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Art review: Urs Fischer's grand gestures come up short at MOCA

His often-mocking hand is easy to see in a 16-year survey exhibition at MOCA's two downtown L.A. buildings. Mostly, though, his work is just banal.

April 25, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Urs Fischer cut open a wall for “Portrait of a Single Raindrop,” which affords a view of “Untitled (Bread House),” right.
Urs Fischer cut open a wall for “Portrait of a Single Raindrop,”… (Stefan Altenburger Photography,…)

Urs Fischer is an artist of the big gesture. It's a mixed blessing.

Emblematic is a monumental outdoor sculpture in his newly opened, 16-year survey exhibition, which is divided between the Museum of Contemporary Art's two downtown L.A. buildings.

The monolith of cast aluminum, one of a series made over the last seven years, rises 45 feet above a parking lot. Its shape is chunky and abstract, the color a light-absorbent gray against a bright blue sky.

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Move in for a closer look, and soon it's apparent that the form has been blown up from a small lump of casually manipulated clay. The ridges of a thumbprint, now gargantuan, stare you in the face. The sculpture aggrandizes "the hand of the artist," while simultaneously lampooning it.

Glory meets guffaw. The clash plants an enormous question mark at the museum's front door.

In a world increasingly defined by virtual realities and digital imaging, is the creative mastery of hand manufacture merely a quaint artistic throwback — nostalgia for a lost cultural past? Is this sculpture a memorial? Given today's ubiquitous special effects wizardry, shouldn't art clasp technology to its bosom?

Fischer's unnamed piece is subtitled "Big Clay." The overtones of commercial power — think Big Oil or Big Pharma — are hard to miss. A multinational art market's roaring authority is injected into the mix.

Of course, art market dominance is already plain enough in the exhibition's checklist. (Jessica Morgan of London's Tate Modern was guest curator.) Hardly anything comes from a museum or other public collection. The survey's 46 works are, instead, almost exclusively borrowed from galleries and anonymous private collectors.

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Wall Street aside, however, Fischer's art is not too big to fail. Nothing about "Untitled (Big Clay #7)," conceived in 2008 and fabricated for the MOCA show, opens an avenue onto something that hasn't already been chewed over by countless artists for a generation or more. The sculpture's fatal problem is that its big gesture is mostly hollow.

From one angle, its general contour recalls a Mannerist masterpiece by Giambologna — the highly skilled, trans-European 16th century artist who became a virtual prisoner of the Medici banking dynasty in Florence, Italy. Giambologna was an action-sculptor. Carving marble, he dramatized heroic allegories of his powerful patrons — mighty Samson bringing down the jawbone of an ass to slay a taunting Philistine, or muscle-head Hercules vanquishing a freakish centaur.

Inside MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, Fischer's 20-foot copy of Giambologna's most famous sculpture, "The Rape of the Sabine Women," towers over a rear gallery. Cast in wax, it's now a giant candle. The sculpture burns brightly as it slowly melts, devouring itself.

Giambologna's original image of a battle of the sexes is transformed into a colossal knickknack — not unlike Jeff Koons' life-size, 1988 gilded-porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee. And the candle's flickering symbolism for life's transience is evidently borrowed from Robert Gober's memorializing wax candle-sculptures of the last 25 years.

In fact, you can go through Fischer's show, most of which is at MOCA's Grand Avenue building, checking off a long list of popular sources.

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There's the famous dust affixed to Marcel Duchamp's "The Large Glass," here exploded in photographic enlargements of floor sweepings that Fischer mounted to sheets of mirror-polished aluminum; Bruce Nauman's metal casts of severed limbs; René Magritte's fruit-obscured portraits; Robert Therrien's nightmare-twisted beds; Martin Kippenberger's drunken lamppost; Chris Burden's physical excavations of museum architecture; the psycho-sexual world of Grimm's fairy tales mined by Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, and more. Fischer riffs on all of them.

Artists do (and should) scavenge other art for what they need, but it matters what they do with it. Snark is not enough.

Take Fischer's chest-high box made of mirrors, which is open at the top to reveal a smelly, inch-deep pool of coffee, orange juice and cigarette butts puddled at the bottom. Titled "Heartburn" and intentionally sloppy, it mocks rigorous, Donald Judd-style geometric sculptures. But it isn't much more than a cocktail party quip about the hyper-refined perfectionism of 1960s art — Minimalism as a romantic ruin.

Fischer makes a fetish of decay, the survey's leitmotif. Nowhere is the theme of disintegration more wince-inducing than in several sculptures of skeletons.

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