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Prizing an Animated Approach to Life

May 23, 1997|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Comic-book characters leap from two dimensions into three in Yoshitomo Nara's fascinating installation at Blum & Poe Gallery. Mounted on the walls like trophies from big-game hunts, the young artist's sculptures of larger-than-lifesize heads depicting cartoon kids (and a dog) seem to spring to life--but only until you realize that art is no more alive than Saturday morning cartoons, Sunday comics or the costumed characters at Disneyland.

This is pretty lively indeed, if you can recall the powerful pull these media had on your youthful imagination. As adult viewers, it's difficult to resist the charm and trauma of Nara's smartly installed show.

Hung at various heights on all of the gallery's walls, the Japan-born, Cologne-based artist's masterfully crafted heads seem to float like apparitions in the pristine, sky-lit space. Painstakingly made of fiberglass, resin and wood and carefully painted with numerous coats of lacquer, Nara's sculptures flaunt his skills as a craftsman and colorist.

It's a little unsettling to see cartoons receiving such idealized treatment, but it's impossible to deny that Nara's pieces approach a level of perfection rarely seen in contemporary art. Their impeccable surfaces recall John McCracken's gorgeous forms, while their mundane subjects recall Stephan Balkenhol's casually carved figures.

"Dog From Your Childhood," a stylized beagle that looks more like Snoopy than any real hound, invites viewers to see Nara's art with the eyes of a child. "Sheep From Your Dream," a sleeping infant wearing a cotton hood with little lamb's ears stitched on, locates the show in the realm of dreamy fantasy. "Puffy Girl," "Upset Kitty" and "Grinning Little Bunny" show that melancholy, rage and mean-spirited revenge are no strangers to this often idealized territory.

Seemingly innocent, yet filled with terrors their inexperienced faces can barely express, Nara's sculptures add up to a moving meditation on mortality--on the distance between dreams and reality and the wisdom that sometimes accompanies a reckoning of the shortfall. By asking deep, existential questions via apparently silly cartoons, his works avoid heavy-handed solemnity in favor of a light touch that resonates long after you've left the exhibition.

* Blum & Poe Gallery, 2042 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 453-8311, through June 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Good on Paper: For many sculptors, drawings function as studies. Faster and cheaper than working in three dimensions, working on paper allows artists to try out new ideas, to follow hunches or simply to iron out kinks in a project before its final form is realized.

For Daniel Wiener, drawings rarely serve such preparatory purposes. Rather than tracing the stages of an idea's development, the New York-based sculptor's images are complete unto themselves. At Angles Gallery, eight works from the last three years playfully demonstrate that when intuitions take shape, it doesn't matter what stage of the process they spring from.

Each of Wiener's abstract drawings sprouts a fully formed sculptural element. At the bottom of "Tohu and Bohu," a curved, funnel-like flourish protrudes from the paper's surface, effectively transforming the washy blue drawing's vertical stripes into a downpour of color that threatens to spill onto your shoes.

"Lucifer's Teeth" embodies a similar menace. A section of its left edge bends back and thickens to form a toothy, lip-curling smirk that is only thinly disguised by its pastel blue color. Only half-jokingly, Wiener's drawing also suggests that if it isn't itself devilish, then some unseen being has just taken a bite out of it--and might be lurking nearby.

The best works evoke multiple responses as they compress three dimensions into two. From across the gallery, the seven hefty thorns that stud the surface of "Affliction" disappear into dark smudges of color. Likewise, four unsavory lumps of sculpted plastic hide in a shadowy splash of black paint to give the otherwise elegant composition of "Shame" a jolt of unexpected tactility.

"Cigarette," "Brigand," "Shiver" and "Slippery Slope" add wire, rice paper and color photographs to Wiener's crafty fusions. Sculpted roots, stumps and thumbs, as well as flowers, fungi and tiny wilted barbells inhabit the ever-shifting world of these quietly perverse works. Never striving for solutions, Wiener's 3-D drawings show that the kinks are often more stimulating.

* Angles Gallery, 2222 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 396-5019, through June 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Waxing Poetic: Sabina Ott's new monoprints, drawings and paintings are transitional, in the best sense of the term. Restless, open-ended and headed in an intriguing direction, these unresolved images at Mark Moore Gallery show that Ott is not afraid to experiment with unfamiliar types of mark-making.

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