The Art Gallery of San Diego State University is once again offering an exhibition of distinctive artistic merit.

"The Sculptural Stage" pairs the work of Los Angeles-based artists John Frame and Jim Lawrence, both of whom use a tableau format.

The "tableau vivant" is familiar to many Southern Californians who have witnessed the "living pictures" created annually at the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters. Costumed performers stand stock still amid stage properties in front of painted backdrops imitating great works of art.

In our century, however, a different kind of "tableau," as explained by Robert Pincus in his exhibition brochure essay, has developed. He cites mixed-media works of the Surrealists, the miniature boxes of Joseph Cornell "filled with wondrous scenes," the works of Wallace Berman, Edward Kienholz and Roland Reiss as antecedents. And there are older traditional forms, as well, as grand and moving as altars and as intimate and engaging as dolls' houses.

Generally, the contemporary tableau combines three-dimensional figures and objects with two-dimensional (or painted) representations of environments.

"The Sculptural Stage" presents contrasting aesthetics. Frame makes subtle, enigmatic small works whose origin is in his imagination. Lawrence makes bold, straightforward works whose origin is in our culture.

Frame's works are generally composed of carved figures, often in pairs, in presentations that frequently suggest an ecclesiastical form such as a reliquary. "Today a Man/Tomorrow None," a kind of memento mori, pairs a figure whose head is surrounded by a halo and whose partial torso is confined in an apparatus like stocks with a horned skull in a box.

At the top of "Young Ambition's Ladder," whose vertical structure is a polished and carved branch, a ladder grows from the ears of a horned man. An open door in his torso reveals a dark skull wearing a carnival mask with a large nose. A mask, or double face, also appears in "The Mummers' Scattered Ambitions," in which a figure with three hands beats a bound and seated figure with a phallic cane.

Frame's tableaux, made from a variety of substances, including wood, lead, pigment, graphite, brass, concrete, bronze and alabaster, are as poetically arcane as material and recognizable forms can be.

Lawrence's works are more forthright and accessible, but not the less artistic for that.

Generally, a single figure, roughly carved, even hacked, from wood, stands or sits in front of a large painted background. Reflecting his interest in marginal people in American society, writer Raymond Carver (Is a pun intended?) dressed in workman's clothes sits at a common table in front of an isolated residence. Writer Malcolm Lowry in a bathing suit poses on a rock in front of a rustic lakeside house on stilts. Early 20th-Century protofascist and dandy, Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, is surrounded by a horse and four greyhounds. Davy Crockett, the one life-size figure in the show, stands in front of a complex background composed of drawn and painted images, images burned in wood, a toy bear, texts, Indian beads and a fur covered pole. Other works represent the Australian outback and singer Dame Nellie Melba.

Lawrence's part of the show includes very mixed imagery, representing as it does isolated works from several series, so that there is no sense of cohesion among them.

Nevertheless, they are visually memorable works because of the artist's bravura use of color and bold forms and the strong psychological presence that he creates.

The works of Frame and Lawrence complement each other in a handsome installation.

The exhibition continues through April 9.

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