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ART REVIEW

Each to her own nature

Complex compositions and wild hybridizations by five female artists speak for themselves at USC, thanks in part to curators' restraint.

January 09, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

For about 20 years, it has been fashionable for curators to behave like artists. Sometimes the role reversal succeeds, resulting in fascinating installations that raise provocative questions about art's relationship to life and a viewer's place in it. But more often it fails, especially when individual works are treated as generic illustrations of broad themes.

At USC's Fisher Gallery, "Contemporary Soliloquies on the Natural World" avoids this problem the old-fashioned way: by clearly distinguishing the work curators do from the works artists make. This lets the art speak for itself. It also gives viewers greater freedom to engage with the exhibition on their own terms.

Curators Max F. Schulz and Ariadni A. Liokatis have selected 36 paintings and three sculptures by five Los Angeles artists: Karen Carson, Merion Estes, Constance Mallinson, Margaret Nielsen and Takako Yamaguchi. Each has been allotted a separate gallery, where her works -- and viewers -- have plenty of breathing room.

Explanatory labels are kept to a minimum. No temporary walls herd visitors along pre-established paths. And the medium-size galleries have not been painted trendy tints; they remain plain old white.

In short, the curators never pretend to do more than straightforward organization, a task they perform with the refreshing humility of efficient librarians. They leave visual drama to the artists, whose complex compositions and wild hybridizations are all the stronger for being presented simply, in a setting unencumbered by forced comparisons and farfetched agendas.

Seven crisp landscapes by Yamaguchi occupy the first gallery. Each consists of an impressive inventory of Art Deco patterns and kimono fabric designs, including impossibly pointed waves, undulating curves, serpentine braids, compressed checkerboards and precisely ruled columns.

These geometric elements wrap around the edges of Yamaguchi's paintings, forming proscenium arches that open onto stylized seascapes interspersed with lumpish landmasses and islands. Imagine Grant Wood as a theater designer who spent his formative years in 19th century Japan.

Yamaguchi's largest painting, "Found, Lost and Then Found Again," is less serene, more cataclysmic than her smaller, classically contained compositions. At 6 by 12 feet, it is a mural-scale extravaganza with bronze-leafed clouds that appear to be bursting out of its decorative frame. Chaos never looked more elegant.

Through the door to the left of this image can be seen several of Estes' even more chaotic panels. Each of these 10 big pictures is a dizzying collision of extravagantly patterned fabrics onto which the artist has splashed, sprayed and stained various mixtures of oil and acrylic. Printed images of flowers, butterflies, blackbirds, dragonflies and snowflakes swirl around plaids, polka dots and paisleys, not to mention striped, tie-dyed and leopard-skin patterns.

In less talented hands, such everything - plus - the - kitchen-sink mixtures would be a mess. But Estes manages to make disparate elements work in concert, forming a renegade order that is neither logical nor harmonious yet makes strange sense.

The artist's three sculptures -- constructed of peacock feathers, yarn and plastic goose decoys, among other organic and manufactured items -- lack the funky verve of her collaged paintings, which are the show's high point. "Red Tide" looks like a punk version of Sharon Ellis' fantastic landscapes. "SkyBlueSky" makes odd bedfellows of Sigmar Polke's screen-printed cheekiness and Polly Apfelbaum's cartoon sensuality. And "Toxic Depths" combines the seething vitality of a bucket of primordial stew with the supercharged kick of a beaker of synthetic hallucinogens.

To see the rest of the exhibition, you must double back through Yamaguchi's gallery. Carson's five paintings, measuring 12, 14 and 21 feet long, are all tempestuous motion -- swift, sweeping gestures that dramatize the power and fury of the wind.

"Spring in Big Timber" depicts the landscape of the American West as a sea of swirling whirlpools, turbulent currents and choppy riptides. "Red/Green Storm" adds violent fireworks, leafy silhouettes and wispy meteorological symbols. "Winter Light" is the most sophisticated. From some angles, this cinematic expanse of tangled lines seems to embody a moment of utter stillness, as on a winter day so cold the sunlight might almost have frozen. But from other perspectives, the tranquillity dissolves into flickering puffs, chilling gusts or menacing gales.

Carson uses ink and fabric dye to paint with calligraphy brushes on tautly stretched sheets of silk. This gives her huge, horizontal works the intimacy and immediacy of drawings, an impression she amplifies by painting abstract patterns around their borders.

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