“Hollywood--Inside and Out” at the Municipal Art Gallery (to Sept. 14) is a sprawling mess of a group exhibition that purports to examine “the glamour and the reality of Hollywood during the past 25 years.”
One might forgive such a blatant lack of originality or curatorial focus if the artists themselves showed some consistency of quality and vision. Many of the works are not only embarrassing in their conceptual naivete, but, in certain cases, are ineptly executed to boot.
Curator Marie de Alcuaz has fallen into the common trap of trying to present a lighthearted homage to Tinseltown without clearly defining her subject or drawing distinctions between formal and thematic parameters. “Hollywood” is, of course, equal parts geographic area, movie nostalgia, international industry, commercial hype and state of mind. It is all things to all people.
The film business, however, has also played an important role in shaping and defining the visual arts, not only in terms of creating an economic base through collecting and trusteeship, but also defining and dictating much of the visual language of Post-Modernism.
There is an important show on the connections between film and art that has yet to be researched, particularly in the area of the rhetoric of representation and received information perpetuated by cinematic codes, but eclectic rag-bags such as this merely serve to alienate and confuse rather than enlighten.
The most obvious example is the inclusion of artists whose oeuvre has little or nothing to do with the subject at hand but who are included simply by virtue of an occasional reference to film iconography.
Thus, although Carole Caroompas’ “Mystical Unions” and “A Hermetic Romance From A to Z” series are largely concerned with alchemical, Jungian and male-female dualities, she is included because she employs familiar movie stills as part of her visual fabric.
Similarly, Anthony Austin’s mixed-media “Griffith Park Observatory Meets Stonehenge on Franklin Avenue” exploits the famous Hollywood landmark only as a jumping-off point for his real subject: the complexities of seeing and our need to rationalize highly conceptual theories of physics into linear narratives and maplike calligraphies.
When the exhibit actually concentrates on Hollywood, the results either belabor the obvious or tantalize us with potential insights that are left unexplored. In this context, Ed Ruscha’s “Hollywood” sign from the late 1960s now seems as much a dated Pop cliche as the subject it was supposed to be debunking.
Warhol’s famous “Marilyn Monroe” paean to the screen icon as commodity was perhaps an inevitable and necessary statement, but there was no need to give us four examples, plus three exploitative portraits of Ingrid Bergman. In any case, Warhol’s inclusion makes Richard Duardo’s commercialized copycat versions of Marlon Brando and Jean Harlow simply irrelevant.
While most of the painting is uniformly forgettable (nude punks as media fodder, stilted film noir melodramas, gaudily rendered neon-lit bars, pseudo-surreal dreamscapes of lotusland-turned-banal), even reliable stalwarts such as Alexis Smith seem uncomfortably out of place. Her otherwise incisive series of movie posters is swamped in a sea of vapid posturing.
The show’s one saving grace is its photography, in particular Penny Wolin’s Diane Arbus-like “Guest Register” (1975), a poignant yet devastating documentation of the residents of the St. Francis Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. Combining image and text, Wolin’s examination of life’s lost souls and anonymous citizens who are just passing through manages to be both emotionally distanced without being condescending.
In contrast, Karl Gernot Kuehn’s homage to aging actresses teeters on the brink of sentimentality despite his best intentions to highlight their heroic status as dramatic characters.
Cindy Sherman’s familiar “Untitled Film Stills” (1978-80) and Sabato Fiorello’s “Confessions of an Artist” exploit the self-portrait as an exercise in persona and received information, although in this specific context each could easily be misread as mere exploiters of cliche.
Context is the key word here. Anomalous and weak work often can find new status and meaning in a rigorously curated show that has a formal and aesthetic coherence, a show that advocates or analyzes an ideology and uses each artist as either documentation or evidence.
When, as in this case, occasionally strong individual work loses its identity or is cast into doubt by juxtaposition and overall context, then something is very wrong with the curatorial premise or the quality of the artists selected. “Hollywood--Inside and Out” fails on both counts.