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ART REVIEWS : 'Transtextualism': Works to Read, See, Feel

August 25, 1994|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If they could, the paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs in "Transtextualism" would reach out and touch you on the tips of your fingers.

Being inanimate objects, however, the works in this jumbled exhibition at Mark Moore Gallery, organized by artist Sabina Ott, do the next best thing: They attempt to get viewers to physically engage them, to run hands, fingers or eyes across their variously textured surfaces.

The most captivating pieces in the uneven, 21-artist show instill some tension between seeing and touching. The least interesting works settle for studying nit-picking differences between looking and reading.

Among the former category is the show's most massive object, a pile of rocks unceremoniously stacked in the middle of the gallery. About half of the hefty stones in Wendy Adest's "Lair" have been carefully wrapped with silky fabric printed with a leopard-skin pattern.

To the eye, Adest's sculpture looks like a pile of rough rocks interspersed with soft, chiffon-covered cushions. Only upon squeezing the artist's fraudulent pillows do you discover how uncomfortable they are.

A hands-on, curious and untrusting approach reveals "Lair" to be a liar. Adest's deceptive sculpture registers a decisive gap between the ways one's eyes and hands function.

Buzz Spector's dismembered and reconfigured books evince an even more pronounced fusion of violence and beauty. Torn to shreds and meticulously glued back together, his dysfunctional texts are not readable. As you silently sound-out their nonsensical articulations, you have to listen to them in your inner ear.

They show that language is not a disembodied abstraction, but a substantial, physical entity. Like a babbling cacophony of randomly arranged vowels and consonants, Spector's ripped pages give form to the multilayered texture of language, to guttural utterances, delicate intonations and monosyllabic ejaculations.

Sally Elesby's slight, wiry confections; Christopher French's abstract painting on pages of Braille; Vernon Fisher's damaged photographs and Nicolas Rule's drippy, runny picture of a thoroughbred's lineage similarly give shape to charged differences between visual and tactile experience.

Stephen Berens' "Attempt to Make My Statement From 1977 More Closely Reflect My Work From That Period" is a hilarious attempt to conflate looking and reading. By juxtaposing a blurry photograph of a landscape with a typed artist's statement whose words have been shifted to imitate the photo's tonal modulations, Berens demonstrates that images and words serve different purposes. His clever diptych reveals the absurdity of trying to get language to function pictorially.

Nearly all of the other pieces in the exhibition treat language abstractly, as an intangible structure to be read from a distance, or as a static element to be redesigned visually. As a result, the texts employed by these works lack texture. Viewers are left with little to read, less to see and still less to feel. Aside from a handful of satisfying exceptions, "Transtextualism" doesn't offer much to grab onto, either physically or conceptually.

* Mark Moore Gallery, 2032-A Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 453-3831, through Sept . 1. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Objects of Reverie: Alison Van Pelt's oils-on-canvas at Robert Berman Gallery try to transfer the mystique of old photographs to nearly life-size painted portraits.

Initially, the L.A.-based artist's ghostly images of solitary, nude women shrouded in indistinct, atmospheric blurs look sexy. Specific details disappear into the shadows, leaving viewers free to fantasize about the mysterious women Van Pelt conjures with her paintbrush. Their lithe bodies and incandescent skin seem to be bathed in the warm glow of flickering candle light.

After the superficial allure of Van Pelt's pictures wears off, they begin to resemble painstakingly rendered yet opportunistic imitations of Gerhard Richter's chilling paintings of murdered student nurses from the 1960s, portraits of German intellectuals from the 1970s, and haunting suite of images from the 1980s, depicting the members of the Baader-Meinhof gang who met mysterious deaths in prison.

In contrast to Richter, whose figurative works draw their often tragic subjects from social events while poignantly reflecting upon public memory and amnesia, Van Pelt chooses to depict typically attractive, imaginary women as objects of private reverie. This strategy echoes that of conventional pornography.

Her work lacks the resonance of Richter's elegiac paintings. Close inspection reveals that Van Pelt's surfaces are slap-dash and thin in contrast to Richter's lush, gradually built-up layers of paint, which facilitate a wider range of tonal variations. Making paintings that resemble paintings that resemble photographs fails to turn the tables in Van Pelt's favor, instead diminishing the power of her technically proficient but unimaginative art.

* Robert Berman Gallery, 2044 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 453-9195, through Sunday.

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