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A World That's Full of Potential : It's Not Just the Results of Her Creations That Interest Angie Bray

November 01, 1994|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Angie Bray doesn't cringe if you note that there's something childlike about her subtle, investigative art. "If I'm making a piece, it's the potential that interests me--to see what it will do, without imposing something ahead of time," she said the other day. "So maybe that's the childlike part."

We were standing in her studio, a cube of a living room in the sunny Venice apartment that serves as an urban refuge from her Laguna Beach home. Random snapping noises emanated from several of her untitled motor-powered wood poles.

One of them twitched against a cello wire stretched across a corner of the room. The tip of another pole scrabbled on the ceiling. A third, covered in graphite, rubbed against the walls, leaving two lazy arcs.

"When kids learn something, they just do it," Bray continued. "Let's say everyone is singing a song. A kid doesn't think, 'Oh, I don't know all the words to this song. . . .' No, they just--" Tilting her head up, she metamorphosed into a curious child experimentally mouthing the words to a song. Gradually, raw sounds became recognizable words.

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"Slowly, they do it. So I think that's the way to do things. And then you find out what happens. My art is . . . all about investigating through doing."

Most of the pieces in the studio are destined for a one-woman show opening Saturday at critically well-regarded Sue Spaid Fine Art in Los Angeles--a first for Bray, whose work has been in various group exhibitions over the years, at the Laguna Art Museum, Saddleback College Art Gallery, BC Space in Laguna Beach, Cirrus Gallery in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Emerging as an artist years after a bi-coastal career as an educator, Bray prefers not to be typecast by age ("You can say I'm a well-preserved 85," she jokes, exaggerating wildly). But she readily admits that she is not one to hustle. "I figured my job was to make work that maybe was going to turn out to be good," she said. "Also, I'm lazy. I would rather play in my studio."

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Her work utilizes ordinary objects and materials: feathers, paper, slender sticks of bass wood, small stones, eggshells and thin sheets of lead. Subject to the vagaries of air currents and subtle shifts in lighting, these works exist in a highly provisional realm that is just this side of extinction.

Five wispy lengths of wood lightly pinned to the wall are liable to shift suddenly, like errant Pick-Up-Stix. Faint graphite particles blown onto sheets of translucent film trace the ebbing of a human breath.Nestled in skinny boxes hung on the wall, long, narrow sheets of paper contain the sooty traces of smoke.

"What is interesting about the smoke (pieces)," Bray said, "is how hard it is to control them. There's the wind coming in, the height of the candle flame. . . . But it's also more fun than if you just learn to draw (smoke). Because I'm dealing with the real thing. You need to control it to a certain point . . . but it will do things all by itself that no one would ever associate with it."

As we spoke, one of the motor-powered pieces got stuck on a bump on the ceiling. "It's trying very hard to get out," Bray remarked, in her anthropomorphizing way.

"I'm only interested in the wispy things in a (particular) space," she said. "Everything I make, whether I want to or not, is for the place where it is.

"The tricky thing is, can you make some wispy thing and have someone see it? You never know (if a piece is working) until the other person says, 'I saw it' or 'I didn't.' . . . I don't think it's fair to be hermetic. Because you put something in public and it has to speak a language."

A woman blessed with delicate features and a diminutive physique, Bray always has worked small. Once another artist told her she must be "afraid" of mass in her work. "I thought, well, maybe I am. I ought to do something about it. So for a month I did these things called 'Chunky Experiments.' " She laughed. "Then I thought, I'm not afraid of mass; I'm just not interested."

For a long time she was puzzled about the origin of the aesthetic sensibility some have seen as specifically "Japanese." (In fact, she has never visited Japan.) It was only when her mother sent her a picture of the pasture at her family's Pennsylvania country house in winter that Bray realized the true source of her vision.

"It has to do with this (quality of) almost disappearing. There's snow on the ground, but not completely covering everything and there are these sticks of dried grasses and stuff, and the trees that are all bare. There's an electric wire fence with torn pieces of cloth, so people will see the wire. It's very, very subtle."

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In her studio, ordinary white feathers mounted on a skinny pole slowly revolve on a small base that wobbles slightly.

"Somebody said, 'Why doesn't it go faster?' But I don't want it to go faster. It's that quarter-inch that makes all the difference. There's no leeway in what I do. I can't get away from that."

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