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A theatrical world strangely like ours

At John Frame's 'Enigma Variations' exhibition in Long Beach, pieces challenge viewers to discover their secrets.

February 05, 2005|David Pagel | Special to The Times

If John Frame were in the movie business, he would be a costume designer, stylist, set decorator, prop master, lighting specialist, writer, director, editor, producer, agent and publicist all rolled into one do-it-yourself lover of every little detail of every little job.

But Frame is an artist, so he plays all these roles with far less ballyhoo than Hollywood often festoons on its egomaniacal micromanagers and do-it-all control freaks.

At the Long Beach Museum of Art, the fruits of Frame's patient labors are displayed in a wonderfully engaging exhibition in which intimacy takes center stage. Sensitively selected by Gordon Fuglie, director of the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University, "Enigma Variations: The Sculpture of John Frame, 1980-2005" is made for folks who prefer the solitude of out-of-the-way libraries to the cacophony of malls and the hyperactivity of video arcades, both of which big, crowd-seeking museums are beginning to resemble a lot more today than when the 54-year-old artist started showing his work.

It's dark and quiet in the three galleries that house Frame's modestly scaled assemblages. Velvet curtains drape the entrance, and the walls have been painted deep forest green. The only illumination is provided by spotlights tightly focused on each of the 48 pieces, making it easier for viewers to block out the external world, not to mention other visitors. Whispering seems appropriate, but the hush has nothing to do with deadening, enforced solemnity. It hums with the quiet vitality of individual attentiveness and concentration.

Most of the works in this openly theatrical installation are pint-sized stages on which puppet-like figurines stand, strut and stare off into space. The remaining eight are a gorgeously carved box, a pair of handsomely crafted picture frames (playing off the artist's name and containing two realistic portraits of him painted by Jon Swihart), three carved wood reliefs, and two wooden signs. The latter function as comically pedagogical wall texts by telling viewers how to behave ("Focus!") and describing what makes the sculptures work ("Balance!").

Frame's works convey a sense of suspended animation -- of a single moment so loaded with meaningful possibilities that it expands to swallow up minutes, even hours.

True to the artist's fascination with time's nonlinear elusiveness, "The Enigma Variations" has not been installed chronologically. Still, it isn't difficult to distinguish early works from the more recent ones. Over the years, technical virtuosity, confidence and compression dramatically increase.

That's not to say that the eight works from the 1980s, including "Untitled (Fire Breathers)," "Living in Lightning," "To the Fisherman Lost in the Land" and "He Vaults in Snowy Babylon" are crude. They are piecemeal and cobbled together, like Cubist collages. The figures' joints are clunky, often intentionally misaligned. Different body parts have different scales. They're also made of mismatched materials, some found, others carved.

The way Frame has carved their faces, limbs and torsos has more in common with backwoods whittling than refined woodworking. Smooth, finely sanded surfaces are rare, giving his diminutive sideshow performers, hawkers, harlequins, magicians, merchants, dramaturges and lost fishermen the rough-and-tumble look of folk art, homemade toys and other leftovers from yesteryear.

Gestures are extreme, often overwrought. Many beseech our attention by raising an arm to the heavens, like street preachers. One poor character presses his hands to his ears, as if trying to concentrate but too confused to succeed.

The largest work takes its shape from medieval altarpieces. The positions of its six figurines recall action-packed paintings of Christ's descent from the cross.

The figures in the 24 works from the 1990s are more subtly crafted, their components more harmoniously joined. The narratives they imply are more ambiguous, less arch and not as carnival-esque. Many simply stand still, like introspective talismans that challenge viewers to discover their secrets. An increasingly nuanced appreciation of humorous absurdity also emerges, making for works that are quieter, more expansive and generous.

Six of the exhibition's nine self-portraits belong to this decade. All are oddly self-effacing. "Self-Portrait: Bent" depicts the artist as a stiff-limbed old man, his arms made of thorny bougainvillea branches, his legs borrowed from an antique doll and his hat made of big letters that spell his last name. "Yessir! Yessir! A Lesson in Likeness" shows Frame seated by a wall, a rusty metal dunce cap twice his height covering his head. "Self-Portrait/Earth Crammed" includes a miniature bust of the artist, his face partially covered with a costume-ball mask.

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