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Outlining the Past

Art reviews: Kara Walker's brilliant 'African't' in O.C. views race relations in a deliberately ambiguous light.

October 14, 1997|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hung vertically on the wall, Peter Paul Doninelli's antique red velvet love-seat cushion piece, "te^te-a-te^te" (meaning intimate "head-to-head" chat), is a mass of uncomfortable-looking lumpy shapes. Phrenology, a form of pseudo-science that purports to judge a person's character by feeling the bumps on his head, attracted numerous followers in the last century. The upholstery lumps humorously suggest the thwarted physicality seething beneath the surface of proper Victorian life.

M.A. Peers' winsome painted dog portraits on scrap pieces of upholstery comment subtly on the Victorians' middle-class domestication of Nature by combining two "pet" furnishings of 19th century domestic life. Just as the plants embroidered on the fabric are more perfectly regular than any in real life, the purebred dogs in the portraits were bred to bypass the messy process of evolution.

"Buried Maypole," a lushly painted canvas by Margaret Curtis (no relation to this writer), is a dreamy meditation on landscape forms--hills, water, rocks--which "dance" around the ribbon-twined pole. The Maypole long predates the 19th century, but the awe-struck, Romantic-era view of Nature's wonders is fully apropos.

*

Warren Neidich updates Edward Curtis' condescending 19th century photographs of Native Americans as noble savages with blurry sepia-toned movie stills. Seen in their narrow repertoire of dancing, riding and dying, the Indians in "Contra-Curtis: Early American Cover-Ups" represent a similar kind of false history constructed by outsiders.

The most perfect fit of the show's theme and its art is "The 28th Instance of June 1914, 10:50 a.m.," a video by David McDermott and Peter McGough, who document their eccentric partnership in New York. They spent their days re-creating a genteel, turn-of-the-century lifestyle in nearly every detail, wearing period suits, listening to ragtime on a gramophone and (in lieu of a household of servants) doing their laundry in the tub with a washboard.

The charm of the video, which includes vintage film clips and commentary by several art critics, lies in its juxtaposition of a stately, contemplative existence with the brash tempo of contemporary urban life. The duo offers a view of the past in which the innate conservatism of nostalgia is constantly undercut by a spirit of anarchy.

* "Kara Walker: African't" and "Notions of the Nineteenth Century," through Nov. 16. Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. Noon-6 p.m., Tuesday-Wednesday; noon-8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sunday. $3 general; $2 students, seniors. (714) 374-1650.

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