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ART REVIEWS : 'Cremaster' Drama Explores Ideas of Self

November 10, 1994|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Motorcyclists in full racing leathers, female bodybuilders decked out like fairies and a gentlemanly satyr with a fondness for tap dancing are the main characters in Matthew Barney's "Cremaster 4," a 40-minute video shot on the Isle of Man against a backdrop of bagpipes, tartan patterns, four-horned rams and the tailless Manx.

At Regen Projects, 25 crisp C-prints in icy-white frames depict the protagonists in Barney's hip, mythological drama. At once archaic and futuristic, his fictitious portraits fuse the hyper-refinement of biogenetics with the raw impact of ancient rituals.

Athletic prowess and uncanny androgyny mark the corporeal territory where these seemingly contrary impulses and attributes dovetail. Imagine what the offspring of Pygmalion and Dr. Frankenstein's creations would look like, and you get a good picture of the complex creatures who come to life in Barney's photographs.

His mutant hybrids belong to the next generation of modern self-love run amok. Good old-fashioned narcissism gets turned inside out so many times that it's impossible to draw boundaries between subjects and objects of affection. Obsessions spiral back on themselves, picking up speed as their orbits tighten.

Barney's charged, symbolic drama ranks among the best video-based art being made today. His work insists that viewers rethink what it means to be human.

Rather than proposing that people are creatures who need the recognition of others, "Cremaster 4" contends that the deepest satisfactions result when self-generated obsessions are realized--when passions that cannot be traced back to external influences produce selfish, anti-social pleasures.

Even the synthetic frames of Barney's photographs, made from self-lubricating plastic usually used for ball-bearings and the joints of prosthetic bone-replacements, evoke a self-sufficiency so extreme that it borders on being hermetic.

The title of Barney's project strengthens the link between bodies and machines. Cremaster refers to the muscle that stabilizes the temperature of testicles, causing them to ascend or descend, depending upon circumstances.

By focusing on this automatic human thermostat, Barney rejects a popularized version of Freud. His work suggests that if bodies are self-regulating systems, genitals are no more important than any other organ. The fantasies that attach themselves to all parts of the body prove to be more gripping than do strictly biological factors.

* Regen Projects, 629 N. Almont Drive, West Hollywood, (310) 276-5424, through Dec. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

L.A. Abstraction: A diverse array of paintings, drawings, collages and prints by Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978) and John McLaughlin (1898-1976) at Tobey C. Moss Gallery outlines important connections and differences between the two Los Angeles abstractionists. This historically minded exhibition is most engaging, however, in its presentation of rarely seen pieces--curious experiments the artists undertook and rejected, as they struggled to discover their mature, signature styles.

In the earliest works, McLaughlin and Feitelson clearly crossed paths. Two small paintings from 1949 look as if they belong to the other artist's oeuvre: McLaughlin uncharacteristically explored colors and curves, and Feitelson limited his picture to straight lines and a black-and-white palette.

Examples of McLaughlin's inquisitiveness abound. A compact still life from 1946 reveals the magnitude of his leap to non-representational images in the mid-1950s. An actual tabletop from 1959, painted in a clunky, computer-graphics pattern, and an all-over, interlocking pink-and-green gouache from 1960 reveal two approaches he momentarily flirted with, but wisely did not pursue.

In contrast, Feitelson is the more consistent, less inventive artist. Early sketches containing figure studies and preliminary designs for larger linear compositions suggest that his abstract canvases are meant to be seen in relation to bodies twisting and turning in space.

A single, vertically oriented stripe painting from 1953 stands out as Feitelson's quirkiest work. Its odd combinations of burgundy, lavender, orange and lime green bands create a queasy, aggressive rhythm absent from his more graceful paintings of curved forms and flowing lines. Unlike McLaughlin, whose minimal paintings break free of their sources, Feitelson's images refer back to their roots, suggesting similarities to popular graphic designs.

* Tobey C. Moss Gallery, 7321 Beverly Blvd., (213) 933-5523, through Dec. 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Intuiting Meaning: Based on "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," Christopher French's abstract paintings on pages printed with Braille propose that incomprehension is an essential component of knowledge. At Mark Moore Gallery, his six modestly scaled images refuse to let the viewer read them, instead insisting that you undertake a more drawn-out and participatory process of intuiting (or actively inventing) their meanings.

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