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Devine Deception : Artist / Gallery Owner, Interested in 'Distributing Ideas,' Attends His Own Lecture

March 23, 1994|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — It's unusual to hear an artist's slide lecture accompanied by a soundtrack featuring psychedelic hip-hoppers Cypress Hill, cult literary figure William Burroughs and alternative-rock group the Breeders.

It's even more unusual for an artist to pull off the Andy Warhol stunt of getting someone to impersonate him.

Rory Devine, the founder of TRI gallery in Los Angeles, did both on Monday as part of the Art Forum lecture series at Rancho Santiago College.

Artist Greg Gibbs, impersonating Devine, stumbled nervously but convincingly through a lecture Devine wrote, then showed slides of pieces by Devine and his gallery artists--with Devine looking on, unnoticed, from the audience.

A 28-year-old artist who has shown his own work at Food House in Santa Monica and Sue Spaid Fine Art and Earl McGrath Gallery in Los Angeles, Devine opened his gallery two years ago in the dining room of his Los Angeles apartment. It is one of several new critically acclaimed spaces operated on shoestring budgets by artists and dealers in homes and storefronts throughout Los Angeles.

Devine, who once worked at Burnett Miller Gallery in Los Angeles, a mecca for conceptual art, once told an interviewer that, as a dealer, he is primarily interested in "distributing ideas."

In fact, the very idea of having someone else pretend to be him fits in with the overriding theme of his art: life in (to quote the script) "an obsessive, overdetermined system."

People attending a lecture expect to hear from the person who has been introduced, and are willing to go to virtually any lengths to maintain their belief in the system.

As someone who didn't find out about the hoax until the following day, I didn't suspect anything. (I'd never met Devine, who resembles Gibbs, though I had met Gibbs.) When "Devine" had trouble pronouncing some of the words he wrote, I put it down to nerves.

*

In response to questions from the audience, he couldn't remember what medium one of his pieces was in or the name of one of the artists he represented, but I cut him some slack. Hey, he was a rattled guy unused to public speaking.

Incredibly, he drew a blank when asked for the new address of his gallery--and even that failed to arouse my suspicions. (When the real Devine--who was in the audience and is said to be quite shy--called out the information, I just assumed he was a helpful friend.)

"In almost all my work there is a complicity with the viewer, an attempt to (create) an almost invisible presence, as if the object somehow materialized from an anonymous production" source, Gibbs intoned from his script.

Devine's "landscapes," based on the work of such 19th-Century artists as John Constable and Caspar David Friedrich, consist entirely of words ("clouds," "valley," "woman" and so forth).

In place of what have become Romantic cliches, Devine lets viewers imagine the scenes for themselves, based on a combination of knowledge about actual landscapes and the "image bank" of memories of works of art. The landscapes are painted directly on the wall, in the same dimensions as the originals, with the knowledge that they will be destroyed after being photographed.

"I like the absurdity of the labor it takes to produce these paintings," said Gibbs.

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Other works by Devine have dense, maze-like effects made with layers of oil paint or lengths of electrical cords. With such titles as "Untitled (Central Nervous System)" and "Urban Growth," the paintings are, according to Devine's script, metaphors of alienation and paranoia in a technology-driven culture.

The abstract drawings made with electrical cords, which conveniently provide their own light source, might be "something seen in discos of the future, linking the passive act of looking to the insidious system of . . . technology," Gibbs read.

The disco concept reached its apogee in "Midnight Cowboy II," an eight-foot-square room-within-a-room installation for a New York gallery.

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Above a mirrored floor, a dangling maze of electrical cords and eight flashing light bulbs created "a sort of sanctuary for a go-go dancer," according to the script. "In contrast to the objectification of (a go-go) dancer by the viewer, this was a space where the dancer could reclaim his or her identity." In a twist on real-life voyeurism, the viewer "had to violate the purity of the space to experience the piece."

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Clearly, the conceptual qualities of Devine's own work relate to the choices he makes as a dealer. (And his musical choices? "I think it sounds good and maybe you'll like the work more," Gibbs read.)

Beginning with three-person shows, Devine branched out with a much-talked about exhibition in the fall of 1992, which took over his whole apartment and brought in the first reviews. That was "The Laura Show," a group of works by six young artists who just happened to share the same given name.

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