Citizens who have chided the Museum of Contemporary Art for presenting too many flashy, splashy exhibitions will now dine upon crow. The menu, in fact, consists of two very tough birds, Mark Lere and Allen Ruppersberg, whose works are on view at Temporary Contemporary through May 26.
Both were nurtured by Los Angeles sun and smog, although Ruppersberg has in recent years divided his time between here and New York. Both cultivate visual language that the general museum visitor may find as impenetrable as the cabala. Both are artists of considerable accomplishment whose work nonetheless has remained on the periphery of visibility, partly because no institution has heretofore taken the trouble to pull it all together. In short, they represent exactly the kind of serious fare that must always be part of a proper museum of contemporary art, even if the absorption of it gives us a slight headache.
Retrospective survey exhibitions are expected to provide an aesthetic catharsis, a spiritual synthesis of an artist's oeuvre that causes us to say, "Aha! Now I get it."
Lere's work appears as all of a piece and creates gestalt quite handily. Maybe that is partly because he is relatively young at 35 and his professional dossier is not very long. His first solo exhibition was just five years back.
He makes quasi-geometric shapes out of wood, plaster, metal, wax, wire and whatever else, usually confining himself to one material per object.
The most striking thing about entering the capacious upper gallery devoted to Lere's "New and Selected Work" is that what is there does not look like art (at least it looks like all that art that doesn't look like art). It does not fail to remind us of Bruce Nauman's odd aesthetic or Barry Le Va's studies in randomness, but Lere's work has its own wavelength.
The gallery resembles some kind of workshop. Objects seem incomplete, or as if they are something used to make something else. There's that big, rough, hollow plaster cone. Is the smooth spiral inside some kind of mold? What's that stepped-wax thing, that looks like a wedge cut out of a model of a Greek amphitheater?
Soon it is clear that what is in work here is not a product but a developmental principle. The geometric leanings of these shapes represent human rationality. Their roughness and elemental materials suggest the forces of nature. One of Lere's favored shapes is a tall, skinny cone made up of unevenly stacked metal rings. It suggests a tornado, water and its own material in a state of transformation. Something alchemical lurks here.
Taken together, Lere's work yields a fascinating aura of primal humankind struggling to bring rational order out of primordial chaos. (Clearly that was what was up last summer in Lere's meandering treasure-hunt project, "Halo/Wheel." It just didn't work.)
It is hard to imagine how this quite wonderful feeling of a world where everything is in flux can be broadcast by just one of Lere's objects. They seem to need this ensemble arrangement to maintain the feeling of representing the species at that point where the rational and the magical still reside in the real.
Allen Ruppersberg's show is a harder case. Entitled "The Secret of Life and Death," it has the physical presence of a swap meet held by a bibliophile, archivist and curio collector. There are neat boxes with first-edition pages therein. There are floors scattered with cement mannequin heads, while big posters reproduce newspaper clippings reporting tawdry and bizarre homicides. A giant zoetrope animates the fountain of youth. A series of Polaroids recount Al's junket to the beach in tedious detail, and there are 20 large panels upon which Ruppersberg has handwritten the entire text of Oscar Wilde's novel "Picture of Dorian Gray."
Stylistically, the exhibition is a mess. Scanning the galleries yields only the discouraging feeling that there is an overload of information here. And there is no way to get at Ruppersberg without absorbing quite a lot of it.
Ruppersberg, 40, emerged hereabouts around 1969, when word got around that the young artist had started something called Al's Cafe and something else called Al's Grand Hotel, real places that functioned roughly as advertised but were, in fact, artworks. For a while it looked as if Ruppersberg would be a slightly more conceptual version of Ed Ruscha, mining aesthetic nuggets from funky Los Angeles.
That turned out to be only half the story. The rest developed as Ruppersberg's work waxed ever more literary in form and content--for a time it seemed as if he really would turn writer. He self-published a novel. Turned out only about eight pages were printed; a couple of hundred remained blank and white.
Surveying Ruppersberg's various idea projects suggests Dada humor. This is part of it, but confronted, the work rarely seems funny and often has sinister overtones of violence and suicide. The ideas are so wide-ranging and impersonal in form that the body of work finally becomes almost unhealthily self-referential. The only way to put it together is to think about the guy who made it.
When a gestalt finally crystallizes, it is around Ruppersberg, or rather around a persona seeping out of the work in bits and pieces. One is inclined to identify this personality with Ruppersberg himself, but evidence suggests that he has re-created himself as paradoxical literary fiction, that is really the essence of everything he does.
We know that Ruppersberg the artist is distinct from this persona because he obviously works hard. The fictional Allen is the narcissistic layabout depicted collapsed on a Victorian sofa in a life-size, self-portrait photo.
This guy is a bright L.A. loser who probably works as a book clerk and spends all his time pretending he's some fin de siecle author, dandified, decadent and brilliant. He's a literary groupie, in love with knee-jerk cult figures such as Raymond Roussel and Antoine Artaud.
Ruppersberg is preoccupied with greatness and is one day going to write a great book, but something offbeat that Roland Barthes would review.
Meantime, he drinks coffee from Styrofoam cups, and has fabulous ideas, like copying "Picture of Dorian Gray." He doesn't do that, but it's not so bad because he can always achieve a certain tainted celebrity by killing himself. Then they'll be sorry for failing to recognize his genius.
When you get right down to it, Ruppersberg's fictional double is a beautifully drawn but fairly pedestrian type. He's one of those neurotic guys in the song lyrics of Paul Simon.