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Facing an Encounter With Surrealist Edge

March 07, 1997|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tony Oursler has become well-known in the last several years for his crudely stuffed fabric dolls, whose faces are composed of video projections of actual people hurling abuse, mouthing creative invective or flinging garden-variety taunts at the viewer. Posed in corners, half-smashed under mattresses or submerged in tanks of water--and alternately pitiful and loathsome--the dolls suck you into psychodramas that are all the more seductive for their artifice.

Oursler's newish work at Margo Leavin Gallery is still edgy, though no longer desperate to provoke, which seems to be a good thing. Massive disembodied eyes dart back and forth, blink dramatically or, worst of all, fix their stares.

Projected onto large fiberglass spheres that hover in the darkened gallery space or cower in corners, these video images were shot while various people were watching various things on TV (you can sometimes make out the reflections in the pupils of the eye). They incarnate the truism that the eye is the mirror of the soul--the soul, that is, in thrall to a media spectacle.

The spectacle is all about distraction. So, logically, the room is filled with a not quite grating medley of discordant, mostly indecipherable sounds. Ambient noise intermingles with more insistent narratives emanating from several other works, in which eyes, faces and sometimes just mouths are projected onto animal body parts ensconced in glass jars.

Like Frankenstein's monsters hell-bent on revenge, these animated viscera (sheep's brains, bulls' testicles, hearts) bare their teeth, cackle, rationalize their behavior in studied shrink-speak and murmur things like, "Don't be scared. Come a little closer." When you do come closer, you are rewarded with a chill running down your spine.

Like Bruce Nauman, Oursler uses video to stage encounters rather than to facilitate passive spectatorship. This immediately sets him up for charges of gimmickry, which may have been justified in the past.

However, in this show, and especially in a final installation involving flickering colored lights and a soundtrack that teases out their metaphorical significance, Oursler begins to sketch out Surrealist poetics. This is not to say that things are more benign, but rather that they've been sublimated more cunningly.

* Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 273-0603, through April 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Oozing Images: It isn't really going out on a limb to say that no one handles spewing, gushing, dribbling fluids--ranging in color from telltale yellow to noxious green to glitter-spiked clear to head-over-heels fuchsia--quite like Terri Friedman does.

"Phew," the centerpiece of her current show at Special K Exhibitions, consists of a thick tube, cozily enrobed in a baby blue blanket, which is perched over a massive aluminum bowl big enough to accommodate bloated quadruplets not averse to bathing in brackish water. At regular intervals, a yellow liquid abruptly spills through the tube into the bowl, as if responding to what polite society refers to as nature's call.

Elsewhere, orangey-yellow water trickles down two vinyl columns affixed to the wall and into a gargantuan pair of fiberglass baby booties, only to get sucked back up again like some sort of nightmare rerun of the myriad indignities of the baby years.

Punctuated by the sounds of dumping and gurgling, Friedman evokes a sensorium of bodily necessity. But just when you think it's all getting too literal, typical of the (happily) now-waning subgenre of "abject art," she moves in the other direction.

More allusive is the wonderfully titled, "If you're hit on the head with a kaleidoscope, does that mean that you see stars?," which consists of a free-standing grid of wall-to-wall mini-Ziploc bags, filled with colored liquid, taped to one another and lit from behind by rainbow-hued lights. Friedman bedazzles us with the sensation of dizziness, conjures the rhythms of a beating heart and apes the flickering patterns we see when we close our eyes.

Probably the only real misstep here are the paintings, which consist of layered sheets of clear acetate that have been marked with dots of color that overlap one another or have been decorated with distinctly teenage-looking flowery doodles. These works seem to want to exploit the effects of the assemblages in a truncated form, but in the wildly immoderate context Friedman creates, they are simply too parsimonious.

* Special K Exhibitions, 928 N. Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood, (213) 656-8694, through March 15. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Personal Meaning: It's not particularly shocking to use one's bodily fluids and excreta as artistic material. Consider the reverence with which we regard art made with Piero Manzoni's feces, Mona Hatoum's hair, Janine Antoni's saliva and so on.

Yet there is something haunting, though likewise off-putting, about Liz Young's blood paintings at Post Gallery. I suspect it has something to do with Young's unmitigated embrace of the morbid.

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