Times Staff Writer

Current fare at UCLA's Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery pairs the ironic giggles and social criticism of contemporary French sculptors with the howls of an American feminist crusader.

"Manipulated Reality: Object and Image in New French Sculpture," introducing the work of young artists who base their art on found objects, occupies the first floor through March 24. "Judy Chicago: Images of Birth and Creation/Selections From the Birth Project," presenting drawings and paintings by Chicago along with needlework by female artisans and documentation of their collaboration, is installed upstairs through April 17.

Judy Chicago made an indelible name for herself a few years ago when she masterminded an enormous collaborative project called "The Dinner Party," which purported to honor distinguished women throughout history by interpreting their vaginas as ceramic dinner plates, set forth on a massive triangular table. The project was a feminist triumph and an aesthetic disaster that bludgeoned its way into the national consciousness with all the grace of a sledgehammer.

Now Chicago has switched from gynecology to obstetrics, with a predictable lack of subtlety. Determining that the annals of Western art are devoid of birth images, she embarked on an extensive research project that eventually led to the invention of a logo, the development of various images of creation and a competition among needleworkers to carry out her ideas. The total project consists of more than 100 works, of which 26 (including small samplers) have been selected for the UCLA exhibition.

A few large pieces by Chicago--"In the Beginning," a 32-foot-wide drawing with text on black paper; a spray-painted velvet quilt called "Earth Birth," and a prismacolor drawing titled "And Then There Was Light"--and a 14-foot-wide tapestry of "The Creation of the Universe" (beautifully woven by Audrey Cowan) dominate the show with their size and high-contrast drama.

Quieter and often more rewarding works are interspersed with printed documentation: rationale for the project, photographs, a historical vignette on maternity clothes and statements, correspondence and testimonials by the needleworkers. This material stresses the social benefit of the project and surrounds aesthetic deficiencies with feel-good feminism.

"The Birth Project," as seen at UCLA, is not as pretentious as "The Dinner Party," but it has the same aspirations to historical importance. Every step of the project will be reported in a Doubleday book to be released next week.

"The Birth Project" also maintains the same cult-like climate so offensive in "The Dinner Party." Both works contain exquisitely fine needlework and justly showcase a forgotten craft.

The saddest aspect of both collaborations is that very talented and accomplished women who are probably capable of making art far superior to Chicago's have contented themselves with copying her designs, getting fulfillment from her "constructive criticism" and professing adoration for their taskmistress. A more worthwhile and generous approach might have left women free to interpret their own ideas about creation.

"The Birth Project" begins with a literal-minded pronouncement that denies the existence of birth images. It's true that we haven't seen many babies emerging from wombs in Western painting, but a tradition that includes several centuries of Christian art centering on nativities and Mary-and-Jesus images, as well as hosts of organic abstractions and voluptuous landscapes can hardly be lacking in the theme--except for those who need everything spelled out in clinical detail.

This preliminary judgment is followed by art that ranges from gentle images of fetuses in wombs to screaming evocations of pain. Chicago's weakness as an artist is her heavy handed confusion of visual power with garishness. "The Birth Project" is fundamentally wrongheaded as an art show because it "celebrates" birth through horrific images. She says she approached the subject "with awe, terror and fascination." What comes through in her own work is terror.

In attempting to free women from ridicule, prudery and being ignored and in exposing their "basic animality," she has turned them into monsters with flaming vaginas, erupting breasts, spurting mouths and tortured bodies. She may mean to extol the naturalness of birth and to apply the authentic power of primitive art to her vision, but her art doesn't read that way. Once again, she has taken a good idea and bullied it into a freak show.

"The Birth Project" probably won't create a big fuss because it doesn't involve as many people as "The Dinner Party" and because the emotional fervor that once engulfed feminism's devotees and detractors has fizzled. The spectacle is over; what remains is hard work in every aspect of life that discounts women's contributions. It's doubtful that one artist's attempts to promote herself as a guru of birth will have much impact on that serious effort.

"Manipulated Reality" is a big, rambling show that fills the lower gallery with such artworks as an impastoed refrigerator, a painted car door and a "painting" that's really a mirror (by Bertrand Lavier), a stack of polyester "tires" and three flashlights with solid beams of light (by Etienne Bossut) and a suitcase turned into an alligator eating a red suit of clothing (by Miguel Egana).

Eight artists and one group, Presence Panchounette, are presented as "new French sculptors" updating the tradition of older French New Realists, who are represented at the beginning of the exhibition. Arman's 6-foot-tall bronze thumb, Cesar's compressed automobile radiator, Yves Klein's bright blue replicas of "Venus de Milo" and "Nike of Samothrace," Niki de Saint-Phalle's exaggerated female figures and Jean Tinguely's motorized junk sculptures provide historical context for artists who make irreverent art from kitsch and ordinary objects.

Patrick Raynaud's big folded cut-out figures that jut out of walls and hang from the ceiling are made from scratch, but their roughness and playful spirit maintain the throwaway look of art that pokes fun at romantic tradition and the elitist Establishment.

Two of the smallest pieces in the show come closest to summing up the collective sensibility at work here: Noel Cuin's assemblage, "Farewell to Myth," has a minuscule figure on a tree branch waving a handkerchief at a white horse pierced by a bright pink feather; and Presence Panchounette has two red-capped dwarfs playing the part of prominent art critics who are "discussing the comparative virtues" of a black square and a brick pattern framed above them.

Much of the art looks silly or sophomoric, but it reflects a serious effort to be part of its time and to question a tradition of art as precious objects and commodities. When Presence Panchounette skewers art books as weights on an exercise machine, the absurd sculpture reads as a humorous attention-getter and as a desperate attempt to find a fresh direction.

To anyone familiar with art history, the approaches being forged here are not new; they are a tired retooling of revolutionary ideas set forth by Dadaists, Surrealists and Pop artists. Nonetheless, it's intriguing to see what's going on in France among a group of artists little known here and to note individual temperaments as expressed through content.

Nicole Stenger presents a distinctly female point of view when she illuminates a plastic dish rack with fluorescent bulbs and labels it "Soyez Maniaque!" (Be a Fanatic!). Daniel Tremblay, the most interesting artist among the "new" group, mixes dreamlike images with such mundane materials as Astroturf. Jean-Luc Vilmouth's "crowd" surrounding a "batsman" with a wall of faces betrays a fascination with primitive masks. He cuts simple visages in everything from plastic bowls to brushes.

The artists do indeed manipulate reality and instill their chosen objects with new or recycled meanings; the problem is that this sort of alteration has lost its clout through repetition. It isn't easy to wrest poetry from junk or to make a trenchant statement about contemporary culture by simply putting its products on pedestals. Eloquent transformations require more discipline than is generally in evidence here.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World