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Forget `isms' -- except eclecticism

Those discrete movements you studied in art history? They're long gone. Today, it's all about diversity -- and quality, of course.

October 01, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

THE question was innocent enough. "What's going on with contemporary art these days?"

My answer was equally candid. "Beats me."

I do spend a sizable chunk of my time looking at, reading about and thinking over new art in Los Angeles and elsewhere, but the days when a succinct response might quickly sum up the art scene are long gone. Partly that's because contemporary art has gone global. The decade of the 1980s was a pivot, when New York's postwar role as serious art's only serious city came to an end.

Mostly, though, it's because art, wherever it is made, no longer subscribes to a single dominant trend with a few rambunctious alternatives jostling for supremacy. Art is eclectic -- and today we take that eclecticism for granted. Look around. The extreme breadth of artistic diversity is so familiar and so routine as to border on invisibility.

Take the 2006 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, opening today. It is typical of most such surveys, which are commonplace in an art scene now sprawling from Berlin to Beijing.

This installment includes Jane Callister's punchy abstract paintings, which skillfully exploit the capacity of paint to multi-task. Like a diary, her paint records the artist's physical process in making the work. It also has a tendency to run, mix or separate of its own accord, as if an inert material made from pigment bound in acrylic resin had an independent mind and will. And it possesses a stubborn inclination to represent recognizable things in the world -- especially landscape -- in wholly unexpected, even apocalyptic ways.

But the California Biennial, without seeming the least bit dissonant, can also accommodate art with no relationship whatever to Callister's inventive reworking of postwar abstraction's various shibboleths. There's the show business shtick of the performance troupe My Barbarian, which turns homemade riffs on TV and Broadway into political entertainment. Mario Ybarra Jr. once fabricated vato action figure dolls, transforming gang-culture imagery into icons of Duchampian hip-hop. And the architectural photographs of precarious or ruined buildings by Amir Zaki assert that disintegration and collapse are the inescapable, unseen corollary of the lovely pictures found in our ubiquitous shelter magazines.

Speaking of buildings, for a current show in Pasadena, Carlos Mollura has inserted polyethylene cubes, spheres and other geometric shapes into architectural orifices at a Colorado Boulevard shopping plaza. As each fat, inflatable form strains against the buildings' walls and windows with playful, even comic authority, empty space becomes elastic, muscular and apparently ready to burst. Geometry is ostensibly neutral. But in the context of this shopping arcade, these geometric forms inescapably imply that hidden powers of urban gentrification are at work.

At Blum & Poe Gallery at the edge of Culver City, meanwhile, a carved lump of luxurious sandstone by Matt Johnson begins with Michelangelo's Renaissance dictum that sculpture is a spiritually inclined process of chipping away stone to liberate a natural life force already locked inside. Johnson put his chisel to work, but he uncovered something quite different. A bleary death's head lurked within. Moreover, the skull's distended features recall a famous 1943 bronze memento mori by Picasso, who revolutionized sculpture for the 20th century. Johnson, metaphorically killing off two artistic titans in one deceptively simple gesture, achieves quite a sculptural feat.

Katie Grinnan's sculpture at ACME follows an entirely different track. Her "Rubble Division" mixes such disparate materials as ink-jet prints pasted on board, foam rubber, galvanized steel, concrete, steel rebar and bungee cords. Folding and unfolding pictures of ruined buildings with pictures of vernacular modern architecture, she articulates a disorienting collision between the material world and virtual reality. The sculpture -- tall and gangly, with angular flaps held precariously in place by tension cords -- looks like a cross between a communications satellite and a homeless shelter scavenged from a freeway underpass.

What's going on with contemporary art these days? Clearly a lot. Yet Callister, My Barbarian, Ybarra and Zaki comfortably cohabit in a single group show. Mollura, Johnson and Grinnan are all first-rate sculptors, and none makes sculpture that even remotely recalls the others. Their disparate works cover the waterfront.

Many of these artists do evoke a world coming apart at the seams. (Given current events, how could they not?) But the stresses and strains of contemporary life register in heterogeneous ways. And their extreme eclecticism is not exclusive to California. It's the norm everywhere today.

'Pluralism' doesn't do it justice

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