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USC Gallery's 'Big Print' Message Is a Large One

October 03, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

LOS ANGELES — This century found itself confronted by the most crucial of human issues. The question was, which would dominate, the mind-set of the collective or that of the individual? It was a central theme for fine artists, individualists by definition.

Now, as the time winds down, it appears the big guys won. Soviet communism collapsed, to be sure, but its urge to homogenize remained rampant in corporations and the media. Even though today's popular retreat into subcultural groups seems fragmenting, from the point of view of the individualist, it is collectivist.

In the arts, Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner loom larger than Andy Warhol or Allen Ginsberg. But so what? Isn't there a place for singular souls in the chinks between the massive granite slabs of a monolithic culture?

Probably--but according to "The Big Print," a traveling exhibition of lithographs on view at USC's Fisher Gallery, that chink is neither large nor comfortable.

The show was organized by New York University art administrator Leonard Lehrer and Ernst Quensen, proprietor of the German lithographic workshop that produced the large prints. This sampling includes some 40 sheets by 20 artists. More than a dozen countries are represented, but more than half the artists are German.

At a glance the show radiates a nice cheery '60s glow.

But a few minutes of viewing brings on the feeling that something went seriously sour in the meantime. Virtually no artist here seems to try anything that he, she or art in general hasn't done before. The Brit Allen Jones' kinky Pop imagery was bracingly irreverent 30 years ago. Today his "One Night Stand" is like a nostalgic tune played in a piano bar. Germany's Johannes Grutzke confronts us with the powerful image of a male nude in Lucifer's embrace, but the composition is a frank gloss on the great Expressionist posters of the Weimar era.

What is going on here?

A clue is provided by Michael Mathias Prechtl's offering. It includes a disturbed group of illustrative figures. In one corner a levitating Einstein plays the fiddle. In the other Groucho tries to read his newspaper while a kid with a Walkman dances and a man in high heels grimaces behind his camcorder urged on by Mickey Mouse. Everybody is tangled in wires ending in microphones and telephones leading to the central figure. The piece is titled "mixed media." It says that everybody including fine artists have succumbed to the seductions of the collectivist electronic media.

In the Pop era, fine artists celebrated graphic design. Graphic artists responded gleefully by imitating innovations introduced by the fine artists. Fine artists then imitated themselves being imitated by the media until the whole thing turned into one vast cultural copying machine copying itself.

In such an ambience, it's tough to maintain lithography's status as a fine arts media. It looks too much like reproduction. This blurring of the boundary between art and graphics created a serious identity pickle for a certain stripe of individual artist.

There are few ways out of this impasse. Artists can continue to cling to the idea that they are different by staying inside their subculture, working in traditional media like paint and bronze and cultivating wealthy collectors.

Sometimes just copping an attitude does the trick. Malte Sartorius' still-life of a basket of onions does it, so does Leonard Lehrer's view of a formal garden at night.

Anybody who wants to fit in has to deal with reality.

The new signal is clear. You can be an outlaw graffiti writer, or you can take your portfolio to an art director who will put you on a team to make multimedia music videos seen by millions.

* USC, Fisher Gallery, 832 Exposition Blvd., (213) 740-4561. Closed Sunday and Monday. Ends Oct. 22.

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