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Pleasant surprises wrapped in plastic

Carlos Mollura shows a light touch in Pasadena. His public sculptures, inflated with air, invite viewers to fill in the blanks themselves.

September 18, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

The dozen or so inflatable sculptures that Carlos Mollura has arranged along the walkways and courtyards of One Colorado are well worth a trip to the outdoor shopping and dining center in Old Pasadena. They won't disappoint people who go out of their way to see them.

But these smart, user-friendly sculptures, which inaugurate a series of installations sponsored by the Armory Center for the Arts, are even better when you come across them unexpectedly.

Mollura's untitled works are not designed primarily for experts or insiders, and they don't condescend to the unsuspecting public by delivering sound-bite-style messages. Instead, these abstract sculptures invite passersby to entertain so many curious ideas that the question of just what they are -- and whether they are art -- disappears into thin air.

I visited the refurbished city block knowing what I was looking for and still chuckled aloud at the first blow-up sculpture I came across: a plump, fully inflated cylinder of clear polyurethane about the size of a fat adult's torso.

The lightweight, easily transported piece was wedged upright into a clay planter next to some potted cactuses outside a restaurant's front door.

The sculpture's proportions recalled childhood punching dummies. Its clear plastic suggested a super-sized sandwich bag. And its airtight seal evoked a house wrapped like a package to prevent the exterminator's chemicals from escaping into the neighborhood. It made me think of a small-scale, working man's Christo.

The lush plants next to Mollura's empty cylinder brought to mind the doomed experiment of the Biosphere as well as the heart-wrenching melodrama of old-fashioned, boy-in-a-bubble movies, not to mention other sci-fi fantasies, children's jumpy tents and architectural experiments by such diverse precedents as a British collective called Archigram and a group of misfit designers from Texas known as Ant Farm.

As Mollura's sturdy balloon kicked the imagination into action, visions of Space Age sausage casings followed, as did the feeling that the synthetic inflatable was some sort of prosthetic, a substitute or body-double for a piece of living foliage that had been stolen, died or become extinct because of the inhospitable conditions of the urban atmosphere.

As the mind's eye ran riot with such associations, shoppers strolled by as if nothing special were taking place. Tourists lingered. Lunchers lunched. No one paid attention to the art.

Everyday inattentiveness suits Mollura's sculpture just fine. Despite its public setting -- its Pop cool, Minimalist simplicity and impersonal emptiness -- the understated work provides ample room for imagination. It treats each passerby as an interior theater for flights of fancy. The border between public and private is not merely blurred but turned into a spinning carousel filled with interactive potential.

And it's just the beginning.

Four more similarly shaped sculptures are stuffed in planters around the block, like the eggs of a futuristic egg hunt. Three perfect spheres protrude from the windows of a four-story tower, like giant soap bubbles from a kid's toy. Three matching orbs adorn the tower's interior staircase, allowing a closer view.

The two biggest works steal the show. One sits like a swollen rectangle atop a brick entryway. About the size of a small office, it resembles a gigantic cartoon thought bubble or a homemade balloon too crude to be a part of a New Year's Day parade.

The other is wedged overhead in a narrow alley off Colorado Boulevard. It looks like a synthetic cloud or an experimental dirigible that has blown off course and gently crash-landed. Its translucent skin provides respite from the sun without blocking a view of the blue sky.

Mollura's installation brings unpretentious fun to the idea that abstract art gives viewers a glimpse of the ineffable, which is often characterized as spiritual, mystical or magic.

While suggesting that such highfalutin claims are often overblown, his playful works deliver a lot more than immediately meets the eye.

Today, not many artists imagine that their works are timeless. But even fewer go to the other extreme, making public works that appear to be disposable.

Mollura embraces the throwaway nature of contemporary culture, transforming its incidental impermanence into a vessel for meaning.

Think of his inflatable sculptures as wrappers for ideas -- empty spaces waiting to be filled by all sorts of intangibles, none of which are permanent but some of which are unforgettable.

*

`Armory Public View: Carlos Mollura'

Where: Courtyard at One Colorado, Old Pasadena

Ends: Nov. 5

Price: Free

Contact: (626) 792-5101; www.armoryarts.org

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