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Visions From Spain

The dissimilar works of Miquel Navarro and Carmen Calvo, on display at USC's Fisher Gallery, have a common concern for 'humanity's ultimate solitariness and loneliness.'

September 14, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Given the international nature of today's art scene, one would be hard pressed to stroll into most exhibitions of contemporary work and guess the nationality of the artists. The current show at USC's Fisher Gallery is no exception. Were it not for the artists' Spanishnames, Miquel Navarro's chunky metal "cities" that stretch across the gallery floors and Carmen Calvo's abstract mixed-media wall pieces might be thought to hail from elsewhere in Europe, or from South America or even the United States.

In fact, the artists are both from Valencia, a lively center of art on the eastern coast of Spain, but they are international players. At the moment, their work happens to be in Los Angeles because Fisher Gallery director Selma Holo spent most of 1994 in Spain, studying museums on a Fulbright scholarship. She lived in Madrid but traveled widely during her sojourn, got to know a number of Spanish artists and selected the two she found most interesting for a traveling exhibition that opened last week on her home turf. It will appear at the Chicago Cultural Center early next year, then tour Mexico and South America.

Navarro, 52, and Calvo, 47, have compiled extensive exhibition records in Europe. Calvo achieved new prominence this year while representing her country at the Venice Biennale, along with Joan Brossa, a Surrealist sculptor from Barcelona. Calvo and Navarro both made their American debut in 1980 in "New Images From Spain," a traveling show organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. That same year, Navarro's work was in "Architectural Sculpture," a group show at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art. However, the USC exhibition amounts to a West Coast introduction because the artists are barely known here.

At first Holo thought of her chosen twosome as polar opposites; Navarro's crisp sculptural forms and urban subject matter seemed to contrast sharply with the relatively ragged found objects and handcrafted components of Calvo's more introspective work. But over time Holo began to see the artists as "two sides of the same coin," she said.

Different as their work may appear, it conveys a similar sense of "metaphysical absence" and a concern with "humanity's ultimate solitariness and loneliness," she has written in the exhibition catalog. The artists also share a restrained sense of color, a preference for formal clarity and an inclination to assemble single artworks from multiple parts.

Calvo has suspended hundreds of white clay strips on the upper part of a long wall and has stacked ceramic tombstone-like slabs below them in an interpretation of death that she calls "Silence." Navarro's "Red City," which he arranges differently each time he shows it, consists of dozens of peaked, building-like shapes and several zigzag towers and spires made of oxidized cast iron.

As it turns out, the artists have other things in common--a stint at working in a ceramic factory in Valencia and careers that began with painting but moved into three-dimensional forms. But while Navarro is clearly a sculptor, Calvo still considers herself a painter and often constructs wall pieces in high relief.

She generally substitutes other materials for the traditional fabric used for paintings, she said, speaking through a translator--Manuel Blanco, a professor of architecture at the Polytechnic University of Madrid and curator of Navarro's part of the exhibition. In "Silence," which was inspired by the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, when she lived in Paris from 1985 to '92, her canvas is a gallery wall.

In "Amor," a black hood, a tailor's cushion bristling with pins, three clay bananas and a strip of wood are attached to a sheet of black rubber. An untitled work that she calls "It Invites Me to Dream" is composed of metal sheets and black, organic clay shapes on an old wood door from her studio.

Maintaining a painter's sensibility but challenging the hierarchy that ranks painting far above mere crafts, Calvo said that in some of her past work she has "painted with clay," either using it in liquid form or squeezing out curls that she likens to petrified brush strokes.

She definitely takes a hands-on approach to art, but she also loves finding objects that trigger her own memories and those of her audience. Citing Marcel Duchamp and Joan Miro, among others, as predecessors, she spoke of giving ordinary objects new life in her art. In one piece, "The Mysterious House," she has assembled a pincushion, a lock of hair from a wig and various other objects found in an old house to the interior of an antiquated suitcase.

Also speaking through translator Blanco, Navarro characterized himself as "a lyrical person." While his works consist of concrete forms, they suggest a variety of a metaphorical interpretations. The playfulness of the multi-part cities and his own activity in arranging their components allow him to indulge his "obsessions," he said.

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