Has it occurred to anybody to equate Post-Modernist art with the cultural style being fostered by neo-conservative politics? The Reagan Administration has cast such a pervasive mantle of traditionalist revivalism that everything seems somehow flavored by it, from buildings in Nouvelle Neo-Classical accents to an art world inclined to treat its products as just more luxury items marketed as status symbols for stylishly voracious yuppies. Those folks manifest an odd dual attraction to novelty and "lasting values" that seems perfectly embodied in Post-Modernism, which is at once eccentric and conventional.
Three exhibitions on view at the Newport Harbor Art Museum to April 14 are flavored to greater and lesser degrees with what we might call "Revtrad" tendencies. The sculpture of Zadik Zadikian is not the main exhibition but it is the most clearly Post Mod. The show, the eighth in the museum's New California Artists series, quite appropriately presents a sculptor virtually unknown in these climes, although he is 37, teaches at UC Santa Barbara and has a professional track record in New York.
Significantly, Zadikian was born in Soviet Armenia and once served as an assistant to the popular, beloved, artistically overwrought San Francisco sculptor Beniamino Bufano. Zadikian's own work harks back to ancient civilizations with almost archeological frankness. There are heroic heads in Cycladic and Classic Greek styles, as well as rams heads and torso fragments that evoke, if not re-create work from ancient Rome, Persia and like centers.
Close as these are to known prototypes not even a rank amateur would mix them up with the real thing. For starters, they are in plaster, a material that recalls musty academic classes and popular kitsch more than ancient glory. For another they are rendered with the pinched narcissistic fussiness of a journeyman maker of store-window manikins.
An arriviste yuppie connoisseur might find in them an excuse to display his knowledge of the classics while secretly enjoying their sentimental, erotic and flattering overtones even as did his predecessors, the upwardly mobile bourgeoise of the French Salon exhibitions. ("Of course they are polychromed, my dear, the original works were painted to the life. Quite garish by our standards, but that shows the mistakes of history. A little more brandy?")
The jaded cognoscente (picture Clifton Webb) can have a nasty little chuckle over the sculptures' kitsch overtones, and its urge to decorate, Liberace style. Deciding one's attitude to "Torso" is a matter of self-definition. Does one revel in a bottom as delicious as Haagen-Daz ice cream and a gold drape as flauntingly decorative as the Trump Tower, or remain smug in one's immunity from such pandering?
It is impossible not to be charmed by work that trys so hard to be agreeable. It is also impossible not to find it as blatant a demonstration of trendy superficiality as ever infiltrated a serious museum.
"Six in Bronze" is the main attraction at Newport and it takes a large and healthy step away from the gooey seductions of Revtrad, without quite shaking the connection. The point of the exhibition, after all, is to demonstrate that some of our leading artists have returned to the use of cast bronze, a material long avoided both because of its association with corny Establishment pigeon-roost statuary and, more importantly, because of certain aesthetic problems associated with the material. It copies beautifully, but unless it is properly finished and weathered, bronze can lose all the expressive resonance that was part of the original.
Certainly the two most gratifying aspects of this show are that the work included is a superior representation of most of the artists and that they have clearly managed to bend bronze to their bidding rather than being dominated by the material.
George Segal shows a group of rain-coated pedestrians walking zombie-like, presumably en route to the subway. Even the sculptors' greatest admirers may find the work laced with Moses Soyer sentimentality and the ghoulishness of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Nonetheless, Segal has induced a dusty, funereal patina in the bronze, heightening the figures burial-effigy quality.
Italian Neo-Expressionist Sandro Chia recently displayed a couple of huge Classical Camp figurative sculptures that made a repellent combination of fascist style and cuteness. Here related maquettes and two of larger figures reverse that impression. The slightly surrealist, paint-dappled "Boy With a Ram" and others take on a dreamy, ingratiating sensuality that recalls Renoir. The effect is due in no small measure to Chia's insistence on retaining the juicy handworked surfaces of his originals in the bronze.
Nancy Graves exploits the alloys mimetic capacities to cast real leaves and exotic plants, which are then joined into profuse sculptural bouquets that have a perfumed lyricism as authentic as a tropical night (sometimes tempered by an urbane wit that finds itself a bit fetid.)
Bryan Hunt keeps bronze from getting in the way of amazingly dense abstractions that simultaneously suggest falling water and chastely draped archaic classical figures.
Anthony Caro, foxy old maestro of abstract sculptural grammar, here has fun communing with the shades of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, making bronze echo the glass and quasi-mechanical forms that went into their sardonic Dadaist love lyrics.
Then there is Isaac Witkin. It's rather a shame that the veteran New Yorker should be so inconclusively represented in a rare local appearance. Oh well, at least his gently eccentric work coaxes the bronze into a feel of organic life.
"Six in Bronze" is so enjoyable a sampler it's almost possible to ignore the fact that the metal seems to have extracted a price for serving the artists so well. Every work here seems somehow, well, domesticated.
It is lovely, expressive, accomplished, impressive, serious and high-minded, but none of it has a rebellious bone in its bronze. Maybe the material makes it seem authoritative, timeless and a bit inert. Maybe both modernist and revivalist styles have grown so familiar and entrenched that art has lost its capacity to be associated with adventurous originality. Maybe the powerful spirit of yuppie-dom is just jamming some of arts wavelengths.
If it is, painter Alfred Leslie has either escaped it or escaped into it. Newport is showing his suite called "100 Views Along the Road." At first glance, it looks like the New York Neo-Realist painter has done one of those tiresome exercises where an artist takes umpteen hundred black-and-white photos on a driving vacation and then prints them into a drillingly dull "Concept Piece."
As it turns out these are 100 black-and-white watercolors. Among other things they are notable as seamlessly executed works in utter contrast to Leslie's laborious figure paintings. In subject, they combine the grandeur of nature observed with the commonplace sights of auto travel with its soporific stretches of freeway, billboards and directional signs. Some fall into the repetitive drear of their subject. Others, like "Santa Barbara Beach" are as mysterious and phosphorescent as the real thing.
But how has Leslie escaped Revtrad?
Beat it at its own game. The sensibility of these works first steps firmly back into the Beatnik "On the Road" ethos of the '50s when Leslie was a hot young abstract painter. It then steps even further back into an old Japanese painting method called "Notan" and such classic print series as "100 Views on the Tokaido Road" or "36 Views of Mt. Fuji" by masters like Hiroshige and Hokusai.
The association with these Japanese masters brings conflicting thoughts. There are still places for the loner artist to escape "yuppification."
On the other hand, those Japanese masters were authentically popular artists who did not need to be intransigent to be good.
Something's up. It may be the slow sunset of art that derives its energy by running against the social grain, the dim dawn of art that gains momentum by running with it.
Still makes me uneasy.