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ART REVIEW : Mason's Strategy for 'Western Living'

August 21, 1995|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an impressive show at Bliss Gallery, T. Kelly Mason outlines strategies for a Domestic Conceptual art, a newly developing style he shares with artists Pae White and Jorge Pardo, with whom he was featured in the Museum of Contemporary Art's recent "Pure Beauty" show.

The label refers, first, to the way in which Mason relies upon architectural metaphors to conjure larger social structures and upon household goods as cues to psychic states, and second, to the way in which his approach contains, if not tames, the wild ambitions of 1970s Conceptual art.

It's only natural that Conceptualism should be familiar in this, its third or fourth go-round, but Kelly struggles against complacency. What appears at first as desperate obliqueness dissolves upon closer inspection into something quite winsome: an unexpected desire to please. The system Mason fabricates is perfectly understandable, rendered transparent by a densely annotated map/diagram provided to every viewer.

The title of the show is "Painting, Decoration and Western Living," and its leitmotif is Sunset magazine--its recipes, renovation tips, vacation recommendations and especially its idealized floor plans, all of which conspire to fabricate the Southern California lifestyle, in all its stolidly middle-class glory.

Mason evokes the consumerist ethos that underlies this prescriptive set of aesthetic formulas by emptying the gallery space and refilling it with pieces of colored tape affixed to the floor. These outline optimal arrangements of furniture: a biomorphic corner, a classical mantle piece, a cunning pair of chairs facing the obligatory television set.

Decoration is provided by silk flowers that poke out of solid hydrostone vases. These are placed in the circles and squares that demarcate tables, and they look appropriately forlorn--tokens of artificial nature stripped of the will even to pretend.

Equally alien in this environment are the paintings that hang on the walls. These are schematic renderings of the exhibition spaces in which Kelly's work has previously been shown. Despite the colorful netting with which they are wrapped, they are hardly ornamental. Their unrepentant abstractness is as jarring as the return of the repressed.

Included in the repressed category is Mel Bochner's work of the late 1960s, especially his "Theory of Sculpture" pieces in which the artist traced circles on walls or tables, in and around which were arranged serial objects. The point, according to a 1972 Artforum article Mason places on display here, was "the exhaustion of all possibilities implicit in any given informational situation." Though the younger artist makes clear his debt to Bochner, to his great good luck he hasn't begun to exhaust anything yet.

* Bliss Gallery, 825 N. Michigan Ave., Pasadena, (818) 398-0855, through Sept. 3. Open Sundays, or by appointment.

*

On the Sunny Side: "Secrets of the Sun," a 20,000-square-foot solar-environmental interactive installation created by Peter Erskine at Union Station, is neither fully public nor precisely art, which is not to say that it is not worth experiencing.

Certainly, being forced to acknowledge in writing that one's "present lifestyle . . . contributes to the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide," and then, being stuffed into a stifling, white, papery plastic jumpsuit before being allowed to proceed, has its eco-fascistic charms.

So, too, does a state fair-style display of solar technologies, including a massive, mirrored solar oven, which can bake bread for an entire village, and a solar ice-maker, which has no moving parts but can generate 120 pounds of ice per day.

Less charming is the $5 fee required for entry into the rest of the show, including the "Photosynthesis Room," where visitors are encouraged to "play with God's crayons." Here, light reflected off the huge heliostat mirror in the courtyard beams onto a chain of mirrors, and the prismatic effect spreads the white sunlight into intense rainbow colors. This is where the white suit comes in handy; as one passes before a scrim, one both absorbs and casts multicolored shadows. As Erskine puts it, "You're a living canvas . . . dance with it, play with it, change with it."

Even the most cynical visitor is tempted by this vision of art as spiritual journey, global amelioration, participatory democracy and theme-park amusement. (There is also a "Spectrum Vapor Chimney," an "Endangered Animal Wall" and more.) And yet, this totalizing, neo-kitschy, helio-spectacle is not art. Instead, it is at best info-tainment, and at worst, advertising for the plethora of environmentally correct corporations that are its sponsors.

* Union Station, 800 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, (213) 485-0709, through Oct. 29. Open daily.

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