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Our place in the world

Strength is in the execution as 12 artists try to recast the man-vs.-nature debate.

March 25, 2004|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Art exhibitions designed to clear up misconceptions about the nature of reality often begin by painting a simplistic picture of the world. They then demonstrate, with illustrative displays of like-minded works, that things are more complicated than that.

If you're gullible enough to fall for the straw target, you'll probably be impressed by the corrective insights such shows serve up. But if you're not, they seem sophomoric, like a self-involved student's inability to distinguish between his own steep learning curve and world-changing cultural shifts.

At the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Art Park, "The Political Landscape" treads along this well-traveled path. Organized by curator Noel Korten, it dutifully illustrates the idea that nature ain't what it used to be -- and that it probably never was the untrammeled other to culture's ugliness. Instead of casting nature and culture as opposites, they're shown to overlap.

But the show is far more engaging than the ideas it trots out. That's because 11 of its 12 artists are painters.

Painting is a peculiarly slippery art form that's notorious for its capacity to do both more and less than anyone expects. It's a profoundly unsuitable tool for propagandists, or anyone else who wants to send a clear message.

Landscape painting, in its heart of hearts, is about the relationship between humans and their surroundings. Although people rarely appear in the pictures in "The Political Landscape," our presence is abundantly evident: Subdivisions, ski runs, sewage systems, construction equipment, roads, razor wire, power lines and SUVs demonstrate that humans are hardly a benign force in the world, and that, as a species, we've done more than our fair share to the environment.

The majority of paintings suggest that civilization is a threat to nature's sanctity. Although few propose that the world would be a better place without us in it, six artists throw their critical focus on the ever-expanding border of urban sprawls. Call them painters of cultural encroachment.

Darlene Campbell and Sandow Birk employ historically outmoded styles to make fun of Western civilization's seemingly unstoppable expansion. Campbell's small, thickly varnished and lavishly gold-leafed pictures of earth-moving equipment and tract housing make for snide icons. Birk's realistic pictures of California prisons in bucolic settings would be more convincing if they weren't so feebly painted.

The way Cynthia Hooper handles paint in her little pictures of a landfill's pumps, valves and gauges saves them from being boring critiques of society's poisonous presence. The same is true of the delicate touch found in Jim Murray's similarly scaled pastels of ski runs and wildfires. Both artists start with images of scarred landscapes, transforming them into strange gems filled with ambivalence, intrigue and mystery.

Bruce Everett's aerial views of rough mountainsides combine the ruthless calculation of a real estate developer's land-grab fantasies with a geographical surveyor's dream to preserve the unspoiled beauty of these places, which are continually disappearing under slabs of concrete and expanses of blacktop.

Stephanie Sanchez is a plein-air painter who prefers to set up her easel in the middle of the city. Her three medium-size pictures of concrete-banked rivers in unlovely settings take their pleasure wherever they can get it. Refusing to shy away from urban ugliness, these hauntingly atmospheric paintings insist that will power and stubborn solitude are more potent than the context in which they're found, and certainly more vigorous than pretty pictures.

A similar sort of forcefulness takes shape in Rebecca Morales' triptych of the desert no-man's land between the U.S. and Mexico. Painted on three oval panels, the oddly cropped, super-realistic image of distant mountains, mid-range scrub land and foreground of debris-laden dirt looks as if it could be prehistoric or post-apocalyptic. Nature's supreme indifference to humans never felt truer.

The five remaining artists refer to the blind power of nature, but never so brutally or with such harrowing sting. Call them painters of the Pop sublime.

Phoebe Brunner preserves the myth of the grand Western landscape as a cartoon. Her lushly painted picture of a blazing sun setting behind tempestuous clouds and a limitless field of fiery orange poppies spikes punchy optimism with a shot of darkness that borders on ominous.

Marina Moevs' sensual paintings of a flood and a forest fire are so exquisitely artificial that they seem to belong in a film noir fantasy of tragic dimensions. Their icy aloofness draws viewers more deeply into the gorgeous nightmares they depict with deathly perfection. Stillness rarely seems so suffocating.

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