"Cowgirls," a mixed-media work by Marlene Alt now at Installation Gallery, features figurative imagery and selected texts.

This installation, like others at San Diego's major alternative exhibition space, begins in the display window facing the street and continues inside, occupying both the large front and small back galleries.

The former resident of Minnesota has long had an interest in the theme of the American pastoral, and "Cowgirls" is an extension of that interest. According to the gallery press release, it focuses "irreverently on the mythical properties surrounding the Western heroine through a cultural pastiche of images and quotations drawn from books, comic strips, Hollywood movies and commercial advertising."

The window prepares visitors for a rare experience of humor in art. The artist has painted a cliched scene of the West with cactuses and hills on the windows and interior wall, hanging plywood versions of romping mustangs and steers from filament in between.

Inside, a text reads, "Everybody loves a legend," but we are prepared to experience its debunking.

Alt has filled the interior with a series of texts and tableaux, several of which as a group, at the back of the main gallery, look like a cozy scene by a fireplace.

But first things first.

Straight ahead is a free-standing life-size plywood horse. To the left is a row of plywood discs on a support, arranged like commemorative plates on a wall, with a variety of texts and illustrations. The inadvertently sardonic: "Trick-riding is what cowgirls have almost always done in rodeos. Our society sure likes to see its unconventional women do tricks." The comically lyrical: "Come, come, come," called Jane, holding out her hands. . . . "Come, Black Star--Come, Night. Ah, you Beauties! My racers of the sage!" The inanely fashion-conscious: "When you're rounding up a fabulous fall look, don't forget suede." And so forth.

Large, painted female forms on opposite walls loom above visitors. To the left it's a woman in an open fur coat, bra and panties, with a cowgirl hat and boots. The text, straight from a Maidenform ad, reads: "You never know where she'll turn up."

In front of a plywood fireplace on the back wall lies a plywood rug with images of Dale Evans and Roy Rogers, again with texts. Hers reads, with self-satisfaction: "As a child . . . I used to . . . dream that some day I would marry Tom Mix . . . I came pretty close to my dream, didn't I?"

Other texts and objects are either more or less enlightening and entertaining.

Finally, in Installation's back room appears a small, carpentered, hand-operated merry-go-round with a quartet of pistol-packin' female cherubs in cowboy boots and nothin' else. Drawings of bulls broken in two line the walls with the final text: "Give 'em doll babies, tea sets and toy stoves. And if they show a hankering for more bodacious playthings, call 'em tomboy, humor 'em for a few years and then slip 'em the bad news."

Despite its elements of humor, this is, overall, a bitter show. It is also a clumsy show. The installation is text-ridden and its visual components are crudely executed.

Although joined by the "cowgirl" theme, the content of the installation lacks continuity. Its parts remain discrete, not united in a harmonious whole that educates as it entertains.

The final response is, So what?

One young woman spent, at most, one minute with the entire piece.

This is the first solo exhibition for the artist, who received a master's of fine arts in sculpture last year at UC San Diego. Her works have, however, been included in some minor group shows and she did two performance works at Sushi in 1984. Nevertheless, there is a question about the appropriateness of Installation as a testing ground for untried artists.

This is the most recent in a series of installations generated by the UCSD art department, which appears to have annexed Installationas an exhibition space for its faculty and students. It is not a healthy relationship for Installation, and it is a disservice to the community.

The exhibit continues at Installation, 447 5th Ave., through Nov. 1.

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