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A 'COLA' That Refreshes

Art review: The Municipal Art Gallery exhibition showcases some solid L.A. talent who have received grants from the city's Cultural Affairs Department.

May 27, 1997|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Group exhibitions at museums are typically organized around a theme or subject that the participating artists hold in common. At the Municipal Art Gallery, "COLA: 1996-1997 Individual Artist Grants" is slightly different.

The only thing all 12 artists in this show have in common is that each one received a grant from the Cultural Affairs Department's newly revamped program. The grants are meant to provide time and resources for worthwhile artists to develop their work and careers. As a condition of the award, they are required to present recent examples of their work in a public exhibition.

So, whatever individual merits the widely diverse works in the show might reasonably claim, each stands as a kind of fragmentary bit of evidence. While offering the public an opportunity to examine a broad spectrum of current activity in painting, sculpture, photography and installation art, the assembled works demonstrate whether or not the city's overhauled grant program is now effectively reaching gifted working artists in Los Angeles.

Based on the evidence, the answer is a resounding yes. "COLA" (the acronym stands for City of Los Angeles) maintains a high level of accomplishment.

Included are pieces by Michael Brewster, who uses electronic sound in contained areas to carve up auditory spaces, much the way a traditional sculptor might carve up stone; Michael C. McMillen, who uses assemblage techniques to create fantastic myths that irradiate ordinary situations (the eccentric legend of "The Echo Park Mummy," for example); and Carl Cheng, who in 1978 built a computerized machine called "The Art Tool" that can be programmed to create big, temporary, environmental relief-drawings by spreading sand on the gallery floor. All three artists are in their 50s and, during the past 20 years and more, have become well-established figures.

This is not a show of surprises or discoveries, in other words, but a show that italicizes a sustained level of achievement among serious working artists in L.A. They range in age from 34 to 57.

It encompasses those as different from one another as documentarian Tony Gleaton, whose 11 elegant black-and-white photographs are like an inventory of ordinary life (from Bolivia to the San Fernando Valley) that is valorized through the precision of the artist's camera vision; Harry Gamboa Jr., whose photo-documents of Chicano artists, writers and musicians are carefully composed to mimic the prevalent stereotype of the barrio gangster: on the street, at night, chin out, feet planted; and Martin Kersels, whose large color prints of a snowy landscape show the artist in mid-air, having slipped on the ice--a moment of sudden free-fall that is at once funny, cruel, liberating, embarrassing and painful to watch.

In concept if not in form, Victor Estrada's exuberant "Identity I (From the Garden of Earthly Delights)" recalls nothing so much as the Visible Man--the see-through toy model of a human figure and his innards. Estrada's, however, is more a psychological portrait, cobbled together from leftover stuff in a mad scientist's lab. Identity is wryly posited as an ad hoc affair, tentatively assembled from yearning aspirations, bits of string, bad dreams, comic book fantasies and whatever else might be at hand.

*

Identity is also at issue in Phyllis Green's "Chimaera." In this gathering of 22 very odd sculptural vessels, the hollows and protuberances are bluntly sexual, but the sexuality is elusive, indeterminate and unhinged.

Using soldered wire, old photographs and other memorabilia, Kim Abeles creates an environment that attempts a poetic evocation of the physical and psychological scale of landmark architecture, such as City Hall, Watts Towers, the Angelus Temple, the Brown Derby restaurant and many more. If its ambition finally outstrips its ability to resonate, the installation still contains small moments of deft observation.

Jorge Pardo's installation, which must be searched out on the grounds of Barnsdall Park and the neighborhood surrounding the Municipal Art Gallery, is also rather inert. Rectangular wooden boxes, filled with sand and painted a fashionable acid yellow-green, have been placed in the landscape, apparently at random, like mute interruptions from the daily routine. They wryly call attention to themselves, yet steadfastly decline to give up any indication of what, exactly, they might be; alas, the urge to wonder remains short-lived.

Joyce Lightbody's nine small collages have the look of vaguely Eastern cosmological maps, embellished with thousands of scissored stamps, stickers and bits of colored paper. Cryptic pencil notations, somewhat musical in feeling, read like private visual chants.

Painting gets shortest shrift in the show. Joe Edward Grant is the one painter included, and his abstract pictures are weak. They attempt the familiar Minimalist refusal to distinguish between inside and outside, insisting instead on the seamlessness of space. Yet, they end up illustrating the desire for that dynamic continuity, rather than embodying an experience of it.

* Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., (213) 485-4581, through June 22. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

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