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Review: Feeling a bit 'Lost (in L.A.)'

The title of this exhibition at the Municipal Art Gallery is too close to the truth. Some compelling works are on view, but the strained thesis is disorienting.

December 26, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
(FLAX Foundation )

At the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park, the title of the exhibition "Lost (in L.A.)" pretty much describes how I felt when looking at its many sculptures, installations, videos and a few paintings.

Thematic art exhibitions are sometimes puzzling, with the reasoning behind the general selection of artists or juxtapositions of specific works obscure, and that's certainly the case here. A subtitle could be: "Huh?"

One of the more enchanting objects on display is a 1946 letter, although in the upper left corner, just above the salutation, it does sport a small, doodle-like ink drawing of an apple wearing a mask. Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, writing to his friend André Breton, author of the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, muses on the subject of utopia in the ruined aftermath of World War II.

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"Utopia is not a dream that happens in the future," Magritte observes, "but utopia is locating the golden age within the boundaries of our own lives." The emphasis is his, the hand-written words firmly underlined.

Both artists had by then survived two world wars, and Magritte's comment speaks to a tradition that launched Modern art in France at the tumultuous 20th century's start. The masked apple is a clue: The golden age, a primordial period of Edenic harmony whose legacy is glimpsed in French landscape paintings by artists as conventional as Puvis de Chavannes and as challenging as Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, is first and foremost an interior space or state of mind. Restoration of something purported to be lost is not necessary; discovery is.

Nearby, a small 1927 double portrait of Breton by an unknown photographer simply juxtaposes two black-and-white busts. Each portrait is different, but both show him looking forward in three-quarter view. Scrutinize the two faces and they appear to be jockeying for advantageous position — the better to scrutinize you.

"Lost (in L.A.)" is a project of the France Los Angeles Exchange — FLAX for short — a local foundation established six years ago to initiate cultural programming in the city. It is said to be loosely based on the popular 2004-10 television series, "Lost," in which survivors of a plane crash were forced to live together on a remote and dangerous Pacific island. Guest curator Marc-Olivier Wahler worked with Barnsdall and the Palais de Tokyo, an exhibition space in Paris where he was formerly director, to round up a diverse array of work from galleries, collectors and artists' studios.

The artists represented are French or American, living or dead, well known or obscure. Whether their work was designed to "connect the different layers of time and space" represented in the television show is a claim best taken with a grain of salt.

In a room adjacent to the Magritte letter and the Breton photographs, four monstrous sculptures of life-size scarecrows have been constructed by Marnie Weber from mannequin parts, plastic fruits and vegetables and masks — sort of Giuseppe Arcimboldo at Halloween. Scarecrows are meant to ward off avian scavengers intent on disturbing peaceful cultivation. Given the context, Weber's engaging beastly beings are also like avatars for the playful scarecrow from Oz who was desperately in need of a brain — and who discovered he had one all along.

Between these two rooms, sculptor Oscar Tuazon, who often works with architectural forms, has installed a pair of steel-framed cedar doors back to back. One opens to the right, the other to the left. They contain just a narrow sliver of space between them.

The work is a rather obvious riff on Marcel Duchamp's 1927 "Door, 11 rue Larrey" — a single wooden door Duchamp fitted between two adjacent doorways in a corner of his apartment. The Dada imp's door was thus open and closed simultaneously, its aspect dependent on which doorway one took.

Titled "Rooms," Tuazon's sculpture contracts the gallery rooms on either side into his doors' domain. He adds the impossibly narrow space between them as a third area, a threshold that can be conceptually occupied but physically inhabited only in passing.

All the way down at the other end of the building, a white-plaster cast of a cement mold made from an ordinary, beat-up screen door by the late L.A. artist Robert Overby leans in splendid isolation against a large white wall. Overby's sculpture, dating from his very brief moment of creative inspiration 40 years ago, distills multiple generations of a physical object meant to allow for passage — a door, its mold, a cast. In this exhibition the sculpture assumes a handy historical position for France and L.A., midway between Duchamp in the 1920s and Tuazon, who divides his time between Seattle and Paris, today.

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