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Installations Give the Senses a Workout


Four projects at the Santa Monica Museum of Art prove that late-20th century aesthetics really are a modern update of the sensational Baroque. Since gallery-size installations appeal by exciting palpable feeling, there's nothing boring about offerings by Amy Drezner, Carl Cheng, Michael C. McMillen and Jennifer Steinkamp.

The latter three sail under a windy title, "Public Works--A Community Laboratory: Celebrating Grantmaking by the California Community Foundation J. Paul Getty Trust Fund for the Visual Arts." If all that institutional verbiage makes the boat list a bit, at least it's in the service of an admirable support program.

Steinkamp's "TV Room" mounts the most aggressive visual assault. Even at that, it's considerably less obstreperous than, say, a '60s psychedelic light show. Structurally it involves a gallery space about 20 feet deep. The end nearest the viewer is crossed by three evenly spaced suspended plank-like horizontals that act as screens, as does the rear wall.

The visual component consists of computer-generated, video-projected abstract imagery. Basically, we see wall-to-wall jagged stripes in an electronic sizzle of white, yellow-to-red and blue. Striations move vertically on the solid rear wall. On the horizontals, stripes run in a parallel alternating direction. The kinetics are accompanied by the music of Steinkamp's collaborator Andrew Bucksbarg. Sounded to me like synthesizer tones mixed with gabbled voices.

The effects of this relatively simple setup grow evermore optically complex with staring. Diagonals and movement rushing into deep space appear where they really don't exist. It all happens, of course, because our poor brains are being bombarded with ambiguous and contradictory data we're not programmed to sort. The piece is pretty trippy, enjoyment contingent on individual tolerance for being electronically disoriented.

Since mine's pretty low, Carl Cheng's offering was a relief. "Organic Laboratory Museum John Doe Co." offers a pristine white gallery sheltering a serene small bungalow-shaped translucent glass greenhouse. A sign on the door identifies the matters at hand as "Avocados & Wax."

The latter substance appears as part of a mechanical contraption at the rear of the space. A squat T-shape, the machine's upright revolves the horizontal part where a container of molten wax travels slowly back and forth patiently dripping the colored liquid. It lands on a flat base, eventually forming a ring about 3 feet in diameter.

Previous results hang on outside gallery walls. Kenneth Noland's target paintings from the days of Color Stain Minimalism come to mind. Cheng's results have similar zones of color melting gracefully into one another, but wax is more luscious than paint. Pieces look edible, like some glorious modernist pastry, exquisitely exotic and refined. At the same time they're as reassuringly unforced as the aurora borealis.

Back in the lab, Cheng's avocados are little miracles of ingenuity. Skins are transformed into everything from balls to fabric that looks like leather. Dried seeds bear simple incisions, with results that waft us back through millenniums to the dawn of human art. Cheng's wonderful work is an object lesson in what it means to imitate nature: You don't copy, you collaborate.

Michael C. McMillen's "I Dream of Your Eye (Diamond Rio)" wafts us to the realm of dreams and serendipity. Negotiating a tilted corridor, one arrives in a large, dimly lit room. The brightest thing in view is a moon-like orb reflecting a huge human eye. Periodically the semi-convincing three-dimensional projection dissolves to the eyes of other colors and species.

By then, one is aware of three large table-high rectangles. Covered in carpet, each bears a model building resembling a barn. A posted notice invites visitors to stretch out and place their head in a barn (conveniently hinged for the purpose). I dutifully complied. Supine, one hears music accompanied by little birdie and flowing water sounds. Evoking old Disney cartoons about perfect awakenings, it's tempered by more mysterious bagpipe tonalities. I didn't just like the piece, I was grateful. It cured a slight headache.

"Amy Drezner--Revenge Effects: Blight Resistance" is under different auspices but fits right in. The piece is made up of chemistry-class vials suspended in even rows about knee-high on both sides of a short corridor. They contain an artificial liquid that emits a pleasant unobtrusive odor as one passes through. A posted explanation says the artist intends the work to suggest alternatives to ecological destruction. It's a nice thought that's nowhere apparent in the actual piece.


* Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building G1; through Dec. 20, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (310) 586-6488.

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