The "1995 Los Angeles Juried Exhibition" is no more or less depressing than any other show made up of 150 paintings, sculptures, assemblages and works on paper selected by a committee of curators who reviewed thousands of 35-millimeter slides by 1,300 artists foolish (or desperate) enough to answer the city-sponsored call for entries.
Which isn't to say that there aren't any interesting works here, just to emphasize that the standouts get lost amid the abundance of mediocre pieces.
Visiting the three venues where the sprawling, misguided exhibition is installed--the Watts Towers Arts Center, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Junior Arts Center (both at Barnsdall Art Park)--leaves one with the conviction that contemporary art is not at all suited to the type of competition and presentation common to county fairs.
At county fairs, established standards and accepted categories exist. Although personal taste plays an important, often unpredictable role, competitors and judges generally agree that the most beautifully proportioned pig, the most masterfully knitted sweater and the most delicious slice of apple pie should win blue ribbons.
Such agreement is rarely found among contemporary artists and viewers, most of whom have wildly divergent ideas about art's purpose and function, as well as contentious disagreements over specific successes and failures.
The absence of shared conventions is evident in the arbitrariness of the categories that make up the "1995 Los Angeles Juried Exhibition." Many works fit comfortably in two or more sections. It appears that curators Nancy Doll, Howard Fox and Leonard Simon allowed each entrant to select the slot in which they'd compete.
This indecisiveness characterizes many juried exhibitions, especially those organized by committee. It's a type of hands-off wishy-washiness that has its basis in a dubious notion of democratic openness.
Juried shows are valuable, or so the argument goes, because they allow artists to bypass commercial galleries and permit viewers to see works that otherwise might never be exhibited. Such shows are more prestigious than open exhibitions because every object in them has met with the approval of one or more art professionals.
The problem with the "1995 Los Angeles Juried Exhibition" is that it's not selective enough. Its fantasy of democratic inclusiveness prevents a compelling show from taking place. Put bluntly, charity outreach and curatorial responsibility don't mix very well.
To organize an exhibition is to make works converse with one another, to add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Part of the pleasure of viewing a group show is following the curator's thought process, watching an argument unfold among independently engaging objects.
This almost happens in the "Works on Paper" component of the show, at the Watts Towers Arts Center. Photographs of actual sites in California, New York and Nevada by Ginny Brush, Patricia Lemke, Jill Van Hoogenstyn and Roy Yoshioka make the real world appear to be artificially staged. These captivating pictures raise questions about art's place in life. They also pinpoint the intersection between the show's dual impulses: toward gripping, point-blank realism and outlandishly theatrical fakery.
As a whole, however, the show leaves viewers with an exhausting laundry list of works, asking the same uninteresting questions over and over again: Why was this one included? How does it relate to the others?
The answers are almost always: Can't tell and it doesn't.
Even so, Daniel Aksten's supercharged Pattern-and-Decoration paintings, Kerry Kugelman's fusion of Noland-style targets and giddy cartoons, and Norma Squires' multipanel abstraction breathe some vitality into the exhibition.
Given the show's structure, the jurors couldn't pursue their personal visions or consistently explore substantial ideas. As a result, the "1995 Los Angeles Juried Exhibition" represents the worst sort of institutional sanction: a hollow stamp-of-approval that doesn't put forth an argument but merely suggests that art's value is instantly enhanced by being in a gallery. That the best artists rarely apply for juried exhibitions reveals that these show are more like lotteries with paltry prizes than endeavors with serious ambitions.
* Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and Junior Arts Center Gallery, Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., (213) 485-4581; Watts Towers Arts Center, 1727 E. 107th St., (213) 847-4646, through July 22. Closed Mondays.
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