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Art, politics and amends in Venice

June 29, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

VENICE, ITALY — Given the low esteem in which the United States is widely held around the world these days, it is ironic that an American curator has for the first time organized the globe's longest-running international art exhibition, the 112-year-old Venice Biennale. As if issuing something between a challenge and a demand, the event seems to declare, "Acquit yourself on the world's cultural stage."

For the most part, this show does.

Robert Storr, a painter and dean of the Yale University School of Art, organized the 52nd Biennale, which consists of three primary components. Recalling the extravaganza's origins in 19th century world's fairs are the national pavilions -- 57 this year, clustered at the main exhibition site in or near the Public Gardens and scattered in temporary locations all over the enchanting island city. (Each home country selects one or more artists to represent it.) Italy's host pavilion and the sprawling Arsenale -- a defunct Venetian rope factory -- are the sites for a two-part international survey assembled by Storr.

The curator apparently drew on personal history for the shows, which dote on painting and politics. (When Storr started to paint more than 30 years ago, he went to Mexico City and became a studio assistant on the final, failed mural by revolutionary firebrand David Alfaro Siqueiros.) The 2005 Biennale had liberty, personal and public, as its loose theme. This one is pungent with a sense of loss.

The show is dubbed "Think With the Senses, Feel With the Mind: Art in the Present Tense," and it's that last part that resonates. The present is tense indeed. The show's abundance of strong painting suggests a profound social value is found in its characteristically slow deliberations.

Art's elusive power

The exhibition, continuing through Nov. 21, is committed to established, major painters in Germany and the U.S., most notably Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Martin Kippenberger, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman and Susan Rothenberg. It also includes more modest, lesser-known but certainly gifted ones, such as the American Thomas Nozkowski, Colombian Oscar Munoz (at the Arsenale) and Congolese Cheri Samba. The impressive array spans Polke's alchemical transformation of matter into image and Munoz's relentlessly disappearing portraits of men and women, painted with water on cement and videotaped as they evaporate.

The show's entrance is pointed in its politics but no less indirect in its aesthetic allusiveness. Across the Italian Pavilion's fascist-era facade, Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner prints a blue and orange arc of words: "Matter so shaken to its core to lead to a change in inherent form." The legend is meaningful as a scientific description of its rainbow shape, an insinuation of topical events such as 9/11 or Iraq's occupation and -- not least -- a poetic account of art's elusive power.

Inside the front door, Nancy Spero's "Maypole/Take No Prisoners" dangles ribbons and severed profile-heads in painted metal on chains from a tall steel pole rising into the skylight. (Welcome to the show!) The maypole is an ancient pagan form, part playful axis linking earth and sky and part communal symbol of authority. Spero's grim yet marvelous version greets summer with the clanging of bloody, spewing faces, blown by the breeze and festooned with tassels.

The pavilion is heavily weighted with internationally celebrated stars -- Sophie Calle, Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, Giovanni Anselmo and the late Sol Lewitt included. Lewitt's opposing pair of exquisite wall drawings, one a gathering cloud of black scribbles, the other a luminous glow emerging from scribbled darkness, are flatly magnificent. Nauman's abject recirculating fountains, made from inside-out wax portrait masks spitting water into industrial sinks over plastic buckets, was unfortunately on the fritz the day I visited. The others, such as Holzer's declassified U.S. torture documents silk-screened onto acid green panels, tend toward grandiloquence.

Two younger, little-known artists make big impressions. Both offer laments for modern life, set in cinematic landscapes.

Joshua Mosley, 32, employs digitally sophisticated "claymation" for a melancholic meditation on human alienation from nature, starring 18th century philosophers Rousseau and Pascal. The evanescence of their forest encounters with a giant beetle, an obtuse cow and a romping dog, projected in a six-minute black-and-white film, is contrasted with plain-spoken bronze sculptures of all the magically animated figures, reducing them to lovely, obsolete trinkets. The philosophical dilemma between mind and matter is beautifully conjured.

Mario Garcia Torres, 31, born in Mexico and working in Los Angeles (where to my knowledge he has not shown), presents a terrific Super 8 film transferred to video. The shift from an industrial to an electronic medium is telling. His work pits old Modernist-era dreams against today's realities.

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