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A not-so-risky business

The seven artists in REDCAT's 'Eternal Flame' show turn out to have a lot in common.

February 28, 2007|David Pagel | Special to The Times

"Eternal Flame: Imagining a Future at the End of the World" is a mediocre show with a grandiose title. At the Gallery at REDCAT, director and curator Eungie Joo has brought together seven perfectly proficient artists whose works seem, on the surface, to come from different worlds and to have little in common. That would be something, especially if the eight pieces conversed with one another -- or better yet, argued -- and made visitors see more connections and divergences among them.

Unfortunately, the three paintings by Tuan Andrew Nguyen; three-channel video by Paul Chan; sculpture by Rheim Alkadhi; installation by collaborators Pattara Chanruechachai and Pratchaya Phinthong and stack of stapled booklets by Lan Tuazon and Marie Lorenz are insufficiently different to be stimulating. They are also uniform in their preoccupation with being logical, internally consistent and clear, with no loose ends or ambiguities that might be mistaken for weakness or uncertainty.

Nguyen's realistic paintings depict generally empty city streets in which commercial advertisements, communist propaganda and graffiti compete for attention. The juxtapositions are funny: Consumerism's promise of immediate gratification oddly complements communism's collective idealism. Both seem fake next to the graffiti, which promises nothing and delivers visual kicks. But on the whole, Nguyen's pictures make mountains of molehills, focusing on details ordinary urbanites take in and understand as they pass.

Chan's three videos paint a portrait of people affected by the war in Iraq. One monitor features Christian Republicans from Nebraska talking openly about their beliefs and fears. Another surveys everyday life in Baghdad, before the U.S. invaded. The third is the most potent. Over a montage of war imagery, various voices read letters ostensibly written by President Bush and members of his cabinet and sent home from Iraq, where their jobs took them. It doesn't take long to figure out that the letters have been scripted by Chan and read by actors. The gag wears thin, but it makes one wonder about the personal lives of public figures and the difference between what they say in public and private.

Alkadhi's sculpture of a dismembered taxidermist's model amid the rubble of a makeshift tent too explicitly evokes works by Bruce Nauman and Cady Noland to be more than a homage to them.

To raise money to build a library in a small town in Thailand, Chanruechachai and Phinthong are selling abstractions painted by Mitr Jai-in. Their installation consists of 10 anodyne paintings, a stage -- empty except for a monitor showing footage of the town Dong-na -- and wall labels explaining it all. Although their collaboration includes many of the ingredients of conventional art -- tasteful, handmade products, social value and good intentions -- it's unconvincing. It comes off as clever bet-hedging: If it fails as art, it still may succeed as social service; if it fails as social service, it falls back on its status as fifth-generation conceptualism.

Tuazon and Lorenz have published a booklet outlining two of their clandestine projects: planting peach trees on an abandoned island and installing works by 17 of their friends on a Richard Serra sculpture being stored outdoors at a rigging company. The 17 works were attached to magnets, which treated Serra's sculpture like a gigantic refrigerator. Like lots of college pranks, the project is amusing. But like lots of artists frustrated by the limits of galleries and eager to leave them behind for the freedom of the wide world, Tuazon and Lorenz go only halfway. They still seek the attention and validation of galleries.

Although the works in "Eternal Flame" don't look alike, they embody the same ethos: a buttoned-down professionalism in which little is risked, less is left to chance and everything can be explained -- historically, conceptually, reasonably. The works are not cold and calculating so much as politely detached, more concerned with following rules than standing out from the crowd by risking embarrassment and revealing the artists' passions and peccadilloes.

The single exception is a 20-minute documentary video by Nguyen. Charming and captivating, "Spray It, Don't Say It" gives viewers an honest, unpolished glimpse into the un-self-conscious dreams and fantasies of several young teens in Vietnam's emergent graffiti scene. The kids speak eloquently and earnestly, with less bathos and more pathos than the works in the show. Nguyen's video also attests to the surprising shifts in meaning that take place when culture is imported into one country from another. It alone saves the show.

The guarded seriousness that runs through the other works may have something to do with the artists' ages. They were born between 1971 and '76. The more telling connection is that nearly all were graduates of prestigious master of fine arts programs in California, New York and New Haven, Conn.

The era of global professionalism is upon us, and art is growing increasingly standardized. Forget the future, ours is not a present with much imagination.


`Eternal Flame: Imagining a Future at the End of the World'

Where: Gallery at REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: Noon to 6 p.m. or curtain time, Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays

Ends: April 8

Price: Free

Contact: (213) 237-2800;

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