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ART REVIEW

Making the most of his materials

In a pair of works, one delicate and the other bold, Ernesto Neto chooses substances that appeal to the senses.

October 29, 2003|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

There are two sculptures in Ernesto Neto's current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art's West Hollywood branch: one so subtle you could easily miss it, and the other so large you're invited to climb inside.

It's a lopsided pairing, but one that demonstrates the reach of this Brazilian-born artist's elegant sensibility. Using materials carefully chosen for their sensory effect, Neto makes objects that respond exuberantly to the spaces they occupy and that invite the body as well as the eyes of the viewer to participate in that exciting rapport.

The first work consists of five taut, wall-sized panels of translucent, pale pink Lycra (essentially hosiery fabric), each fanning from a single point to form a roughly 70-degree arc. Lodged in an awkward corner between the front desk and the restrooms, the piece feels like a giant cobweb: a mere wisp of art that just happened to drift into the space and found it tranquil enough to inhabit.

Also like a cobweb or other such natural formation, it reveals, upon closer inspection, a graceful complexity of form. Each panel is stretched into four sharp corners, creating a spidery effect, but is hemmed on all sides by a slender line of decorative trimming, which counteracts the sharpness and accentuates the work's feminine quality. Floating near the center of each is a neatly tailored circular hole about 2 feet in diameter.

When viewed from one side or the other (it's not possible, due to the panels' placement between two walls, to stand at either end), the five planes overlap, their exterior and interior edges crossing to create an assortment of shapes with shifting degrees of opacity depending on where you stand. The result is an exquisite play of light and texture through forms that are delicate as blown glass in appearance, yet sturdily architectural.

If this piece haunts the periphery of the museum space -- an incidental treat to the observant passerby -- the other boldly claims center stage, consuming much of the main gallery's floor space and stretching dramatically to the ceiling.

The structure itself is a beautifully constructed tent large enough to hold several kneeling adults. The base -- which measures about 18 to 20 feet in diameter -- is a carpet of soft foam upholstered with a wonderfully silky fabric the color of freshly cut grass. The walls are formed by three columns of translucent hosiery fabric -- one white, one beige and one mahogany -- that are stitched together near the floor to form a single chamber but that reach like cathedral spires individually upward, looping over hooks on the ceiling before stretching all the way down to a few feet off the floor. At the end of each tunnel of fabric -- the weight holding the whole system in place -- is a gallon or two of dried foodstuffs: rice in the white column, corn in the beige and black beans in the mahogany.

The discovery of such archetypally organic substances in a work so dominated by slick synthetics comes as a surprise at first, as does the inclusion of loose chamomile, oregano and lavender, which are wound into the lacing between the spires and fill the chamber with a disarmingly familiar aroma. Both suggest that there is more at play here than just clever formalism.

What appears to interest Neto is not the dialectic relationship between natural and artificial -- he never sets the two in opposition -- but rather their combined potential for the heightening of sensory experience.

The organic substances ground the work; the synthetic lend an excitement; but both approach the viewer directly, appealing to the basic human desire for stimulation.

Soft, pleasant-smelling and comfortingly womb-like, the interior of the chamber is presented as a site for sensual revelry, a place to reconnect with the body, if only momentarily. There are a number of playful articles provided for motivation: removable floor cutouts filled with noise-making materials; pockets lined with fake fur, just big enough to receive your hand; and several delightfully squeezable Lycra columns filled with tiny Styrofoam pellets. But these feel gimmicky in comparison with the overall effect of the space, which is best gleaned by just sitting quietly.

Just how possible it is to genuinely appreciate this luxurious experience under the suspicious eye of a museum guard is questionable, and a problem with most interactive art. It is a generous gesture, however, and rewarding nonetheless.

*

Ernesto Neto

Where: MOCA at the Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood

When: Monday and Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ends: Jan. 12

Contact: (213) 626-6222

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