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Art Reviews : AIDS Clearly Reflected : Fresh Images Emerge, but Others Mirror Cliched Metaphors

November 12, 1994|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — How do you make art about a death sentence meted out to people as the result of a moment of pleasure? The seven California artists showing in "Artists' Reflections on AIDS" at the Orange Coast College Art Gallery (through Thursday) provide a range of answers, some more satisfactory than others.

Trying to come to terms with whatever inchoate combination of fear, grief and anger about AIDS may be raging though our minds, we look to artists to provide fresh metaphors for these feelings. During the past few years, the most impressive work dealing with the disease has been indirect and highly metaphorical, reminding viewers in visually novel ways of the fragility of the body as a vessel of pleasure and pain.

In this show, David Joshua Goldstein and Dunnieghe Slawson come the closest to that ideal.

Goldstein's "Icarian" pieces are flattened leather bench covers from gym equipment, vertically displayed in black boxes. Each cover bears the abrasions and sweat stains made by the men who exercised on the benches, some of whom (as Goldstein writes in a brief statement) are now dead.

Presented in this fashion, the leather pieces can be seen as deliberately unheroic versions of the Shroud of Turin (the piece of cloth supposedly containing Jesus' image). But the poignancy of this work also comes from being reminded that these scraps of leather literally supported the dreams of men trying to build up muscular, sexually desirable bodies that were slowly being destroyed from within.

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Slawson's "Trojan Horse" is a pale, ribbed cornucopia that extrudes from the wall, spilling onto the floor a pathetic bundle of shriveled or bulging male sex organs, one of which half-disgorges a potato-sized lump.

The title alludes both to a popular brand of condoms and the legendary hollow decoy in which the ancient Greeks hid before destroying the enemy city of Troy. In Slawson's scenario, AIDS is the subverting agent that lies in wait for its victim; the deformed genitals are visceral symbols of the fear and loathing engendered by the disease.

Symbolism can be a difficult thing to pull off, however, particularly with regard to such an emotionally charged and frequently mined subject.

Judith Bell's "Drain"--a set of fragile ceramic receptacles containing rubber hoses that plug into the wall--errs on the side of literalness and dependence on a medium that has become a cliche in AIDS-related art.

Similarly, Kevin Miller uses a cliched technique in his untitled works on paper. His veils of white or black paint on phone book pages or obituary notices do convey a sense of loss. But the pieces are little more than one-liners--and curiously vague ones, at that. Rather than evoking a sense of universality by including obituaries of individuals who died of causes seemingly unrelated to AIDS, Miller blurs his simple message.

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Bruce Wallin's "Lame Dick," a giant wire mesh penis propped up with a steel brace, is also a one-liner, and one that unfortunately comes across as cute and glib rather than witty or darkly humorous.

Conversely, Doree Dunlap's painting "The Space Between" seems weighted down by would-be symbolic images (cactus plants, a painting of a large spiral) that detract from the strong central image: two people lying separately on a bed completely shrouded by a sheet, like bodies on a mortician's slab.

Finally, it's hard to deny the sweetly naive appeal of David Torosian's little jester, feebly poking his head out of a painstakingly decorated box of marbles ("Coming to Terms"), but it's also rather awkward to realize how painfully earnest was the intent behind such a potentially campy piece.

* "Artists' Reflections on AIDS" continues through Nov. 17 at the Orange Coast College Art Gallery, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Thursday; Thursday evening, 7-8:30; Free. (714) 432-5039.

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