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A Show With a Smirk on Its Face

Review: San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art displays some audacious works from collector Tom Patchett. Fine--but what's really going on here?

August 09, 1998|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

SAN DIEGO — As exhibitions go "Double Trouble: The Patchett Collection" is a puzzlement, but it isn't the art that makes it so. The idea embodied by the show, which is the major summer offering at San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art, is instead what tends to crumple the brow.

We'll get to that peculiar organizing principle in a moment, but first, a bit about the work on view. "Double Trouble" is a selected survey of some 200 works from the collection of contemporary art formed with great enthusiasm (and rapidity) by Los Angeles television writer, producer and former stand-up comic Tom Patchett, who plunged into the art arena less than 10 years ago.

Among the dozens of artists represented, the collection's linchpin is Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who is commonly accepted today as the early 20th century artist most influential on late 20th century art. The French painter gave up the sober tradition of daubing oils on canvas for an impish, sometimes brilliantly provocative art anchored in wit, absurdity, nihilism and gut intuition. Against the explosive scientific and technological juggernaut that would eventually leave 10 million corpses scattered across Europe by the end of World War I, Duchamp (like some other European artists) proposed a radically new and disruptive art of complex irrationality.

Among other activities, he scribbled a mustache and goatee on a reproduction of Leonardo's classic "Mona Lisa," thus recalling the way advertising posters representing establishment values are defaced by vandals. Changing Mona's gender in the process, he also attributed the classic portrait's famous smirk to an otherwise undetectable state of sexual arousal. With an incisive wink and a rapier wit, Duchamp kicked middle-class complacency in the teeth.

In 1919, the year "L.H.O.O.Q." was made, the Great War was finally over, and artists of Duchamp's frame of mind were not keen on an artistic return to the way things had been before. A version of the mustachioed Mona made its way into Patchett's collection in the early 1990s (it's one of an edition of 38 replicas authorized by Duchamp in 1964), not long after he became interested in and began to acquire art. I don't know whether or not, in the wake of the ludicrous Persian Gulf War, a shared pacifist sentiment inflected Patchett's desire to acquire the canonical image. But Duchamp's art had become a defining influence among young American artists by the 1960s. The whole collection is evidence of the decisive breadth of that influence over the past three decades.

Sometimes the relationship is obvious. A large portion of the Patchett collection is devoted to multiples associated with Fluxus, the international movement born in the 1960s. Like Duchamp's early Dada art, Fluxus is appropriately thought of as an anarchic state of mind more than as a style. Board games, boxed accumulations of objects, sheets of homemade stamps, handbills and flyers--the work of George Brecht, Robert Watts and others embraced iconoclasm over aesthetics. This bear hug is virtually unthinkable without Duchamp's precedent.

Germany's Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was also associated with Fluxus activities. His efforts at social and political agitation are well represented by about a dozen multiples. Among them is the famous suit of clothes made of cheap felt, which does a deft spin on the corporate image of the man in gray flannel. Beuys also provides a reverberating context for other work in the show, such as Chris Burden's powerful "Samson" (1985), a turnstile fitted to massive timbers that press with increasing urgency against the museum's supporting walls, ratcheting up the potentially destructive force as each new museum visitor passes through it.

Fluxus ephemera gets a retroactive jolt from a work from Burden's large series of collages, "Full Financial Disclosure" (1977). The artist, like some beleaguered American politician of the day, created a self-portrait through displaying a year's worth of canceled checks and other financial records.

Visually, the most direct connection between recent art and Duchamp is Sherrie Levine's sculpture "Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)" (1991). It's a double-edged homage to the Frenchman's famous urinal, acquired by Duchamp at a plumbing supply store in 1917 but then rejected for display as a sculpture by the organizers of a supposedly open exhibition of avant-garde art.

Levine's version, slightly smaller and cast in gleaming brass, is a terrifically pungent feminist riff. When Duchamp displayed his urinal on its back, a mass-produced fixture meant to accommodate male anatomy suddenly acquired a voluptuous, feminine form. Levine shows her "Fountain" in the same position, like some Kohler odalisque, but now the golden work goes the other way: A female artist flaunts brass cojones in displaying a virtual replica of a work by the paterfamilias of so much contemporary art.

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