Times Staff Writer

USC’s Fisher Gallery is a tripartite affair that lends itself to three-ring exhibitions. That’s what it has, through April 27, in the congregation of Barbara Strasen’s conceptual investigations, Ford Crull’s paintings and selections from Diana Zlotnick’s collection.

The only connection among the shows is that all the art is contemporary and more or less rooted in Southern California soil. Differences are more to the point: While the trio of currently assembled art doesn’t cover the field, it digs into three prominent furrows.

Strasen, an Easterner who has lived in Southern California since 1972, is a conceptualist more interested in ecology and natural science than in aesthetics. She has studied “predatory interactions,” desert animals and the personalities of octopuses. She also has looked into different people’s reactions to the same locale and worried about sophisticated cultures wiping out primitive ones.

All this is inspiration for dry-to-garish products that resemble various genres of substandard artworks, from washed-out textbook illustrations to lurid paint-by-number landscapes. The lack of visual appeal is so pervasive that it appears deliberate. Only a desert panorama, with a strip of photographed details set into pale, realistic paintings, actually draws you into its quiet complexity for aesthetic reasons. Other works demand that you bite the visual bullet before examining content.


That done, you find that Strasen’s sprawling multimedia works include a tower of painted photos depicting “Some Relationships to Nature"; cutouts of animals strewn over painted walls; “portraits” (with subjects’ photographs bolted to separate paintings of their dream landscapes and “personal demons”); a grid of little watercolors retelling stories told to the artist, and a batch of plastic plates painted with desert flora and fauna.

Strasen changes style with medium, but the whole hangs together through repetitive ideas and insets of one image within another. The latter device--used to stress paradoxes or conflicts--is most obvious in “Some Relationships to Nature.”

Strasen overlays pictures of skyscrapers, formal gardens or monumental sculpture with circles depicting aspects of nature or primitive cultures. These circles are in turn topped with symbols of modern consumerism--a swivel chair, an ice cream cone, a pair of sunglasses, a roller skate. The tower of paintings, piled up on the wall like kids’ alphabet blocks, is festooned with tacky swags of fabric printed with motifs of wild animal skins.

Recent works such as this prove that Strasen’s art has grown considerably since she first showed her drawings of food chains at the Municipal Art Gallery. The themes have become more complex and her format more adventurous, but the art is still cramped into a researcher’s sensibility. Purposeful or not, the amateurish look of her work undercuts its effectiveness.


Crull--who spent about seven years here, between living in Seattle and recently moving to New York--can be said to represent a style of painting that’s currently in vogue, though he has more in common with yesterday’s Abstract Expressionists than with the Neo-Expressionists who dominate today’s art scene. His graffiti-like mappings of a whole sphere of stuff seem closer in spirit to, say, Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky than to David Salle and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

For one thing, Crull’s rich color and layered paint suggest that he doesn’t know thin is in. May he never learn. For another, the compositional intuition that tells him to unify diptychs with bisected figures or vast sweeps of pigment doesn’t tie the work down to posteresque design. And instead of fashionable “appropriations” from art history and the media, he gives us an encyclopedic view of the world as seen by a single artist.

If this doesn’t make Crull a particularly original painter, it does make him a refreshingly engaging one. He gets carried away in “Late One Saturday Night” and comes dangerously close to maudlin cartooning in “Death,” but his most vigorous art rewards a slow, careful look.

As you peruse his big, vividly colored canvases, you find letters, crosses, lips, eyes and nudes cohabiting with Egyptian heads, primitive masks and all manner of squiggles and slashing brush strokes. Intimations of violence and colliding cultures weave through the work, but it finally comes off as an exhilarating journey through an artist’s fantasy world.

Diana Zlotnick is a well-known local collector whose cache of contemporary art treasures is generally confined to her home. Now 25 works by nine Los Angeles artists reveal a slice of her collection, mostly from the ‘60s.

It’s a harmoniously dark, formally structured group of works, often setting themselves forth in symmetrical or gridded compositions and built on an assemblagist’s sensibility. A moody undertow of emotion ebbs through suggestions of mysticism, religion, death and eroticism.

Works on display are anchored in Los Angeles history by John Altoon’s 1958 Abstract Expressionist painting, John Mason’s writhing stoneware sculpture and a lithograph by Peter Voulkos, who is credited with taking the most definitive step toward turning clay into a fine-art medium.

The heart of the show revolves around Wallace Berman, Llyn Foulkes and George Herms, who share an unorthodox approach to materials and ties to the literary world. Foulkes’ paintings from the early ‘60s--looming rock landscapes and an ode to his grandmother--look particularly strong. Herms is in fine, poetic form with such well-ordered collections of tattered found objects as “Genevieve” and “Babylon Box.”


Each exhibition has its own curator and catalogue essayist: Edward Goldman organized Crull’s show, Marie de Alcuaz took charge of Strasen’s exhibition and Stella Paul selected works from and wrote about Zlotnick’s collection.