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Art Review : MOCA Puts 'Focus' on Artists' Installations

October 21, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Two artists virtually unknown hereabouts debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art. They manage to bring real feeling to the arcane mystifications of the genre.

Part of MOCA's ongoing "Focus" series of special installations, one marks British sculptor Richard Wilson's American debut, the other the first museum solo for San Diego-based artist Margaret Honda. The exhibitions were put together by curators Paul Schimmel and Elizabeth A.T. Smith, respectively.

Wilson's projects are part of the current citywide UK/LA '94 festival celebrating British arts. By happy coincidence, they seem to have some very oblique and funny things to say that relate directly to this town. His most impressive piece is "20:50," a re-creation of a work that has become Wilson's signature piece. Fusing with the architecture of Arata Isozaki's gallery, the work consists of a waist-high steel container filled to the brink with sump oil. A short, narrowing corridor leads into the room where visitors are surrounded on three sides with hundreds of gallons of gooey, odoriferous black gold.

It's all rather deliciously eerie. The place feels mysterious, as if Moses had parted a small black sea for your inspection.

The surface of the oil is dead calm. The gallery ceiling has been removed, exposing one of the museum's trademark glass pyramid skylights about 30 feet above. The oil mirrors everything in perfect detail. The illusion is so convincing, you no longer feel you are standing on the floor. Now you are on a cantilevered balcony looking down into an atrium. There's a queasy thrill about the experience, like riding one of those glass elevators in high-tech hotels where you feel dared to look down. But here when you do what you see is--well--up.

Oil was once the lodestone of this city's wealth. Wilson's piece is dramatized by a rigorously deadpan science-and-engineering style that will remind L.A. art buffs of their indigenous Light and Space art. His second piece, "Deep End," incorporates an even more familiar local icon, a swimming pool recalling David Hockey's Los Angeles.

The fiberglass turquoise pool shell is suspended upside-down at an angle from the ceiling, resting on its ladder. The shell is punctured by numerous porthole-sized apertures, making it appear like a piece of aquatic Swiss cheese. The holes are about large enough for a person's body to pass through. One of them sprouts a metal flue that goes all the way up through the skylight to daylight. It is placed in the pool about where a bathtub drain would be. There is a strong suggestion that the water that used to be in the pool drained upward. By extension if someone "fell into" this pool, the laws of gravity would have been suspended and the person could fly. Conceptually it's entirely consistent with the oil piece.

Wilson's brilliant exercises in perceptual dislocation make the topsy-turvy world of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland palpable. It places that world firmly here in Lotusland, a place famous for illusion, lack of gravity and never quite knowing which end is up. You don't, thank goodness, need a Ph.D to get the point.

Honda's work initially looks like it might require the degree. It comes with a little booklet containing much verbiage about perception, autobiography and the juncture between language and form. The installation, titled "Recto Verso," is visually muddled. This is rarely a good sign. You see a ladder leaning against the wall. A long hinged aluminum bar zig-zags across the floor. Two identical, beautifully finished wooden boxes rest beyond, a gray metallic fabric issuing from their bottom edges. Vague suggestions of old carpenter's rulers and aluminum-foil dispensers are not enough to hang an idea on.

Most visitors will not even notice a text lettered so it wraps around the edge of the ceiling. It turns out to be a clinical account of an early medical procedure intended to cure a visual defect called strabismus, a condition in which a misalignment of the eyes causes the brain to receive two different visual messages. The artist suffered from strabismus as a child and the present work is supposed to, in part, have reference to its effects.

Knowing this may give the viewer a sense of sympathy, but it does nothing to sort out the works' aesthetic or perceptual effects. This art seems concerned with extreme refinement and understatement. Nothing comes of that until you notice that the ladder rolls on a track as in a library. At each of its terminal ends there is a hole in the wall.

Curiosity aroused, one climbs the ladder and finds the holes contain stashes of kids marbles. It's as magical as the moment in "To Kill a Mockingbird" when the children find treasure in a hollow tree. Wistful and reclusive, it goes some distance to redeem the work.

* Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., through Jan. 8 . Closed Mondays. Information: (213) 626-6222 .

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