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ART REVIEW

'Ritual' Explores Ghost of Lost Community

July 25, 1996|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

James Luna's intentionally unsatisfying installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art raises (but does not answer) some tough questions about the relationship between contemporary art and community formation. Titled "The Dream Hat Ritual," his cheesy fusion of generic tribal myths and tacky urban reality forms a loaded whole in which it's impossible to disentangle guilt from innocence, or to distinguish heart-felt authenticity from sleazy exploitation.

A stack of televisions playing a video of a burning campfire sits in the center of Luna's exhibition. Standing, sitting, kneeling or flying around it are 10 skeletal figures made of aluminum crutches, leather boots and cowboy hats decorated with Indian feathers and beads. If no other viewers are in the darkened gallery during your visit, you feel like the only living being in a swirling world of crippled, ghostly apparitions.

The glare of colored lights, the scent of cut willow branches, the feel of blowing fans and the recorded sounds of chirping birds and crashing waves combine with flashing strobes and projected slides to produce a cliched yet compelling hallucination: that in America, connections between and among people are as tenuous as dreams.

Luna, born on a reservation in Southern California to a Luisen~o mother and Mexican father, rejects the standard fantasy about the romance of being an Indian. At the same time, his fake ritual mocks the idea that art effectively expresses an artist's predetermined identity.

Instead, "The Dream Hat Ritual" asserts that contemporary art, like modern culture in general, loosens the ties that bind together traditional tribes and communities.

If a community is healthy and thriving, it has no place for the doubt and anxiety generated by contemporary art. Such works, born of unrest, sometimes forge temporary communities, but only after they draw individuals into irresistible fictions. When that happens, very little remains as it was, including one's identity.

* Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 399-0433, through Aug. 25. Closed Sundays-Tuesdays.

Sequelitis: No matter how bad a movie may be, if it does well at the box office someone in Hollywood probably wants to make a sequel. Although rehashing the same old story almost always bores viewers, it often provides studio executives with short-term profits and a sense of stability in an otherwise unpredictable market.

On the down side, sequels thwart creative risk-taking by rewarding tried-and-true formulas. "The Paranoid Machine," a 15-artist exhibition organized by artist and critic Michael Cohen, reveals that sequels are not just a Hollywood problem.

At Shoshana Wayne Gallery viewers are exposed to the same laziness, fear of experimentation and overwrought self-involvement exhibited by the movie industry at its worst. Cohen's show is a remake of "Narcissistic Disturbance," a 16-artist exhibition he organized last year.

Both include works by Lyle Ashton Harris, Victor Estrada and Cohen's wife, Nancy Barton. Both attempt to use art to illustrate ideas borrowed from trendy psychoanalytic theories. And both trot out the hoary cliche that art is therapeutic--if not for viewers, then at least for artists.

"The Paranoid Machine" breaks down because too many of its photos, paintings and sculptures fail to convey a physical sense of paranoia's intensity. To walk through the nicely installed show is to see that, while more than half of its works are about paranoia, they bring this mental disorder to mind in an arid, academic fashion--as an object of study best apprehended from a distance.

Shuji Ariyoshi's dress shoes packed with hamburger, Clive Barker's pin-studded statue, Jason Fox's lifeless painting and Cohen's own collages on canvas are so unengaging they'd make more sense in a show about amnesia.

The best works in "The Paranoid Machine" have little to do with paranoia. Videos by Paul McCarthy and Tony Oursler, photographs by Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Cindy Sherman and a wacky installation by Tamara Fites, playing "Normalene the Corn Queen," embody a wide range of fears, fantasies and often hilarious obsessions. Thankfully, these resonant pieces lack the delusions of grandeur that characterize paranoid behavior.

Viewers are the ultimate losers in "The Paranoid Machine," although artists don't fare much better with its stock, Freudian formulations. By claiming that art is the result of dysfunctional psyches, Cohen's show ignores the enormous role consciousness plays in art-making.

Art may begin in private phobias and traumas, but it makes public claims. It isn't a symptom of anything, even if "The Paranoid Machine" tries to turn it into a symptom of cramped, conservative thinking.

* Shoshana Wayne Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through Aug. 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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