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Art Review

Move-In Condition

Santa Monica Museum opens new space with two shows that share a homemade flavor.

May 09, 1998|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

All that glitters is not gold--but at least it glitters, a friend is fond of saying. So it is at the new Santa Monica Museum of Art, where Liza Lou's head-turning "Kitchen" (1991-95) and "Back Yard" (1995-97) glitter up a storm, thanks to millions--or is it billions?--of tiny multicolored beads encrusting every surface of these wonderfully outlandish sculptures.

Together with "Beck & Al Hansen: Playing With Matches," a modest but absorbing show of collages by the celebrated young pop musician and his late grandfather, who was a stalwart of the international Fluxus art movement, Lou's sculptures inaugurate the museum's new home in one of the refurbished warehouses on the southwest side of Bergamot Station. A year behind schedule, in part because of much-publicized legal squabbles among principals in the Bergamot Station partnership, the building renovation isn't quite complete. Offices and a bookstore await construction.

However, the industrially chic gallery space is very much ready, with polished concrete floors, exposed steel trusses, copious skylights, modular wall system, etc. So on with the show(s).

The new building opens today, 10 years after the old museum opened in quarters on Santa Monica's Main Street. The inaugural exhibitions honor three diverse artists, but they might also be seen as homages to three of the museum's longtime supporters: collectors Peter and Eileen Norton, who own Lou's "Kitchen"; and trustee Tom Patchett, former Bergamot Station business partner, whose collection has Fluxus art as a focus.

Lou's "Kitchen" and "Back Yard" offer standard suburban vignettes of domestic bliss--cherry pie baking in the oven, a picnic with corn on the cob set on the table out back--but with a critically important difference. Modern suburbia was constructed as a shining promise for postwar Americans, but most observers today would regard the sales pitch as a dream curdled and unfulfilled. Lou, in her eye-dazzling pair of sculptures, has set about to keep the promise. Her vision of domestic bliss is, well, blissful.

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It takes a bit of getting used to. The "Kitchen" is nothing if not garish, a manic exercise in horror vacuii that finds every surface, nook and cranny patterned and beaded to within an inch of its life. The "Back Yard" is a riot of bizarre flora (including a full-size tree), 600 square feet of Munchkinland in which an island of brick-trimmed patio serenely floats.

Indoors, "Kitchen" has checkerboard floor tiles, a plaid cloth on the table and diamond-patterned wallpaper, each in a chunky color scheme of green, blue, white and rosy pink. The wallpaper is further elaborated with multiple patterns--spatulas and bacon, steam irons framed by baroque scrolls and cascading roses. Even the appliances are lushly decorated, with abstract designs on the fridge and Barbie-doll blonds cavorting around the stove (inside and out).

What sets the room spinning are the wooden chair, cupboards and cabinets. The grain of the wood is rendered in impossibly beautiful swirls of brown, racing through a dusky rainbow from chocolate to golden. The whole environment feels ecstatic, with a pulsing energy that pointedly recalls the flickering cypress trees and tumbling stars in Van Gogh's "Starry Night." On the counter near the sink, a yellow bottle of Joy detergent finally seems, in all its beaded splendor, like really, truly, authentic joy.

Outdoors, the lawn is a Sargasso Sea of dew-kissed grass, waiting for the idle mower to do its weekend work. The flower beds lining three sides of the open yard create a visual fence, over which the eye leaps to settle into the secular communion of lunch on a sun-dappled afternoon. A fat fly alighted on the handle of the gleaming barbecue might, in a traditional work of art, be read as a humble warning of eventual mortality and decay; but, not here, not in this Edenic place, where everything is forever bright, shiny and in the full bloom of newness.

Surreptitiously, the garish, sparkly color that keys the sculptures' wild visual overload seduces you. The work is over-the-top, for sure, but that just makes you long to enter it, to pull up a chair at the kitchen table or pick a small bouquet from the garden.

Perhaps the most magical moment comes in catching sight of the pinkish sequined shirt hanging on the laundry line at the rear of "Back Yard." Suddenly you realize: You could put it on! It's the only object that's usable, the only one that could pass as well in our ordinary world as in Lou's fantastical one.

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