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Art Review

Drops of 'Oceania' Dilute in Vastness of the Pacific

September 23, 1997|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CYPRESS — A generous sampling of earthy, vividly stylized sculptures from several Pacific island cultures--what more could anyone want from an exhibition? Well, let's just say that any show displaying a "skull rack" needs some cultural context.

Given the academic setting of "The Art of Oceania: Ceremony and Celebration"--the Cypress College Fine Arts Gallery--it seems particularly remiss on the part of collector Gene Isaacson and gallery director Betty Disney to have provided only scant information about those ceremonies and celebrations.

A viewer yearns to know more about the meaning of the pensive crouching figures that serve as handles of spoons carved by people on Northern Luzon Island or the beliefs of the Yami sailors of Lan Yu Island, who caught flying fish in a frighteningly delicate-looking wooden canoe decorated with feathers.

The recorded sounds of birds, insects, thunder and water offer a charming atmospheric setting, but how about a map of Oceania? (It includes New Zealand, Indonesia, Polynesia and Melanesia, an area that includes New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.)

The show offers virtually no help in understanding the religious practices and influences, including European exploration, that led different civilizations to produce such striking objects during the past 100 years or so.

The catalog reads more like an auction house publication than an educational tool, with more attention paid to provenance (an object's former owners) and citations in specialist literature than information useful for the viewer.

Viewers do learn that many of the sculptures commemorate deceased relatives, in the guise of mythic figures. A skinny, long-waisted wooden woman with red-tipped ears and her hatted male companion--who once stood in front of a Ngaju family crypt in Borneo--are shown touching their genitals, probably to indicate the propagation of the family seed.

The island cultures celebrate sexuality, never more joyously than in a commemorative grave post from the Sakalava culture of Madagascar, which shows a well-endowed man athletically coupling with a willowy, serene woman.

The sheer visual appeal of the sculpture takes several forms.

Some figures seem frail and wistful, such as the Ngaju figure of a man whose flat, open face and tiny features give him a kindly air, enhanced by his gesture of grasping the tail of a cat balanced on his head.

*

The elegant diamond shapes of a trio of war clubs from the Solomon Islands might seem to belie their brutal purpose. A Maori whalebone club from New Zealand incorporates an exquisitely abstracted human form with rounded contours and a flower-shaped shell serving as a bellybutton.

A headdress from New Britain Island features a hugely exuberant seated figure who poses with palms out in an infectious "hallelujah" gesture. Feather tufts form his beard, and other materials found on local beaches give his airy environment the look of a parade float.

One of the most spectacularly accomplished pieces is a cult figure made by the Alamblak people of East Sepik province in Papua New Guinea. A goateed warrior with a craggy profile verging on caricature stands in profile, a three-dimensional silhouette. His torso is a series of sharp-pointed curves (armor? a diagrammatic rib cage?) that echo the lines of his beard and helmet.

An early 20th century sculpture from East Sepik that was used as a "bridal price" (presumably in payment to the woman's family) is remarkable in a different way. Made more or less contemporaneously with the revolutionary work of Picasso in France, this wicker and wood piece looks strikingly Cubist with its abruptly intersecting planes, twisting shapes and projecting tubes, perhaps representing eyes.

There is a great deal more stunning and utterly delightful work in this show. Maybe Isaacson can find an ethnographic museum to give his collection the contextual treatment it richly deserves.

* "The Art of Oceania: Ceremony and Celebration," through Sept. 30, Cypress College Fine Arts Gallery, 9200 Valley View St. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday and Thursday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Free. (714) 826-5593.

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