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ART | SIGHTS

An Exhibit of Few Words

Show's visual poetry is without rhymes and, at times, reason.

May 15, 1997|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the face of it, the exhibition title "The (Mostly) Untitled Works of Mushkin, Manley, and Mori" has an odd ring. Does this art emanate from a law firm?

No, the title is just a factual description of an exhibit by three artists--Hillary Mushkin, Alexandra Manley and Lynne Mori--whose works shall go (mostly) unnamed.

What these artists share, besides gender, is a desire to examine ambiguous areas of interest, using artworks that cohere into series, which are given subtitles.

Each, in her own way, makes art that is logically untitled and not easily explained away or tied to an existing school of artistic thought.

The work here assumes that visual poetry--work that gladly accepts divergent interpretations--is a viable artistic goal.

The most perplexing and ultimately memorable work is that of Mushkin, whose pieces under the subtitle "lying in grass" occupy a gray zone, somewhere among photography, conceptual art and installation art.

Her work also veers closest, of the three, to making a feminist statement but comes short of declaring itself feminist.

Slyly, Mushkin shows large, grainy reproductions of bland photographs of a woman in unremarkable, everyday situations--walking around, eating cereal and watching TV, zombie fashion.

From one perspective, these images celebrate triviality, and yet we tend to be suspicious of such innocence.

Perhaps because of the shabby visual quality of the images, evoking such "low" culture worlds as tabloids and contraband pornography, we expect some narrative bubbling beneath the surface.

But more to the point, we tend to read a potentially sinister scenario because we are fueled by expectations of women in peril through media and culture.

It's hard to shake the feeling that this woman is heading for some dire fate, either through an outside force or via some internal breakdown.

There she is, lying face down in the grass and in a body of water. Is she alive, dead or just snoozing?

Mushkin's installation continues in the next room with a kind of jarring, palette-cleansing effect.

Tall, grainy reproductions depict an unexplained body of water--ocean? lake?--on one wall and, covering the opposite wall, fog-dusted hills at foot level, and a sweeping expanse of sky in gloomy, pointillistic gray.

In effect, we're enveloped in images of nature, but images far detached from postcard kitsch or clarity. Nature appears here in a strange murk, as if in blown-up stills from a lost existential Ukrainian art film.

In dealing with our relationship with nature rather than with women, Mushkin forces us into an interpretive corner of our own devising, just as the other work does. We question what we're seeing and why we read it the way we do.

Mushkin deals, somewhat provocatively, in broad strokes, or at least on a large scale.

Mori's work, corralled under the subtitle "so subtle the significance," is all about the power of the miniature.

In her tiny mixed-media collages, subtle hints of recognizable things catch the eye--a swatch of a crossword puzzle, a torn piece of music paper, images from antique clothes catalogs and a bill from a restaurant.

But these appear less as reality checkpoints than as memories half-remembered. She melds scraps lifted from the "outside" world into abstract strategies that create a separate poetic reality.

There is a similar equation of found materials and poetic expression in the work of Manley, under the heading "sew be it so, et al."

Manley, who, in a statement, refers to her works as "visual poems," shows a series of smallish, imperfectly square pieces, which are (mostly) abstract but that refer to textile designs. She incorporates unorthodox materials--including metal leaf and fabric--and stitching.

Tucked away in an obscure corner of her section of the gallery, and placed as the punch line (if the works are read from left to right), Manley shows the most garish of her untitled pieces. Six symmetrically placed squares are covered in the kind of shaggy fluorescent "hair" you find on certain stuffed animals. The intrigue lies in the juxtaposition of the squares' carefully plotted geometry with the eye-popping ersatz hair.

It's sublime and ridiculous, all at once. And here, the artist's description of the material beneath the official "Untitled" tells all: She calls it "fun fur (plush)." Titles can be useful, even unintentionally.

BE THERE

Exhibit: "The (Mostly) Untitled Works of Mushkin, Manley, and Mori," through May 24 at Seven Sainctuaries Galerie, 14106 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Hours: noon-5 p.m., Wed.-Sun.; (818) 990-7049.

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