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Art Review

Austrian Group Explores Feminine Mystiques

April 28, 1998|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

A three-venue exhibition centered at Otis Gallery gives L.A. its first look at an Austrian collective known as Kunstverein W.A.S. (Women's Art Support). Participants consist of nine women and one man, Martin Breindl, who takes second billing to his partner, Andrea Sodomka.

The presentation is called "Austrian Artists Take Space," a handle that's likely to provoke some wisecracks given the nature of the show. At first glance, for instance, the Otis section appears to be all space and no art. Discovered, the work consists of now-ubiquitous style installations concocted of fairly commonplace electronic gadgets. It's not clear whether this is done to celebrate or denigrate our high-tech world. Art thrives on ambiguity, but there are limits.

Sodomka and Breindl, for example, present a piece called "The Stage Is Vacant." It uses two slide projectors, a rotating mirror and a sound-emitting device. Abstract symbols appear on the wall looking like a combination of mandala and traffic graphic. After a moment, the rotating mirror moves the emblem rapidly around surrounding walls accompanied by a whooshing sound. Perhaps a suggestion of a European subway station. Is this yet another weary sigh about the ephemeral nature of modern life? The piece, like much here, is excessively thin and oblique.

Eva Ursprung acted as the exhibition's guest curator. Her piece "Mis-Take" uses a mini-TV monitor so small and awkwardly placed its images are virtually indecipherable. Are those fuzzy, postage-stamp sized pictures really of the moon behind trees or a fish in a bowl? Does the piece really allude to a woman's menstrual cycle?

If certain works court puzzlement, it's generally clear that--with the exception of formalist Sabina Hortner--the collective is preoccupied with feminist themes. Doris Jauk-Hinz's "Hot Apple" transforms Eve's traditional symbol into a projection depicting a neon-like graphic. It might be construed as a rumination on women's place in the electronic society.

Ingeborg Pock makes a domestic scene out of layers of scrim. The work seems an expression of discouragement about how flimsy everything is getting, including the artwork itself.

*

Rosa von Suess lined up seven TV monitors, affixing each screen with the image of a crawling infant doll. The organic stuff pulsating behind the doll suggests the visceral innards of a womb. If that's the point, the piece must be about the difference between fantasies of children as cute little playthings and their reality as biological entities.

Erika Thummel's "Hair" is ideologically direct. A fall of blond locks is accompanied by a wall label. It explains that such wigs are made from real hair imported from Indonesia, where most people have black hair. This is not a popular color for wigs in Caucasian climes. Indonesian hair must be treated to come out blond to fetch the best price.

The piece manages a sarcastic dig at racism, stereotypes and exploitation. Like all such polemical work, however, it faces the expressive problem of predictability. Cliches and profundities are closely interrelated, particularly in the visual arts. Obviously the goal is to strike the universal theme while avoiding the hackneyed.

Here the closest approach to this ideal seemed to me to come through works by Veronika Dreier and Gertrude Moser-Wagner. Dreier's "Teppich" looks like a carpet of Astroturf until you realize the thing is made of 120,000 tiny toy soldiers. The tour de force effort is intrinsically fascinating, the message wryly humorous and humane. In war, individuals are reduced to insignificant cannon fodder. Traditionally that questionable honor has been man's work. Women were confined to humble domestic chores like weaving rugs. So whatever you do, it gets walked on. And who's better off, the dead guy or the girl he left behind?

Moser-Wagner's "Black Hole" is centered on a formidable vintage weightlifter's barbell, conventionally a masculine symbol. Tiny video cameras trained on each of the orbital black weights project images that look like representations of those scary, sucking voids in the universe. By association they become the feminine principle. The idea that men are from Mars and women from Venus is a cliche. Moser-Wagner's piece stretches toward profundity.

Satellite venues house just one or two pieces each. Some viewers may find they're not worth the schlep. Thummel's "Let the Women Dance" is a charming concatenation of hanging household items, nylon hose, shoes and purses, at Santa Monica's Side Street Projects. Dreier's installation at downtown's Post gallery is just the remnants of an ice-cream torso that melted.

* Otis College of Art & Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., closed Monday and Sunday, (310) 665-6905; Side Street Projects, 1629 18th St., No. 2, Santa Monica, (310) 829-0779; Post, 1904 E. 7th Place, Los Angeles, (213) 622-8580; through May 2 at all venues. Satellite spaces closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

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