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It's all about atmosphere

Art takes a back seat in 'From the Verandah' at Fowler Museum.

October 10, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Down the hall and around the corner from "The Art of Rice" is a related installation titled "From the Verandah: Art, Buddhism, Presence." It's not a traditional exhibition at UCLA's Fowler Museum, but neither is a show about rice (and the relationship between farming and art). Put bluntly, "From the Verandah" is an excessively reverential sideshow in which art takes a back seat to the "atmosphere" around it.

Upon entering a dimly lighted vestibule, visitors remove their shoes and proceed to one of two entrances to the main space. If you're attentive, you notice that the walls of the entryway are not painted evenly. Although they are nearly black, lighter splotches intermingle with darker ones, as do glossy and matte sections. This creates a fluid, smoky effect, a result of their having been painted with an inconsistent mixture of ink, charcoal and pine resin.

Inside the large darkened gallery, you're free to wander around a slightly elevated platform. Made of smooth wood the color of honey, it's an abstract verandah. Think of a porch designed by a minimalist. No railings run around its perimeter. Its center, where a house would ordinarily stand, consists of three cutaway recessions that open onto the floor.

Each contains a mini-installation. On one end is Wolfgang Laib's "Rice House," a roughly cut chunk of milky white marble in the shape of a long house. Long-grain rice has been piled by the handful around the sculpture.

In the thin rectangular section in the middle, Hirokazu Kosaka has covered the ground with a thick layer of dried mud. A semitransparent scrim hangs from ceiling to floor around its perimeter, dividing the platform in half with a wall of gauzy whiteness.

On the other end is a slab of clay in which hundreds of human footprints are visible. Unlike the other works, no wall labels explain this mildly mysterious component. But you know it's art, and not mere happenstance, because the impressions made by the various toes, heels and soles are so nicely composed, and not a trace of the clay has besmirched the surrounding platform.

A lovely score by Yuval Ron breaks the silence with intermittent amplified sounds of melting snow falling from trees in the San Gabriel Mountains. Individual dancers from Joe Goode's San Francisco-based troupe may be performing simple exercises around the platform. Or the room may be empty. At other times, the installation is scheduled to be the setting for panel discussions, meditation sessions, lectures, digital projections and a series of tea ceremonies. But most of the time, no one's there to entertain you.

The point of the project is to provide a peaceful place to meditate, away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Unfortunately, the experience it provides isn't all that different from sitting in a theater before a movie begins or visiting a place of worship between services -- when solitude and serenity let you clear your head.

That's profoundly different from visiting a museum from which the art has been removed or, in this case, downplayed to such an extent that it becomes a mere prop for therapeutic theater. Rather than providing some respite from America's disdain for contemporary art, "From the Verandah" helps wipe art out of the picture. Cynicism, even dressed up in Eastern mysticism, is still dispiriting.

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