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The Socio-Art Genre

Art review: 'Uncommon Sense' at the Geffen Contemporary attempts to create a dialogue about social problems. Sometimes it works.


The Museum of Contemporary Art wants you to know that "Uncommon Sense" is not just another show in which artists with social consciences whine about the disagreeable state of the world.

Instead, six diverse projects are put forward by MOCA curator Julie Lazar and guest curator Tom Finkelpearl to show how some artists attempt to create dialogue in the service of resolving social issues.

Rather than a passive culture of complaint, the show champions an active culture of therapy, with the museum as an agency having the public and financial clout to assist artists in the endeavor. The audience is seen as a potential partner in the plan.

The big hitch in this idea is that, as realized in the Geffen Contemporary, MOCA's warehouse space, only two of the six projects are captivating as works of art. The other four are dull. It's hard to make a compelling case for a dialogical art of social action when you haven't produced the goods.

Mel Chin's "In the Name of the Place" is a conceptually elastic, wonderfully loopy exercise in post-Pop art. Rick Lowe's "Watts House Project" aims to create a functioning neighborhood cultural center. Starkly dissimilar, both involve authentic, meaningful social collaboration.

Chin, working with a group of about 50 students and art teachers and with set designer Deborah Siegel, has inserted nearly 200 paintings, sculptures and other objects into the popular TV soap opera "Melrose Place" during the last year. At the Geffen is a large display of the art props: "We Three Kings" (a triptych painting showing Charles I, Elvis and Aaron Spelling), elaborate packages of Chinese takeout food, a sculptural trophy, variously designed clocks, jewelry, decorative accessories, etc.

TV monitors show continuous clips of the art props in use on the series. Some are inside jokes, like "We Three Kings" and its hilarious allusions to changing traditions in aristocratic culture, culminating in a portrait of Chin's "royal" patron, producer Aaron Spelling.

Others have more sober connections. The Chinese characters on the takeout containers can be loosely translated as "disorder" and "freedom," the contradictory explanations by government officials and students for the massacre at Tiananmen Square. You wind up wondering about social conflicts created by TV.

And by art, for Chin scrupulously avoids placing art on a pedestal above TV; he's not holier-than-thou. It's great fun to see the art turn up casually and without fanfare on TV, a place notably inhospitable to the genre. It's also disorienting. The cartoonish unreality of the show suddenly becomes tangible, while the material presence of art assumes emphatically fictional proportions. The oddly refreshing result is a subtle feeling of critical participation in the usually passive act of TV viewing.

Likewise, albeit in a wholly different manner, Lowe uses art to seamlessly intervene in ordinary social experience. His installation at MOCA is a mock-up of a simple three-room house, designed in collaboration with Sheryl Tucker and set up almost like a home-show display at a convention center. You're invited to poke around inside.

The house, whose plan is based on a documented historical model, is an elaborate but clearly articulated information kiosk. Rather than new bathroom fixtures or furniture, you find documents about the Watts neighborhood surrounding Sabato Rodia's famous visionary spires, the Watts Towers.

The first room chronicles an official, unrealized plan by a government agency to transform the area into an elaborate "cultural crescent." The second displays memorabilia from the neighborhood's living culture. The third is an office, where Lowe presents ideas for street-level projects to give the area a cohesive identity while retaining a sense of individuality.

The tensions among an official plan, historical ad hoc activity and the artist's open-ended ideas for loosely coordinated community projects that don't require massive infusions of funds--or numbing civic bureaucracy--together make for a vibrant sense of possibility marked by welcome pragmatism. The Geffen's "model home" offers inspiring information, but the real project is rightly taking place far beyond museum walls.

The projects by Chin and Lowe intersect compellingly with life beyond the established art world. The rest collapse under the weight of pretension or soporifics.

The Cornerstone Theater is presenting several short plays in an MTA bus parked inside the Geffen, anchored by performances of "Token, Alien." Thirty minutes of sophomoric (if cleverly staged) twaddle about a little green man from outer space--an alien, get it?--riding public transportation through multicultural L.A. may not put you off the MTA, but it may discourage you about theater.

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