. Thematic exhibitions are rare in museums these days, while younger artists of evident promise are usually shut out.

Worse, museums often seem woefully disengaged from the artistic communities in which they reside. "Love in the Ruins" happily tries to buck those tides.

Still, the show does get tangled up in a confusion that is endemic to our conflicted time. For convincing works of art finally do not represent the culture from which they come, whether Los Angeles, Paris or Rome. Instead, art is what creates it.

* Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., (310) 439-2119, through May 22. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

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