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ART REVIEW

Airbrushing the human psyche

Brad Spence takes a hard look at what happens to art and psychology when they're institutionalized.

June 25, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

In the 1960s, hippies and adventurers experimented with all sorts of drugs. Many minds were expanded and many were blown as pills were popped by the fistful.

In the 1970s, the medical industry got in on the action. Doctors, psychologists and pharmaceutical companies brought their expertise and authority to the counterculture's fascination with chemically altered reality.

They turned a huge profit by institutionalizing anti-establishment rebellion. Drugs no longer provided self-prescribed escapes from the status quo. Instead, they were doled out by the truckload to help patients adjust to the world around them. Although the number of people under the influence grew exponentially, the success rate stayed roughly the same. "Bad trips" were renamed "misdiagnoses."

Over the same span of time, something similar happened to contemporary art. What was once a do-it-yourself experiment, with the risks and thrills of the real thing, became a thoroughly institutionalized and highly profitable enterprise.

Art today is a profession that's overseen by bureaucrats and sanctioned by academics. Paying lip service to art's real powers, which cannot be predicted, much less controlled, these salaried officials administer art as if it were some sort of medication, a therapeutic exercise aimed at self-improvement or feel-good uplift.

At Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum, an exhibition by Brad Spence takes a hard look at what happens to art and psychology -- not when they're popularized but when they're institutionalized. It's not a pretty picture.

Titled "Psychology Today," after the magazine that's now in its 36th year, Spence's first museum show consists of seven large figurative paintings. All are acrylic on canvas, painted with an airbrush. Their imagery is based on illustrations that accompanied articles in popular psychology magazines from 30 years ago, when Spence was a child.

As an artist, Spence can handle an airbrush. He blends colors with the best of them, overlaying misty yellows, blues and pinks to create convincing flesh tones in both warm and cool tints. Some suggest human vulnerability. Others imply the eerie iciness of an android's synthetic covering.

Spence also brings inanimate objects to life, as if he were Dr. Frankenstein. Zapping highlights onto a pile of rusty scrap metal in a mural-size diptych, he gives it the presence of a slumbering giant that might awaken at any moment.

Blurry edges and fuzzy forms are what airbrushes do best, and Spence exploits these formal features with masterly ease. He adorns the bulbs in ordinary light fixtures with haloes of subtle color or softly shaded rainbows. Both endow his images with a sense of sci-fi mystery.

Blinding reflections and flashbulb-like hotspots give his hands-off paintings the slick sheen of photographic reproductions. Semi-translucent fabrics add to their trippy enigma, creating an out-of-focus ghostliness.

Spence contrasts such atmospheric dreaminess with razor-sharp contours made by masking off one area with tape to spray-paint another. The edges of many shapes recall collages, cut-and-paste compositions that bespeak fragmentation, rearrangement and randomness.

In his hands, the airbrush is an apt tool for the media-saturated world in which we live. It engineers images that are upfront about their virtual nature, yet too precise to be treated as anything but realistic. Explicitly artificial, and not even skin deep, they stick to the surfaces of things because they are built on Pop Art's conviction that that's where truth dwells.

Unfortunately, four of Spence's paintings pretend that we still live in a pre-Pop universe. They act as if the airbrush were a suitable tool for dredging the human psyche. Digging up buried traumas and exposing them to the prying eyes of viewers, this old-fashioned approach to painting embraces hoary cliches about art's relationship to the unconscious and plays into its use as a therapeutic tool.

It's no accident that they depict children. Today, childhood has become the universal signifier of victimhood. It's the template against which American society lives out its guilty fantasies of innocence.

Spence's pictures of traumatized kids follow suit. "The Tragedy of Misdiagnosis" features scattered building blocks on which the fragments of a child's face appear. "Body Image in America" uses a blond doll to indict the evils of unattainable beauty ideals. And "The Autistic Child" shows a scared kid crouched in the corner of a room whose walls and floors are made of reflective metal. "The Autistic Child II" depicts the same forlorn kid staring at a junk heap. All are such stereotypes that you can't take them seriously.

As paintings, they push too many buttons too emphatically to be much more than manipulative instances of emotional extortion. Spence's images of children dress up sappy sentimentality in a trendy style of painting.

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