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Art Review : Three Doses of Reality, Magic and Oddities

August 27, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

If Rip van Winkle woke up to the three exhibitions of contemporary art at Cal State Long Beach he'd probably be a little flummoxed. Back before he dozed off 20 years ago, art was something interesting to look at. What's here is still interesting but for other reasons.

While Rip slept, art changed. A progressively troubled world caused a revival of Expressionism. It got mixed up with a tendency to replace empirical observation with disembodied thought. This conceptual trend is subject to bouts of hysteria. That's what happens when you lock your mind up in a room full of electronic communications gear and never look at reality. Hysterical epochs tend to think everything is going wrong. Naturally that reflects in the art they produce.

New York artist Susan Crile, for example, presents an installation of about 12 big paintings. Called "The Fires of War," the show has been organized by curator Jeremy Strick at the St. Louis Art Museum. Pictures show pyrotechnic explosions in an already devastated landscape. There are no people. Sparse signs of former human habitation include the skeleton of a burnt-out shack and a stretch of asphalt road.

As paintings, they're pretty raw. One composition titled "Conflagration: Oil and Fire" is visually compelling in the way the hellish scene is mirrored in a lake, but the aesthetic effect seems incidental. The artist clearly has something else on her mind.

Maybe it has to do with the deja vu familiarity of the images. We've seen that peculiar gaseous, chemically artificial sort of fireball before, on television. During the Gulf War, millions sat up half the night watching in horrified fascination as Saddam Hussein laid waste to the Kuwaiti oil fields like some mad Sardanapalus incinerating his lands, piqued at his own mortality.

Such associations are certainly one's own since nothing here calls up either the history of art or moral outrage. Even though Crile actually visited the oil fields, these pictures are emotionally dead. So what we are left with is a familiar coupling of emotional anomie and the media.

That rap has long since curdled into cliche. The work does, however, ignite a more universally pertinent question that has as much to do with viewers as with media.

Why is humankind so fascinated with devastation? It excites people like an aphrodisiac. We flock to disaster like zombies clucking our concern, but really we just want to see the show. We don't want to think about this kind of primal fascination because we're always fighting off the truth of our animality.

If Crile at least leaves us with something interesting to think about, photographer Arthur Tress presents a traveling piece that is as rewarding to listen to as to look at. Titled "Arthur Tress, Requiem for a Paperweight," it is a case of information overload if nothing else. It consists of some 96 square-framed panels arranged in nine thematic groups. Each panel is further fragmented into collages made up of everything from campy vintage pulp illustrations to Japanese prints and electronic imagery.

It's a minor miracle of graphic stage management that Tress makes his theme clear. The piece follows the stages of life of a Universal Salaryman in this Darwinian, chaotic, technocratic epoch. It begins with the fashionable evocation of middle-class boyhood trauma. A Boy Scout is surprised with his cache of forbidden books.

The show marches on through the usual questions. What shall I be? How can I fit in? Suddenly our hero is a suit assailed by responsibility, terror of failure and impotence. Finally he entertains visions of escape into the realm of aesthetics or techno-metaphysical transcendence.

The work is an absolute encyclopedia of mawkish homilies about ordinary life. But then so was "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band." Tress' work resembles it in its attempt to wring universal truth from commonplace event. Sometimes it's witty, touching and smart. It gets a lot of help from a score by R. Weis. Its loopy sound and snippets of poetry make a binding auditory texture. Tress is so close to multimedia, one can't help wondering if it all might work better as a computer show.

The term "magic realism" used to designate a kind of tight, hyper-realist painting style. The exhibition "Magic Realism, Violating Expectations" changes that definition. A group show drawn from the University Art Museum's permanent collection, it consists of about 25 small works that create often-compelling images using offbeat techniques or themes.

Calum Colvin's "Male Nude," for example, makes a sensuous picture of its subject by using photography to combine a still-life of a female mannequin, ceramics and paint. It works in a fashion similar to that of the Italian Old Master trickster Arcimboldo who combined images of fruit into the illusion of a man's head. Boyd Webb does a similar trick in an image of a human brain made up of intertwined zebras.

Not all work is that illusionistic. Performance artist Eugenia Vargas is pretty straightforward in photographs of her own mud-covered head. The surprise is that it looks so much like romantic sculpture. Other examples by people like David Hockney, Richard Bosman and Susan Rothenberg are in more conventional media but manage to create the same odd effect. Perhaps the hidden point here is that, in the end, magic is always the goal of art, not tricks, not politics.

* Cal State Long Beach, University Art Museum, 1250 Bellflower Blvd.; Crile and "Magic Realism," through Oct. 23; Tress, through Oct. 30, closed Monday s , (310) 985-5761.

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