The current exhibition at the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park is titled "Sensuality in the Abstract." To some that may ring of a contradiction, since things sensual are often confounded with those sexual. A show titled "Abstract Sex" wouldn't make sense and certainly wouldn't be much fun. So what is this exercise really about?
It was organized by independent curator Josine Ianco Starrels, who has admirably directed this gallery for some dozen years. As is usual with her work, it is thoughtfully conceived, beautifully chosen and handsomely installed. Including about 50 works by 14 artists, it is heavily freighted with names familiar-to-famous in L.A. art circles. Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg are represented, as are Sam Francis, Craig Kauffman and Tony Berlant.
In many ways, this looks and feels like an investigation into local art history in the epoch of the sleek, exotic Finish Fetish of the '60s. But, as if to make sure her intentions aren't mistaken, Starrels brought in lesser-known locals of a later generation and--rather pointedly--a couple of out-of-towners.
If we still don't get it she also made sure that the first work encountered is a sand installation by Connie Zehr. It looks rather like a Native American sand painting with its zones of earth colors. We know it's a work of the moment because divisions have been smudged as if by a wind (or an Abstract Expressionist).
In front of the work a box of sand rests on a podium with a polite printed notice that says, in effect, "Sorry we can't let you touch this work but if you can't suppress the understandable desire, please play with this sand instead."
By now it's pretty clear this is an exhibition about art that ignites and invites the tickle of tactility. Objects and sculpture really make the point. Steve Rudel's work has some affinity with that of Louise Bourgeois. An untitled oval shape where white fabric puckers into a curving center slot is as witty as it is sensuous. Somehow it feels like Mae West's couch.
Jo Ann Callis is best known as a photographer, but her ambiguous "Skirt Chairs" have a character that echoes Rudel. Kauffman's recent work harks back to his gelatinous vacuum-formed oeuvre of three decades ago. His translucent dish-like objects have the other-worldly glow of dark planetary eggs gestating in blue ectoplasm. Tony de Lap is subtler in pieces like "Roxy" with their suggestion of black velvet and polished wood. Berlant is still more understated in such compositions as "Within No. 1." Imagery suggests Arshile Gorky but what's germane in this context is the way Berlant's use of nailed metal turns into atmosphere.
Lundeberg's painting, like the others on view, arrives at atmospheric tactility with more purely optical means. Lavi Daniel's small compositions befog their representation of enigmatic geometries in curious ways that make some look like fabric stretched over real objects.
Francis' aptitude for calling up a sense of liquidity is clear. Feitelson's "Magic Line" paintings are reductive and flat-surfaced, but their arabesques make the hand feel as if it's caressing something soft and curvy. What Starrels is really demonstrating, as she says in her brochure essay, is that what's really sexy is the evocation of touch.
Even smooth-faced photography can do, this as evidenced by Aaron Skid's shadows, William Garnet's sand dunes and a particularly keen Edward Weston shot of tree roots that look like petrified water.
At first glance Lui Dan's extraordinary "Ink Scroll" strikes such passionate, symphonic chords it seems out of place. Virtually unknown here, the artist is a native of China now based in New York. More than 60 feet long, the scroll initially seems a representation of a mad battle scene from a Kurosawa samurai film, or at very least something inspired by Leonardo's late apocalyptic "Deluge" drawings. As it turns out it is Lui Dan's virtually abstract distillation of his own trauma when he served in the Red Guard. It's remarkable to dwell on the realization that gut emotions of chaos, terror and violence can be, in fact, very sensual.
* Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., through April 13, closed Monday and Tuesday. (213) 485-4581.