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Gaza Bowen's Assemblages Reflect Nostalgia for Her Past

February 08, 1996|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sculptor Gaza Bowen is best known for her seductive but subversive footwear. Think of her as an anti-Ferragamo, selling feminist truths in sexy disguises: high heels made out of shiny kitchen knives or boudoir slippers fashioned out of multicolored sponges and scrub brushes.

In new assemblages at Couturier Gallery, Bowen does an almost total about-face, dropping the cleverness, the meticulous craftsmanship and the somewhat predictable sexual politicking to explore her autobiography--her experiences as a Jewish woman growing up in the South in the years after World War II. The results are decidedly uneven.

The danger of making work about one's own history is that it has the potential to alienate all those who don't share that history. This was one lesson of the art world's short-lived infatuation with multiculturalism.

One way around the problem has been to produce objects that are both hot and cool, self-reflections but also commentaries upon the possibilities of self-reflection. The profusion of mirrored surfaces in Bowen's work--family photos etched onto pieces of silvered glass; a reliquary for the artist's skate key, which is embedded in an old mirror; a large, silhouetted figure, covered with bits of wire, ivory and mirrored shards--suggests that this is indeed her strategy.

But in fact mirrors work here as decorative flourishes rather than as markers of self-consciousness. They are cues signaling nostalgia rather than goads toward contemplation.

"Het Achterhuis" is more complex. It consists of a small suitcase filled on one side with tiny dolls and three miniature rooms: a kitchen, an empty hallway with a hidden staircase and a bare cell. The mirrored panel on the other side is etched with the phrase, "We would spend hours in my best friend's attic playing our game of Anne Frank."

Here is a chilling reflection not merely upon Bowen's experience, but also upon the sadism of child's play, the recalcitrance of memory and knowledge as the incidental byproduct of the compulsion to repeat. It promises far more than this flawed show delivers.

* Couturier Gallery, 166 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 933-5557, through Saturday.

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Protest Posters: All wars are subject to endless revision, and none more so than the war in Vietnam. One year after former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara confessed that the escalation was "terribly wrong" seems a more than appropriate time to stage "Decade of Protest: Political Posters From the United States, Vietnam and Cuba, 1965-1975," a fine exhibition at Track 16 Gallery, organized with the help of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

The point of this show is that even as the war was being waged, the process of revision was underway, led at home by the disparate ranks of the counterculture and abroad by the government of Vietnam, for whom resistance to U.S. aggression took the form of aesthetic propaganda as well as military force.

Though familiar, many of the U.S. posters remain powerful: Ron Haeberle's horrific color photo of the victims of the My Lai massacre, overlaid with the text, "Q: And babies? A: And babies"; a bedraggled Uncle Sam with outstretched hand, saying, "I Want Out"; a doctored-up Chanel advertisement, which juxtaposes an artfully unclad model and a Vietnamese woman and children struggling across the water. With their snappy graphics, knowing riffs on advertising culture and Pop Art in-jokes, these mostly anonymous works reflect the anarchic sophistication of the protest movement.

By contrast, the works from North Vietnam--original paintings used as templates for posters that were mass-distributed by the government--are neither sly nor idiosyncratic. They borrow from folk art and realist styles to create a totalizing, utopian vision of triumph: a huge Vietnamese soldier grabbing a tiny B-52 bomber; a trio of young women aiming their guns as if performing a dance; a succession of wheelbarrows overflowing with agricultural produce.

Though the differences are striking, the similarities are more so. Both sides labored under the belief that art had the power, indeed the mandate, to change the world. Seen from the perspective of a far more cynical time, "Decade of Protest" is both moving and instructive.

* Track 16 Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 264-4678, through March 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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