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Here's a Sculptor Who's Broken the Mold

Rick Oginz's fascination with the 'vital language' of drawing has given him a fantastically different creative outlet.

February 23, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Preposterous things pop up in Rick Oginz's drawings. His indoor-outdoor views of studios where he has worked over the last 21 years portray the life of his mind as well as his actual surroundings.

"Bizarre," he said, pointing out a few vignettes in "Broadway--Proposition 13," a 1978 drawing of his former downtown L.A. studio. Most of the space in the drawing is devoted to the view from three large windows. Looking across Broadway into tiny windows of other buildings, one discovers such scenes as a woman nursing a miniature cow, while the bare foot and lower leg of a giant looms ominously behind her.

Windows of a nearby high-rise are chock-full of peculiar goings-on, including a man leaning out of his office window to fondle the woman lodged below. Meanwhile in the sky--above a chaotic parking lot that resembles a wrecking yard--a plane pulls a banner saying "13 unlucky," in reference to the 1978 California state proposition that cut property tax, a major source of public school funding.

This is only a sample of the sensibility at work in "Richard Oginz: Drawings From a Sculptor's View," opening Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibition of 23 drawings consists of pencil and ink works on paper done since 1976, when the artist settled in Los Angeles.

As the show's title suggests, Oginz is primarily a sculptor. Best known for representational objects that pull off startling shifts of scale and comment on social issues, he also makes unorthodox furniture and funky household items. Among works in his living room are a carved and painted sculpture of the Earth, a set of mechanized ocean waves and a pair of gold-leaf panels incised with two female nudes, a Barbie doll and an ancient fertility figure. He calls the diptych "The Venus of El Segundo and the Venus of Willendorf."

It isn't unusual for a sculptor to draw well, but few have developed such a consistent body of drawings over such a long period. Although Oginz's drawings are related to his sculpture, they have taken on a life of their own.

"I've thought a lot about drawing during the two years that I've been getting ready for this show," Oginz said. "Almost every piece of our physical culture starts with a drawing--cars, roads, cities, every object that's manufactured--so I think it's a vital language. I also think of drawing as being the biggest and the most immediate window on our imagination, more than written or verbal language. The imagination can express itself quicker and more profoundly in drawing."

His highly detailed drawings generally take more than a week to complete, but he can deal with a whole slew of ideas in the process. "I have more ideas than I have time to make things," he said.

Some of these notions--including images of fish that drive around his studio in motorized aquariums--come from actual experience. "When I had my studio on Broadway a friend who went away for the summer left me her fish," he said. "He was a little tiny feeder fish, but I threw him into a big tank.

"He liked it a lot, so much that he grew and grew and grew. And he was very smart. He was aware of what I was doing. He watched me work. I named him Gefilte. He gave me the idea of building an aquarium with wheels and a motor, so the fish could drive around to look at the things he wants to see. It's an exact equivalent of scuba diving, where we adapt ourselves to the wet world, to go down and look at it. The fish is adapting itself to the dry world."

Other drawings fall in the art-about-art genre, with Oginz carrying on visual conversations about his own work and that of his contemporaries. He also fantasizes about owning ethnic art. In a drawing of a fireplace at his former house in Echo Park, he depicts an array of Anasazi pottery on the mantel. "If We Sold Our House to Ernie Wolfe" portrays a room full of African sculpture, like the material found in Wolfe's gallery at Bergamot Station.

"This is my way of collecting," Oginz said. "I think of drawing as a kind of empowerment. If you draw a picture of something, you gain power over it. That began in the very dawn of human life, in the very first artworks. I think that magic still works."

Oginz, 53, was born in Philadelphia and spent most of his youth in Alexandria, Va. During his high school years he took classes at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington and discovered his talent for modeling from the figure.

"That's pretty much what the study of sculpture was at that time," he said. "It was terrifically satisfying to make a volume out of inanimate material as you try to exactly copy a person. The distinction between what's alive and what's dead is so poignant in that exercise. But by the time I got to art school, I began to realize that's not what sculpture is."

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