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Vertical Inclinations : Unexpected Variations Hang on What Is Normally a One-Sided Relationship

September 24, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Looking at art affixed to a wall, we naturally tend to take the wall for granted. But artists have many ways of using the architectural support as an active component of their work.

In "On and Off the Wall"--at the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University in Orange through Oct. 11--co-curators Richard Turner and Maggi Owens demonstrate this phenomenon with fresh and engaging works that are far more than mere illustrations of a curatorial premise.

Several of the pieces have to do with the impact of repeated forms used in unexpected ways.

Harry Philbrick marshals bugs into geometric groupings reminiscent of a Parcheesi game or a Constructivist painting in "Lozenge Composition With Red, Black, Blue and Yellow June Beetles."

The tension between the natural quality of the bugs--oriented in different directions, as if they just landed on the wall--and the arbitrary fashion in which they are painted and grouped suggests a host of larger questions.

By pitting his own grand design (as it were) against the actual behavior patterns of June beetles, Philbrick suggests that the piece is really about teleology, the belief that the universe was created for an overall purpose. Playfully rearranging nature to make an artful composition, he brings to mind questions about the origins and motives behind biological theories as well as the extraordinary utility and complexity of genetic programming.

Julia Couzens' "Corner Tongues" are exactly that: numerous individual tongues curling out from the corner of the wall--red and orange protrusions coated with white viscous saliva that hangs down in ropy little strands.

Seen in isolation from the rest of the body, the tongues have a rude and mocking presence--useful organs stripped of their utility to serve as emblems of dis-taste. The corner installation gives Couzens the added confrontational force of objects filling a confined space.

In an installation in the upstairs gallery, "Untitled (Coathanger Ducks)," Cornelius O'Leary conjures a teeming natural world from nothing more than a batch of bent and stretched wire coat hangers. Flying, perching or swimming (on a "pond" fashioned from duct tape) within the white-walled gallery, they resemble airy sketches on paper.

O'Leary establishes variations on the theme by letting some of his ducks overlap, bending wire "reflections" that echo as shadows on the wall, and mingling two- and three-dimensional ducks.

There's no question that this piece was made by someone both intimately familiar with the natural world and intrigued by the playful possibilities of the most ordinary of mediums. On one wall, O'Leary, with deft bends of wire, isolates three typical duck positions with the panache of a kindly uncle turning a handkerchief into a shadow puppet.

In a larger sense, the installation is about the magical quality of art for both artist and viewer--the way a slight shift in focus can unlock a fanciful alternate universe. This utterly enchanting and humble piece serves as a reminder of the rewards of looking closely at the world while letting the imagination roam far afield.

*

Other work of note is by Sally Ellesby and Nancy Rubins. Ellesby's "Blue Painting Opened Up" is a tiny, delicate structure of paint clots attached to the wall, spider-like, by tendrils of blue wire. The center of this piece is a yawning void, framed by fragile stalactites and stalagmites of blue paint. Rendered in miniature, this image of ravaged artifice becomes a bizarre curiosity, an arachnid with art world pretensions.

Rubins' untitled "drawings" are pieces of thick paper entirely covered by glossy black swaths of pencil lead. These laboriously worked surfaces have been torn into several pieces, then reassembled and push-pinned onto the wall.

The piece seems to be a meditation about effort, premeditation, impulse and second thoughts. Once sundered, the pieces can be joined only in a rough, provisional way. The wall becomes a sort of healing mechanism, patiently accepting an infinite number of revisions, while the drawing itself resists harmony or closure. One untethered shard of paper flies rebelliously into space.

This spaciously installed show, which also includes work by Daniel Weiner and Linda Besemer, has only one significant disappointment: a group of wire pieces by Gary Martin, a sculptor from Orange County who likes to play perceptual games. Each piece is an abstract tangle of wires arranged to create the shadow image of an owl, a skull or a woman's head.

The problem with this tactic--beyond the trite rendering of the imagery--is that it's just a gimmick: It doesn't point to anything beyond its own mechanical skill. Rather than enlarge the range of possible references, these wire doodles narrow it. And that's the opposite of the bracing effect of good "off the wall" art.

* "On and Off the Wall," through Oct. 11 at the Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Noon-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Free. (714) 997-6729.

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