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Art Review

Using Words and Images to Deliver Their Messages

September 18, 2000|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Visually, Amy Myers' gigantic drawings of mutant mandalas and Tania Mouraud's installation of oversized wall labels have so little in common that their solo shows in adjoining galleries at the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach seem to be unrelated.

But conceptually, each exhibition makes a modest, philosophical proposal about how art functions. What distinguishes the multi-part works on paper by the two artists is not the fact that one uses images while the other uses words, but that Myers creates open, evolving systems while Mouraud plays amusing word games within established parameters.

In the main gallery, six meticulously engineered drawings by Myers marry the precision of scientific inquiry to the vagaries of mysticism. Each of the young, Los Angeles-based artist's relentlessly systematic abstractions has the presence of a mind-boggling accumulation of objectively recorded data that have taken on a life of their own. Imagine superimposing 30 or more graphs, each charting such complex phenomena as population growth rates, weather changes and the speeds at which molecules travel through various atmospheres, and you'll have an idea of the skeletal structures on which Myers' multilayered works are built.

To the elaborate patterns formed by arcs, ellipses, waves and radiating lines--all sharply demarcated in ink and graphite--she adds subtly colored highlights and tonal gradations that give her otherwise diagrammatic drawings the heft of three-dimensional things. Drawn in charcoal, conte crayon and gouache, these illusionistic elements are so seamlessly interwoven with the linear components that they do not function as decorative embellishments or intuitive flourishes.

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Instead, each clarifies a particular pattern, allowing viewers to see how it changes as it moves across the numerous sheets of paper Myers has taped together to form the gridded surfaces of her expansive works. Sometimes a diaphanous array of marks creates visual turbulence as it moves through the space occupied by a more powerful array. At other times, distinct patterns fuse and mutate, forming a third that--despite significant differences--bears a family resemblance to its progenitors.

The relationships among parts and wholes get complicated in Myers' constantly shifting images, whose myriad elements interact synergistically, generating more visual impact than they would on their own. Like dynamic force-fields that flow in crosscurrents but never work at cross-purposes, her surprisingly intimate works draw viewers into their orbit, where we follow thought-provoking twists and turns before taking off on our own.

In a smaller side gallery, Mouraud has covered every square inch of the four walls with slightly overlapping sheets of construction paper. On each neatly arranged page-sized rectangle, the title of a work in the museum's collection has been printed in block capital letters.

The immediate impression delivered by "Tania Mouraud: A Collection," which was commissioned by the University Art Museum to commemorate 25 years of collecting contemporary art, is not unpleasant. Each phrase competes for your attention, tugging at your eyes as your mind stores the information presented in an attempt to make sense of the colorful barrage.

Before you figure out the source of Mouraud's words (either by deduction, word of mouth or the brochure at the front desk), dozens of images, ranging from vague to vivid, pop into the mind's eye. Some of the most generic phrases, such as "Wedding," "Paris" and "Silos in the Moonlight," trigger the most personal memories. Others, such as "Horse Blinders--Left, Right," "Untitled (Rosie the Riveter)" and "Bullet Through Banana" call to mind images from art history.

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Still others, like "The Wise and the Foolish Virgins" and "The Curse of the Phantom Pharaoh," recall dime store novels. And many, such as "Ellsworth Kelly Greeting Margo Leavin (Right) with Wendy Brandow in Background on Madison Avenue Around 65th Street One Saturday Afternoon, 1981" sound less like titles, than captions of documentary photographs.

At its best, Mouraud's installation is a sort of sourcebook for do-it-yourself poets. It's amusing to compose odd little ditties by stringing together various selections. For example, "Turbine Gears" "Always Work Safely" "Special Consensus" "Women-Girls Fishing," and "Bingo Ladder," "Jouissance de Gelato" "Football Kick" "Madame Wu Ting Fang" could be the openings of nonsensical Dadaist poems.

But too little time passes before this exercise gets tiresome. Ultimately unsatisfying, it could be played anywhere, even on the freeway as you scan the license plates of other cars, searching for clever messages on personalized versions and fortuitous numerical combinations on standard issues.

Part of the problem with Mouraud's installation is that it accepts the institutional boundaries in which it works. Casting the artist as a creative type who injects some whimsy into an established system, her recycled words do little to reformulate the old-fashioned idea that power resides in institutions and that all artists can do is bring a bit of symbolic anarchy to this supposedly stodgy setup.

In contrast, Myers' ever-changing works use the space they are given to set up their own systems, which break down and rearrange themselves with each viewer's participation. Engaging bodies along with minds, their effects stick with you long after you leave the museum.

* University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach (562) 985-5761, through Oct. 29. Closed Mondays.

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