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Art Review : Christian, Millennial Hopes in 'Lights'

November 12, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

People, it appears, respond to the waning of centuries the way they react to the twilight of individual existence. They grow reflective and uneasy, wondering if they have lived in the best way. Those who feel unfulfilled may begin to wish for some promise that assures them it's really not over when it's over.

Signs of this mind-set are everywhere as this secular century winds down. There is a longing for something to believe in. An exhibition on view at Loyola Marymount University's Laband Art Gallery speaks poignantly to this mood. It's titled "Burning Lights: Spirituality, Tradition and Craft in Recent Art From the City of the Angels." It's one of about a dozen shows citywide being presented under the umbrella theme "Toward a Greater Realm: A Southern California Exposition of Spirituality, Myth and the Inner Journey in Contemporary Art."

An unpretentious but affecting touring exhibition organized by gallery director Gordon L. Fuglie, it's installed with exquisite care and includes just four artists, John Frame, Michael Schrauzer, Laura Lasworth and Jan Valentin Saether. They share a dedication to lovingly crafted art from the past, particularly the woodcarvings and altarpieces of the Northern European late Middle Ages and early Italian Renaissance painting.

According to this standard, the exhibition could have been more populated. Such L.A. artists as Jon Swihart and Randall Lavender plow this field. Such talents would have emphasized Angeltown as a place of relatively anonymous artists who would rather do their thing than be rich and famous. They represent a rather broad swath of artists for whom art, in itself, has become a religion.

What sets this quartet apart is its specific exploration of religious themes. Like the English Pre-Raphaelites and the German Nazarenes of old they intertwine devotion to high traditional craft with spiritual enlightenment. In the broadest sense, modernist art already encompasses most of what is going on here. Pioneers like Kandinsky and Mondrian were affected by metaphysical systems like theosophy. Contemporary West Coast artists feel strong affinities to Zen. This quartet sets itself apart by contemplating Christian themes. It's curious how surprising that feels.

It needs to be clear that this is not mere revivalism. Frame, the best known of the group, makes Medieval-style miniature wood carvings of Everyman types that speak to the existential dilemma. Here they evoke biblical subjects. "Living in Lightning" at once calls up the descent from the cross, the expulsion of the angels, the last judgment and the fall of man. This nearly cinematic simultaneity blends and revitalizes traditional themes into a modern contemplation on chaos theory.

"When Locusts Come" shows a harlequin figure under a gallows. An anatomically correct human heart is suspended from it. This reminder of the crucifixion extends to a rumination on capital punishment.

Schrauzer's hinged altarpieces are so lovingly crafted they tend to be more important than what is pictured upon them. "Altarpiece" bears figures of a young man and woman whose gestures are at once reverent and puzzled. A desert landscape stretches across the top panel and open doors. Its sky is so limpid it creates the impression of transparency, like the firmament itself.

The artist has somehow managed to borrow a device from Light and Space art that lends a physical dimension to its spiritual aspirations. This works with particular effect in an altarpiece called "The Tower of Babel." This altar-form piece includes a tiny painting of a lightning bolt above a small lead tablet engraved with a mandala-like geometric design. Even when art's intentions are spiritual, it still functions best through the senses.

The sweetness of primitive Renaissance realism is widely appreciated. Lasworth brings forth its careful intelligence. Four intricate symmetrical drawings of stylized floral motifs seem to speak of an ornate vision embedded in austere faith. Her paintings function as enigmatic contemplations. "St. Thomas and Mr. Eco" is a pastel rumination on the chairs of two intricate thinkers, one Medieval, the other modern.

Saether's skillful paintings intend to evoke the great dualities of good and evil, the light and the dark. Their style, however, is a combination of 19th-Century academic romanticism and modern illusionism that lends them a distracting self-consciousness. The work feels bottled-up and uncomfortable with itself, as if its means are out of tune with its intentions.

* Loyola Marymount University, Loyola Boulevard at West 80th St., through Dec. 3, open Wednesday through Saturday, (310) 338-2880.

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