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ART REVIEW

Sight, Sound--Action

At LACE, the ear, eye have their own wavelengths.

March 20, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Some years ago, back in the era of the LP, record fanatics used to gossip about the most fanatical of us all. He lived in New Jersey, and he had painstakingly trained himself to recognize pieces of music by observing the patterns created by the grooves on the vinyl discs. The effort of acquiring such visual acuity seemed nutty even to us, but the notion that every piece of music has a visual fingerprint did spark a certain secret thrill. It's always nice to have the eye on the ear's side.

The exact correlation of eye and ear has concerned musicians from the moment they started trying to cope with notation. And it has been of particular concern to our century's composers, who have not been satisfied with an inherited musical language. By now, we have had years of various experiments with new notation. We have the example of the Fluxus movement in the early '60s, in which avant-garde visual artists (Yoko Ono was one) treated musical performances as conceptual art (or was it the other way around?). We witnessed an art rock movement in the '70s that emerged, at least in part, from art schools.

Where all this has led is hard to say. Every artist in our overstimulated moment in history seems to work differently and to have a different set of influences. And so the first thing one notices about "(ear as eye)," drawings by more than 130 sound artists at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, is that the works don't have much in common.

However, time spent at the listening station, where there is a CD of snippets of music by about 70 of the artists, tells just the opposite story--conveyed at consistently low volume through headphones, it all sounds similarly ambient. Clearly, for many, the ear and eye still have their own wavelengths.

Much of the inspiration of "(ear as eye)," which is organized by two artists who work both in sound and visuals, Brandon LaBelle and Steve Roden, comes from John Cage. In the '50s, Cage shocked the musical world, while delighting the visual one, by making scores such as "Variation I," in which a performer had to interpret random visual patterns without specific instruction. And Cage eventually found that he could apply the same processes he used to write music to make visual art, which became the subject of exhibitions and which now sells for a lot of money.

But Cage also once noted that what is horizontal in graphic art needs to be vertical in musical work. The horizon is important to the eye, whereas time is important to the ear.

Those distinctions do still hold at the LACE exhibition, but they are not strong. A few of the works suggest that their concerns are horizontal, musical. Those include a handful of scores by established composers, like Robert Ashley, that use invented graphic notation to tell performers what to do. The electronically minded still use time lines with scientific notations of wave forms, as they have since the '50s.

Paul Panhuysen in his "Two Families of 64 Squares" tries a little more, applying processes that Cage used in the '40s for making musical scores--in this case, making structures from mathematical "magic squares" to produce a woodcut of colored shapes that proves one of the more striking works in the show.

Occasionally overt musical imagery appears. Per Svensson's "Element II" consists of white sheets in an accordion fold, and on one of them is a pencil drawing of a shape reminiscent of a CD.

But most works in this highly discordant show provide the eye with no clues about the ear's function. An American, Eric Lanzillotta, has put something yucky in a jar filled with dark colored liquid. Another American, simply called Lob, has done some doodling. Canadian Phillip Schreibman has drawn a dog.

There is beauty to be seen. Christoph Charles, a talented French sound artist who lives in Japan, contributes an intriguing if inexplicable time-scale notation of strange squiggles in an oval pattern. Yasunao Tone, a Fluxus artist, paints Japanese characters over magazine cutouts.

And so it goes, one mystery after another. The sound artists who were asked to participate (some are composers, others work with sound more conceptually) seem to have been selected for their cultural diversity. No attempt has been made, the organizers assure us, to incorporate an aesthetic.

That is probably as it should be. The overriding image I took away from the gallery space was a sonic one, the loud resonance of the floor, and the engrossing noise anyone wearing hard shoes makes on it. It is the raw sound of looking at art (and much more exciting than the buzz-buzz that comes from Walkman gallery guides in big museum shows), the sound one notices thanks to art that makes one think about listening rather than looking. Maybe the real value of such work is that the less it appears to be related to music, the more the ear wants to manufacture some.

BE THERE

"(ear as eye)," Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., today, noon-8 p.m.; Friday, noon-6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Ends Sunday. (213) 957-1777.

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