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Earthly creators find the divine in their details

The contributors to '100 Artists See God' take a mostly humble approach at the Laguna Art Museum.

August 11, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

When contemporary artists look for God, what do they see? A large, quietly engaging traveling exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum asks that unexpected question, and it offers more than 100 answers. Among the responses:

God is a shower of velvety black stars.

God is a gourmet hamburger with everything on it.

God is a Pop icon -- specifically, a Day-Glo painting of Marcel Duchamp's famous sculpture of a urinal.

God is a neon sign, upside-down and backward, extolling Elvis.

God is a pebble in your shoe.

God is an exquisitely crafted, lime-green coffee table.

These idiosyncratic conceptions by Gary Simmons, Alexis Smith, Michael Craig-Martin, Terry Allen, Mike Kelley and Jorge Pardo, respectively, suggest the diversity of imagination evident in the sprawling show. In fact, just about anything you might think of is called into service to represent a monotheistic god in this wide-ranging exhibition.

Anything, that is, except for the image of a mature Caucasian patriarch with flowing white hair and beard denoting the wisdom of the ages. That description fits the Judeo-Christian deity most often represented during the last many centuries of Western art, including iconic representations by the likes of Michelangelo and William Blake. Here, "mature Caucasian patriarch with flowing white hair and beard" only describes John Baldessari, one of two Los Angeles artists who acted as curators for the show.

I don't know whether or not curators count as gods today. Together with Meg Cranston, however, Baldessari invited scores of American and European artists that they both admire to provide one work that in some way dealt with the concept of a deity. They agreed to accept whatever was submitted, presuming the piece could be easily packed and shipped so that the show could travel.

"100 Artists See God" is the pleasant, sometimes unusually provocative result. But be forewarned: If you go expecting big, grandiloquent statements on the philosophical nature of divine being, you will be disappointed. Of course, with an expectation like that you may also be a refugee from another century. Modern art was born at just about the same moment God died -- that is, at the end of the 19th century, when Friedrich Nietzsche used poetic prose to introduce the existentialist concept of God's demise.

Public rhetoric about God today, by contrast, is rarely poetic. Whether uttered by feverish terrorists, fatuous politicians or fervent television evangelists, it tends toward the pompous and declamatory. These 100 artists see God by looking another way. Modesty trumps ostentation. The Laguna show does include some works that I find startlingly condescending, and some that are just inoffensively dopey. Mostly, though, it is characterized by contributions notable for thoughtfulness, vivifying eccentricity and a good dose of humility.

Take that swell lime-green coffee table by Pardo. The artist is internationally known for making beautifully fabricated objects that split the differences among painting, sculpture and functional design. He's made everything from fragile glass chandeliers to a boathouse and dock. His low-slung table, just over 2 feet tall, shows how much mileage Pardo can get out of a savvy melding of seemingly simple motifs.

The table's peculiar shape -- something like a wide, inverted pyramid standing on its point -- appears to fold in on itself as you move around it. The compendium of sharp angles and intricate planes of stained plywood suggests the precision craft of Japanese origami -- a familiar re-creation today, albeit one that began centuries ago as a ceremonial practice.

Yet Pardo's design is also as futuristic as a spacecraft in a Japanese sci-fi comic. And the spatially dynamic plywood form is reminiscent of utopian, post-Nietzsche aesthetic movements from the past, like Russian Constructivism and Dutch De Stijl. When Pardo spies God in the living room, traditional concepts of universality and eternity loom in nontraditional ways.

There's more. I've described the acidic stained color of his plywood table as lime-green, but that's only a ballpark approximation. The actual hue can't be precisely pinned down with words. Color is ineffable.

Plus, the table's top-heavy, asymmetrical form is visually precarious. Is some mysterious, hidden ballast keeping it stable and secure? A gnawing element of uncertainty is salutary for any conception of an ineffable higher power.

A coffee table is an ordinary point of domestic convergence for social gathering, which Pardo manages to sacralize through injections of surprise, precision of design and art. Clearly this isn't just any coffee table, poised as it is on a pedestal in an art museum.

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