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Works in Search of a Theme

As an Exhibition, "Passion: Art as Compulsive Impulse" Proves Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

March 18, 1997|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — The best curators dream up exhibition themes that are both innovative and genuinely reflective of something special about the chosen group of artists and works. Others, such as photographer Jerry Burchfield, who organized a group show for the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, seem to get tangled up in their own ideas. "Passion: Art as Compulsive Impulse" has landed Burchfield in a strange boxing match with a phantom enemy and peculiarly defined victors.

Disgusted (as he writes in a statement) with "artists who are consumed by the novelty of the art game and related careerist motivations," he bundled together four wildly disparate artists because he believes they demonstrate "an intense, driving, overwhelming feeling or conviction to question both art and life."

But, hey, all good artists possess this drive. And who cares about the careerists, given the extraordinary richness of Southern California as an art center?

The amusing thing is that, while the title of the show suggests highly visceral, possibly wildly uncontrolled work, the best pieces are the product of finely tuned effects and an alertness to the possibilities inherent in materials, memories and historical precedent.

The odd man out is Fritz Cramp Smith, a self-taught Huntington Beach artist who has done some droll things with computer imagery but whose sculpture is hopelessly cliched, art-fair stuff. This is one of the difficulties of being utterly disconnected from the art world that so disgusts Burchfield: You lack a sense of what the contemporary issues are and what's been done to death.

Thomas La Duke's delicately restrained, atmospheric paintings of humdrum landscapes glinting with wires or tiny, winking lights were reviewed at Griffin Linton Exhibitions last year. Most of Martha Fuller's lushly allusive photographic pieces--many evoking languor, longing and the lure of faraway places--were in a show at BC Space, also written about recently in The Times. Although it was good to see this work again, a fresher show might have made more of a splash.

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The splash--more of a delicate plash--comes from Barbara Berk. The studies she made several years ago--by repeatedly moving her drawing hand within a confined area--seem to have been warmups for a new piece called "Good Drawing."

A phrase about good drawing was written in pencil continuously across the page (not stopping to make each line read from left to right), so that every other line reads backward. Push pins dotting this literary web carry a piece of string that winds along the path of the prose. The string glides effortlessly above the knotty lines of the written script, a sort of Platonic ideal of "good drawing."

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Berk's best piece in the show, "Art Through the Ages," consists of a severed sphere crafted from layered pages of the hefty tome known as Gardner's "History of Art." Resting, cut side up, on the open cover of the empty book, the two hemispheres reduce art history to whorls of whiteness, like uncountable growth rings on an ancient tree.

It's as if the compacted weight of verbiage and the vastness of historical time have squeezed the identity out of art and rendered it invisible. Stray photo captions pasted onto the outsides of the hemispheres become displaced reminders of a forgotten passage of culture. The blood-red book cover suddenly seems a sign of cruelty, as if it has killed something vital by pruning it down to manageable size for student use.

The attractiveness of Berk's work can be merely skin-deep, however, when it rests uneasily on thin, obvious or insufficiently developed supporting ideas.

A dress outlined and "buttoned" by rows of nails driven into the wall, and filled in with a "bias cut" of nylon filament, is a lovely, spare object. The untitled piece is a beguiling exercise in three-dimensional "dots" and "lines," but somehow that isn't enough.

"Magic Carpet," a series of snapshots of a patch of turf, arranged on the floor in a rug-like concentric pattern, offers only obvious contrasts in discontinuity, coloration and focus (the central photos are blurry). Is the piece meant to fuse the illusion (or "magic") of photography with the notion of a spatially, even temporally, discontinuous magic carpet ride? If so, something vital seems to be missing.

* "Passion: Art as Compulsive Impulse," through April 5, Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 208 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Free. (714) 667-1517.

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