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Arts Reviews

A Little Social Spelunking; Early Experiments in L.A.

October 09, 1998|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At a time when many artists appear to be making work with the main purpose of getting a slice of the nonprofit pie, it's refreshing to see some artists acting as if they were a fully funded government agency. Headed by Matthew Coolidge, the Center for Land Use Interpretation refuses to presume that someone else is in charge and that the best an artist can do is appeal to their benevolent patronage. Instead, the members of this voluntary collective begin with the conviction that they have the power to do their own thing.

For the past few centuries, this sentiment has been at the root of most art worth its name. In the hands of Coolidge and his cohorts, it takes the shape of a modest office, study center and archive documenting the myriad ways the landscape of the United States is put to use by its inhabitants.

The Center for Land Use Interpretation specializes in highlighting the oddness of the ordinary world. Currently featured is "Subterranean Renovations: The Unique Architectural Spaces of Show Caves," a display of 33 color photographs depicting the entrances and interiors of 12 of the about 220 caves across the United States that have been adapted for tourism.

In most of the promotional and documentary pictures, Stone Age simplicity meets high-tech theatricality. Dazzling light shows, elaborate fountains, drive-through caverns and a 1,500-pound crystal chandelier contrast dramatically with rough-hewn walls, crude stairways, dank passages and dripping ceilings.

At the same time, breathtaking waterfalls, cathedral-like chambers and spectacular stalagmites and stalactites suggest that nature is itself a theatrical thrill show; the human effort to dress it up is simply part of the big picture. Making a similar point is a recording from the Great Stalacpipe Organ at Virginia's Luray Caverns (the largest musical instrument in the world), which provides the exhibition's pleasantly Gothic background music.

Nearly all of the caves on display are located in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas. Among the most fascinating is one that served as a home for a socialist community in the 1880s and another that functioned as a grand dance hall where big bands played in the 1940s.

One underground classroom has all the charm of the gallows. A roomy vestibule appears to be as coolly utilitarian as a bomb shelter. A third cave, run by the National Park Service, has the presence of a mall, complete with information booth, post office, pay phones, souvenir stand, food court and florescent lighting. Subterranean trout ponds, restaurants, wild animal parks, wedding chapels and Elks Clubs round out the show's survey of the American landscape's nether regions.

One of the best things about this exhibition is that it demonstrates that underground art isn't what it used to be. In the past, being a part of an underground scene meant being cliquish, antagonistic and largely invisible.

At the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which shares a back door with the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the general public is welcome, the general attitude is generous, and open-minded curiosity takes the place of contemptuous critique. Admission is free, but be sure to call ahead to make sure that a volunteer is there to unlock the door of this underground open house.

* The Center for Land Use Interpretation, 9331 Venice Blvd., Culver City, (310) 839-5722, through Nov. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

*

Turning Points: "Back Room" is less a full-blown exhibition than a sneak peek into yesteryear. Casually arranged in the storage room, back hall and office of Newspace Gallery, this choice gathering of modestly scaled works from the 1950s and '60s provides some intimate insights into the oeuvres of several veteran L.A. artists, before they had established their signature styles and international reputations.

A rare painting by John Baldessari serves as a study for an even rarer tabletop sculpture he made from a bent piece of painted metal. Two small metal collages by Tony Berlant are as corny and charming as they are anticipatory of his more elaborate works from the 1980s and '90s.

Edward Kienholz's "Lady" (1960), a shallow relief sculpture in a boxy wood frame, marks a pivotal moment in his career, when he turned away from two-dimensional wall works to room-size installations. And Llyn Foulkes' "Joker" (1962), a raw playing card of a painting, combines his early interest in Pop graphics with his later focus on emotionally loaded cartoons.

Works by less famous but no less talented artists also shine, including an untitled 1961 abstraction by Karl Benjamin and an untitled 1958 landscape by Edward Carillo. Both look as fresh and spunky as anything being made today. Little gems by Wallace Berman, Chris Burden and Sam Francis represent these artists at their best, as does an early hand-held painting by Robert Irwin and a haunting picture of a burning war plane by Vija Celmins.

As a group, the works in "Back Room" have an unpolished, offhand feel. As an exhibition, this behind-the-scenes view matches the humble, quasi-secretive atmosphere in which these paintings, sculptures and drawings were made, before the limelight began to shine on art in Los Angeles.

* Newspace Gallery, 5241 Melrose Ave., (323) 469-9353, through Jan. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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