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Sculpture Clash at the Muckenthaler

Art review: The pieces by John Chamberlain are strong, but the show could use an independent curatorial voice.


FULLERTON — John Chamberlain is widely known as the guy who managed to combine America's obsession with driving hunks of metal at fast speeds with the artistic style that put the U.S. on the cultural map in the 1950s.

Trouble was, he always denied that the Abstract Expressionist sculptures he began making in 1957 from junked car parts had any sociological meaning. For him, these assemblages of bent and twisted metal were purely formalist exercises.

A small group of Chamberlain's recent painted steel pieces at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center (through June 8) supports the artist's views. These airy bundles of strips of chrome-plated and brightly painted metal--some cheerfully looping through space like ribbons, others tightly packed in vertical rows--obviously are not about the terror and violence of high-speed crashes.

Rather, they are about juggling line, volume, air, color and pattern to give each piece its sense of dynamic flow--from the tall, stately "Holy Gouache," with bold red and green verticals like so many slashing brush strokes, to the plump, pastel curves of "Pleasant Beast."

The seemingly weightless pieces belie the effort that doubtless went into them. Separate chunks of metal discretely welded together produce a compellingly unified effect in the round. The only automotive imagery that would seem to apply to these sculptures is the sensation of handling a luxury sports car on a series of gracefully banked curves, each yielding a pleasurable kinetic and visual shift of focus.

Colors with strong personalities (tomato red, metallic green, salmon pink), lightly brushed or sprayed designs and the effect of light bouncing off the hollows and bumps of the unpainted steel yield a marvelously unforced richness.

But though the work is strong, the exhibition is problematic. It may seem churlish to complain, given the center's tight budget, but there is something deeply depressing about the show's lack of an independent curatorial voice.

All the pieces were lent by Chamberlain's Los Angeles gallery, PaceWildenstein, whose imprint is so total that the information sheet available at the front desk was typed on the gallery's letterhead. For all intents and purposes, the nonprofit Muckenthaler has simply become a temporary repository for a for-profit gallery's excess inventory.

A curated show of Chamberlain's recent work would present a particular idea about its evolution or its form of expression, or relate it to past or current work by other artists. Particularly as a community gallery serving an audience largely unacquainted with modern and contemporary art, the Muckenthaler cannot assume viewers are familiar with Chamberlain and his milieu.

However well-intentioned, this exhibition is yet another case of the lack of initiative that has plagued Orange County art venues over the years. Too often, spaces simply become showrooms. A strong curatorial hand is regrettably rare.

The argument, so often heard, that viewers in this county should be grateful "just for the chance to see art by famous people" is pathetic. It implies that this immensely wealthy area is really a sort of cultural slum, desperate for handouts on any terms.

How about using some of that money to hire more smart, creative people for our art institutions, giving them free rein and reaping the benefits of exhibitions that require no excuses?

* "John Chamberlain: Abstract Sculptures," through June 8, Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton. Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. $2 general, $1 students and seniors, children 12 and under free. (714) 738-6595.

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