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ART REVIEWS

Serving a New Purpose With Classic Poses

July 04, 1996|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Right off the bat, it's pretty obvious what Dan McCleary is up to. New paintings at Kohn Turner Gallery depict a 7-Eleven clerk in a green uniform posing as hieratically as a Renaissance prince, and a waitress, as serene as a housemaid painted by Vermeer, serving a cup of coffee to an oblivious customer.

Elsewhere, everyday scenes inside coffee shops and outside movie theaters are saturated with references to the likes of Edouard Manet, Fra Filippo Lippi and Piero della Francesca. Endowing the ordinary with extraordinary significance, however, is hardly a provocative strategy.

Yet despite the shallowness of their device, these paintings are very good. Part of it is their style, which is idiosyncratic to say the least--stoic, even borderline inanimate. This comes out of classical painting, in which each gesture, costume and object is so heavily encoded it looks calcified.

What's interesting about reviving this approach now, however, is the decadence this kind of control implies. Deceptively over-the-top and so old-fashioned it feels new, the work might be kitschy if McCleary weren't so careful.

The smaller paintings are named after particular sitters, but it's not at all clear that they are meant to be portraits. While the artist is concerned with resemblance, he couldn't be less interested in psychological nuances--this to an extent that is first unnerving, then unsatisfying. While the studied blankness of the figures works to obvious advantage in the larger paintings, it is awkward here. If they could speak, the subjects would probably ask McCleary not to strand them like this.

* Kohn Turner Gallery, 454 S. Robertson Blvd., (310) 854-5400, through Aug. 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Postmodern Myths: Tony Tasset's new work at Christopher Grimes Gallery plays at being random. It's an odd constellation of things, including a bronze sculpture of a hand-kneaded Play-Doh mountain, a sleek orange I-beam lying on the floor, a digital print of a hairy stomach and a 6 1/2-minute video about a self-satisfied artist-dad-lover-teacher.

If Modernism is a narrative about the struggle to achieve a signature style--think Pollock's drip paintings or Rothko's floating squares of color--then Postmodernism, as incarnated here, professes to reject style entirely. Indeed, Tasset has long been interested in reversing art's given truths, in the past looking at the ways art is protected, collected and presented, and in this show, at the myths surrounding its creation.

Some of the work is a little too easy--for example, a videotape of a figure standing before a blank wall who, after being shot in the stomach, slumps down to reveal an Abstract Expressionist-style masterpiece made of his own blood. Parodies of the artist as genius-and-martyr have worn a bit thin by now, and anyway, Cheryl Donegan's feminist take on this saga is still the most clever one around.

However, a life-size Cibachrome of Tasset dressed as an Elvis impersonator version of Robert Smithson, circa 1968, ups the ante considerably. In this self-portrait of one artist as another--and not just any other artist, but one who has lately been deemed "an aesthetic visionary of near-messianic proportions" (by critic Dan Cameron)--Tasset addresses history's relentless search for heroes.

But also, stuffed rather unbecomingly into a white denim jacket and jeans and silhouetted against what looks to be an impossibly un-besmirched stretch of desert, he becomes an emblem of the difficulty of his own position. Tasset is a latecomer to the game, and his regret, as well as his jealousy, shows.

This photograph is endlessly interesting as melodrama, pastiche and critique. Its importance, however, is the fact that it insists critique can never be construed as dispassionate or outside the bounds of ego, which has many ways of making itself heard.

* Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Saturday.

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Altogether There: Lawrence Carroll's new installation at Ace Contemporary Exhibitions is restricted in terms of palette and material, and restrained in terms of demeanor. But it is hardly "barely there."

If much newer art seems to flirt with invisibility, merging with the architectural space, tricking out the lighting or playing perceptual games, Carroll, who has been doing this sort of thing for years, has no interest whatsoever in flirtation.

The show consists of just three pieces juxtaposed in a spacious, light-drenched room: a huge expanse of raw canvas, weathered in some places, patched in others and smeared with wax; five sculpted fingers, whitewashed, then stained with red; and a slew of polyurethane roses, also painted white, which seem to have sprouted from the gallery floor, like nature resisting culture.

Yet any drama, metaphorical or otherwise, is circumscribed by an overarching sense of quiet. The thing here is the totality of things, so Carroll zealously works toward achieving a mood.

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