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Art Review

Wrestling With the Past in the Present


Some say that words make pictures in the mind. If that's right, then exhibition titles are important because they implant anticipatory mental images. A case in point is "Visions '98: The Urban Archeology of Guillermo Bert" at the Palos Verdes Art Center.

The title places us in the immediate present, watching the artist sift debris in a city. That place is logically Los Angeles. Bert has worked here since emigrating from his native Chile in 1981. The artist casts himself as a scientific investigator. That means the object of his search isn't just any old detritus but significant stuff.

This question of meaning acts as a reminder that identical words generate widely differing images, depending on the receiving mind. For me, Bert's title calls up, among other things, memories of the L.A. riots, graffiti murals and a flood of media-generated popular imagery. The general effect is dark and chaotically glamorous.

The closest this art comes to fulfilling that expectation is the exhibition's frontispiece installation, "Diptych of the Madonna: Sacred and Secular." Juxtaposing a Renaissance Mary with an African mother, it takes on contemporary vibes by reversing the photographs into negatives.

The image isn't particularly L.A. urban, though. The urgency of the present is slowed to a rumination on the death of cultures. That's certainly relevant, but Bert's approach is historical and international.

Globalism is of pressing present concern, yet the way Bert expresses it triggers the reverse of our original proposition. Namely, pictures suggest verbal equivalents. The balance of some 20 works on view--despite collage additions--are basically drawings and paintings. These days, those activities speak to many of outmoded tradition. They may be admirable, but they're not with it.

Bert's adherence to lessons of the past appears to be a conscious decision. His traditional media works follow the Madonna diptych, in time suggesting a change of heart. If that's true, Bert put aside not only contemporary media but most of the modernist enterprise. His recent "The Dancers (after Matisse)" drops the great man's stylization in favor of figures rendered in Renaissance proportions.

Such figuration is consistent throughout the show. No 20th century Expressionist angst agitates either brushwork or composition. The only clues that the artist intends to address this moment are a certain illustrative suavity in drawing, anachronistic juxtapositions and quasi-abstract background treatment.

"Media Landscape (after Millet)" puts female gleaners from a famous painting next to Asian peasants doing similar stoop labor. Crows flying overhead were presumably derived from Van Gogh. According to a catalog essay by Max F. Schulz, the artist's backdrop was inspired by a combination of offset printing's color separations and television screen snow. Nothing in the actual painting provides a sense of these origins. Neither does the subject matter reveal an artist in angry protest against the exploitation of labor. Expressively the picture is as calm and noncommittal as an Impressionist landscape.

Even when the artist addresses such muscular subjects as bison and sumo wrestlers, he remains pleasantly detached. At his most convincing, Bert is a romantic realist musing on a past that seems gentler and more poetic than the sharded present. His sensibility isn't urban, it's pastoral.


* Palos Verdes Art Center, 5504 W. Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes; to Oct. 9, open daily, (310) 541-2479.

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