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The Bowers That Be : If Its Current Exhibitions Are Any Indication, the Museum's Mission Is Lost in Clumsy Translations


SANTA ANA — A recent swing through the Bowers Museum, which has several new shows, results in a mixed view of what the museum is trying to do these days. Certainly its tendency to gild the lily in clumsy ways can be irritating.

An exhibition of Bolivian carnival costumes from the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Arts, at the Bowers through Aug. 18, is a pleasant but modest show that suffers from having been grandly spread through the Changing Exhibits Gallery as if it showcased a breakthrough in anthropological research.

A new permanent installation of the paintings of Alberta and William McCloskey is a solemn affair, a curious blend of didactic overkill and halfhearted retro styling.

Tagging along for the ride out in the lobby area, like a passel of poor cousins, is a sampler of the Bowers' lame collection of California plein-air paintings, complete with biographical labels and a videotape. (A friend recently suggested that the controversial merger of the Laguna Art Museum and the Newport Harbor Art Museum was a coupling of the wrong museums. Why not merge the Bowers and Laguna, two older museums with essentially conservative outlooks and collections of plein-air paintings?)

And then there's a simple, informative, old-fashioned display highlighting the traditional arts of Micronesia, courtesy of the Ethnic Art Institute of Micronesia and the Robert Gumbiner Foundation for the Arts in Long Beach (through Aug. 15)--bleakly installed in the inhospitable multipurpose room.


"Con Mucha Alegria: Bolivian Festival Masks and Costumes" is energized by vivacious objects, well-chosen location photos and intimate wall texts that relate the casual observations of costume collector and guest curator Cynthia Gravelle Le Count.

She offers personal impressions of the hugely popular pre-Lenten Carnaval in the Bolivian highland town of Oruro as well as of the work of artisans who transformed such castoffs as alcohol cans, mirror shards and light bulbs into masks.

The exhibition consists of sequin-larded costumes and elaborately crafted masks designed to transform truck drivers, teachers, factory workers and other ordinary folks into devils (Catholicized versions of underground spirits), bears and gorillas. Other people assume the guise of the African slaves who toiled in the lowland vineyards in colonial times or their Spanish masters.

Most striking is the way an event commemorating the 18th century discovery of a miraculous image of the Virgin near a mine shaft reflects such a comfortable blend of history, fantasy, superstition and contemporary life.

New twists include noisemakers in the form of buses, semi-trucks and motorcycles, the smoke bombs that are exploded at the feet of the "devils," the twin rubber dinosaur heads one client asked to have incorporated in his mask and the cheesy commercial components (Day-Glo paints, "angel hair" Christmas decorations) that have taken the place of more homespun ingredients.

In an attempt to give static objects the feel of an actual parade, the Bowers has piped in peppy, indigenous music and installed a battery of small mirrors that are supposed to simulate the shadows of the carnival crowd interrupting your line of vision. A couple of broad steps at the end of exhibition are meant to evoke the facade of the church where the procession terminates.

It's good to see the museum trying to come up with new installation tactics--even when they don't quite work. But by allotting each individual item in the show so much space, the net result is to blow a simple little show out of proportion and work against re-creating the jostling energy of a folk festival.


The best thing about "Partners in Illusion: William and Alberta McCloskey"--which gives a permanent home in a new gallery to paintings owned by the museum and last shown in the fall of 1994--is its byproduct: a lively and detailed monograph on the painter couple by Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, an historian of American art.

But the installation itself is deadly, with fussy, explanatory texts provided for virtually every one of the couple's paintings. This pedantic treatment and the halfhearted attempt to turn the gallery into a turn-of-the-century salon turns a group of paintings of little aesthetic or historical moment into a stuffy shrine.

The Bowers attempted to create a period ambience with dark green walls and a few pieces of old furniture. But because no effort was made to duplicate the period style of hanging paintings--stacking them above one another on the wall--the installation doesn't deliver on its historical promise.

When you consider that the main reason (other than viewer popularity) for devoting so much attention to the McCloskeys is probably related to the six-figure prices William's still lifes have fetched at auction in recent years, the solemn enshrinement of this body of work seems particularly distasteful.

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