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Art Review

2001: A Space Oddity

'Contemporary Art and the Cosmos' is another victim of theme-show fever, in which works with a common element or two are packaged in a shorthand stab at significance.

February 10, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

The second includes work whose form derives from natural processes, such as Abeles' calendar tracking relative movements of the sun and moon. Carl Cheng has built a blank gray wall of 114 unlabeled meters, which transform invisible, inaudible radio waves into the movement of jittery red needles. For her paintings, Dorothea Rockburne mixes raw pigments into various liquid mediums to oozing, cracked, magma-like effect. Rockne Krebs' 1973 graphic, "Secret Weapon (Light Factor X)," is like a journal entry by a mad scientist who has just discovered the stunning power of a prism to bend rays of light, exposing their hidden color.

Pressing These Works Into Common Theme

Despite some rich work, however, the show seems distracted and thin. The trouble with theme shows in general, and this one in particular, is that they keep leading you away from the actual art that's in front of your eyes and toward the nominal theme. Convincing contemporary art is not made to illustrate topics or subject headings, in the manner of the old academies. Gathering together disparate works just because they feature sky imagery or employ scientific references merely leaves you with, well, a bunch of sky images and scientific references. When a curator becomes an accountant, art's complexity undergoes a disabling reduction.

The problem is more acute today than ever, as the empty distortions of theme-show packaging attract more art institutions in search of more corporate patronage and more general audiences. (See the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's apocalyptic "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000" for an especially pitiful demonstration of the tendency, here expanded into a full-scale theme park.) So let's call for a moratorium on theme shows, and let's do it now. Otherwise, we're liable to begin thinking that advertising Pasadena's prominence in the modern "development of a theory of the universe" (to quote from the catalog) is a noble aspiration for art.

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* Pasadena Armory for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., (626) 792-5101, through April 22. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Rockne Krebs' laser installation "Mr. Belloli's Universe" can be seen outside the museum nightly, from 7:30 to 10:30, through Monday.

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