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ART REVIEW

UCLA Hammer Museum's 'Second Nature' short on surprises

The exhibit, featuring sculptural works donated by Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson, seems to encapsulate the L.A. art scene when commercialism ruled over craft.

September 01, 2009|Holly Myers

Media executive Dean Valentine began collecting art in the early 1990s and, like many people who develop such an affliction while also in the possession of great wealth, he seems to have acquired a lot of it.

It is an unwieldy enterprise, one can well imagine, necessitating large quantities of climate-controlled storage space -- the dreariest sort of purgatory for an up-and-coming artist -- and in 2007 Valentine and his wife, Amy Adelson, had the grace to donate a good chunk of it (50 sculptures) to the UCLA Hammer Museum. Roughly two-thirds of this gift is on display for the first time in "Second Nature: The Valentine-Adelson Collection at the Hammer."

It is a significant collection not merely for its size but for the privilege of its perspective. Valentine, more than perhaps any other collector, has had VIP access to a critical period in L.A. art history, one marked by an unprecedented convergence of artists, the feverish expansion of the gallery scene and the emergence of sculpture in particular as a favored form.

It comes as a mildly distressing surprise, therefore, that the exhibition itself should be so underwhelming. There is something to like in just about everything here, but relatively little to love.

It's all perfectly intelligent work -- several of the pieces are clever (Pentti Monkkonen's swan-shaped moped), funny (Jason Meadows' violently overturned picnic table) or savvy (Nathan Mabry's pre-Columbian-styled terra cotta figure atop a work of sleek, geometric minimalism). Some are also handsomely constructed (Frank Benson's fiberglass turtle shells or Eduardo Consuegra's mirrored cube).

What's lacking are the incalculable things that make art not just interesting but exciting: passion, fervor, joy, spontaneity, obsession. Most of what's here feels safe, subtly calculated and of dismayingly moderate ambition.

The problem is hardly unique to this show. The degree to which it reflects upon Valentine's own taste (or the judgment of those advising him), therefore, is of less concern than what it says about the climate he was drawing upon. The majority of these artists -- all but Martin Kersels and Sam Durant -- are of roughly the same generation, born between 1967 and 1980, and one can't help but note a few defining conditions.

It was a generation hatched in MFA programs, in an era when craft was downplayed or abandoned altogether in favor of broad -- often to the point of nebulous -- conceptual thinking. It was seized upon at an early stage by an increasingly ravenous gallery system, and spurred by that system -- which was itself spurred by the art fair-driven market -- to produce salable objects in considerable quantities for an audience consisting in large part of new collectors who had relatively little idea what they were looking at. In L.A. specifically, a surfeit of exhibition space made it fairly easy to get one's work on the walls, and made exhibiting less an event to aspire to than a routine aspect of a functioning career and social life. A relatively weak critical infrastructure allowed most of this production, good or bad, to go entirely unremarked upon.

The result -- seen here in microcosm -- has been an enthusiastic but largely indiscriminating swell, a milieu not necessarily inhospitable to great art, but vastly permissive, even encouraging, of mediocrity.

Among the 30-plus works in "Second Nature," there are a number of standouts: Won Ju Lim's "Schliemann's Troy," a dazzling room-sized installation of foam core and Plexiglas cubes, bathed in colored light and projection; Matt Johnson's absurdly ingenious "The Pianist," a near-life-size origami piano and figure made from blue construction tarp; and Edgar Arceneaux's elegant and magical "Failed Attempt at Crystallization," which involves an old copy of Alex Haley's book "Roots: The Saga of an American Family" partially subsumed in cream-colored sugar crystals.

One leaves, however, wishing for more.

In its brochure for "Second Nature," the museum refers to the collection as the sculptural "nucleus" of its contemporary art collection, the initiative for which was launched in 2005. It is a fair beginning, and one that benefits from Valentine's obvious enthusiasm for emerging artists. But it will need to be supplemented with more mature works from the strongest artists included here, as well as by the range of outstanding L.A. sculptors not included such as Anna Sew Hoy, Mindy Shapiro, Ruben Ochoa, Rodney McMillian, Jedediah Caesar, Olga Koumoundouros and Joel Morrison.

In an indiscriminate age, curatorial vision of the caliber that the Hammer has displayed in the past, with insightful and invigorating exhibitions like "Thing" and "Eden's Edge," is ever more crucial. As the museum's nascent contemporary collection evolves, one hopes that the same standards will apply.

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calendar@latimes.com

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'Second Nature: The Valentine-Adelson Collection'

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 4. Closed Mondays.

Price: $7

Contact: (310) 443-7000

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