John McCracken still looks like the kind of movie cowboy who looks like a real cowboy. Bean-lean, weathered and yet boyish, he has the air of the hero's sidekick who takes a bullet from the bad guys so his buddy can marry little Nell.
Tony Berlant wouldn't surprise anybody behind the counter of a New York deli, talking nonstop. "What's yours? Mustard? Mayo? Pickle? What else?" He hands you a brown-bag sandwich big enough to feed Napoleon's troops retreating from Moscow. You get the feeling that if you somehow couldn't pay for this monster, Berlant would say: "Hey, I gotta 'nuther customer here. Catch me next time."
As happens with surprising frequency, the artists' personae act as metaphor for their art and vice-versa. The evidence is currently on view in separate solo exhibitions. Berlant's recent work burbles forth at the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park until April 19. McCracken's show is a spare, two-decade survey at the Newport Harbor Art Museum until May 10.
McCracken is 52, Berlant 46. Both are veteran L.A. artists who materialized in the '60s. Neither has attained artistic stardom but they share something often more deeply respected, a reputation for unforced integrity. Berlant has taken time from his own work to promote the appreciation of Navajo rugs and Mimbres pottery. McCracken once greeted a critic come to review his show with, "Hi. Now that this stuff is up, I don't think it works real well."
Aside from these crucial similarities, the artists are a regular Panza-and-Quixote study in contrasts. It is not so much that Berlant is associated with Pop and native art and McCracken with Minimalism and the Finish Fetish. That difference only serves to show that California Pop and Minimalism had common ground in straightness, love of ordinary experience and a rather sunny view of the human condition. Differences all proceed from the simple fact that McCracken's whole career can be surveyed in 64 pieces while the Muni is jammed with as many works--some quite huge--covering just five years of Berlant's output. Quixote is distilled and laconic, Panza ebullient and effulgent.
McCracken's trademark work is a tall, plain, plank-like slab painted a single, solid shiny color. In one of the deftest moves devised by recent art, the slabs are neither free-standing nor hung, but rather lean as if temporarily placed by a workman. They seem casual, unpretentious and just a trifle cheeky, like a cowboy lounging on a corner, chewing a toothpick and watching the girls go by.
Although polished to a fare-thee-well and unmistakable in presence, McCracken's work is so diffident, it is easy to mistake for a mere object devoid of expressive vectors and with no more variety or inventiveness than you get by arranging children's building blocks (forgetting that variety is infinite.)
Well, all right, suppose sometimes he stacks a bunch of risers into a ziggurat pyramid, makes a post and lintel, puts in a slot in a cube or makes a cube the size of a card table or another one small enough to put on the mantle? Suppose he does paint them different solid colors? Jellybeans and M&M;'s come in colors too.
McCracken is asking us to do something extremely simple, which is to weigh and experience very real optical differences that occur because of changes in color and size. But because he lacks the didactic insistence of a Josef Albers or the aggressive panache of a Donald Judd, his work is easy to dismiss as a maddening combination of too easy and too hard.
If it has a real fault it is too understated, too shy and too willing to believe that the viewer has as much patience and honesty as the maker. The work makes its point. McCracken treats a surface like an automobile body, but he keeps gloss just dull enough so the object looks like a solid (some people are surprised to learn they are hollow). But they are also just shiny enough to pick up reflections which disembody them slightly. They become cubes of pure hue. In a world of Platonic ideals, one could just spend the rest of one's life varying sizes and colors for the fun of seeing how they affect experience. A near-black box sitting on the floor picks up so much reflection its bottom starts to disappear. A small red cube yaps across the room like a siren while a soft pink one is cuddly and sensual like your seventh-grade sweetheart.
It sounds good, but something in Western humankind just can't sit that contemplative and still. For years McCracken's work has suggested a puzzled need to make some kind of move. Most often attempts were in the direction of varying surfaces with abstract sworls of paint that suggest a wild romantic bottled up inside the quiet cowboy. Occasionally, these attempts had the intensity of Van Gogh's "Starry Night," but more often they just looked like decorative ejaculations.
Recently, McCracken has obviously decided that it was not his surface that needed work but his structure. The latest objects in the show (organized by New York's P.S. 1, incidentally) bear superficial resemblance to Post-Modern architecture. The familiar plinths, cubes and wedges have been given a few surprising angled cuts which breath new life into a career that was threatening to crystallize into a '60s period piece that did more to remind us of the good old days of Ruscha's Standard Stations and Billy Bengston's Dentos than of the intrinsic merit of McCracken's art.
Now, thank goodness, we don't have to say planks for the memories. McCracken's 1986 10-foot "Column" has a new sense of bigness. Faceted works move us around them with a new sculptural interest that enhances their dark, sophisticated hues. Here is one cowboy who has been rejuvenated by the Baroque tendencies abroad in the land.
For years Tony Berlant's trademark was a chubby little house-shaped cube covered with enameled metal recycled from all manner of commercial containers. They not uncommonly had pop-sentimental imagery left over from previous incarnations and were attached to wooden supports with such a myriad of nails that one hoped he used a nail-gun rather than banging them all in by hand. The effect was rather that of a tin quilt with the same cozy implications and the same tendency to garbled imagery.
His Muni show perpetuates these habits and shortcomings but so far outstrips them as to make Berlant into a new artist. The show was the last organizational hurrah for departed director Josine Ianco-Starrels and makes us grateful she's moved no farther away than Long Beach.
In the last five years Berlant has transformed a tendency to overwork into an expression of buoyant energy and produced a huge body of work that proves him possessed of more range than anyone suspected. He cheerfully launches into a battlement-size wall for San Francisco airport using all the corny imagery of poster-design murals, transforming cliches of the Bay Bridge with such nice conceits as an entwined fork and spoon making love in the sky. He is not above tin-quilting a swinging door for somebody's kitchen, setting about it with the same good spirits with which he undertakes something resembling conventional paintings.
They unveil his formidable abilities as a constructor of just about any kind of complex space you can pull out of the modernist hat. "Snooks" is a folk-art-influenced version of a Matisse cut-out. "Xavier" composes somewhere between a Picasso studio and the muffled sensuality of an Arshile Gorky. Here Berlant grasps classic Cubism and there the energy of Abstract Expressionism without ever seeming academic because everything is stamped with his generous temperament and everything seems like a response to a real situation. "SoHo" gets the tangled brown streets of that fabled precinct into an abstract maze of shapes. "Culver City" captures the laid-back sunny place on a nice day basking in the pleasures of anonymity. The pair almost add up to an artistic testament of realization that it is more fun to do your thing in peace than to be pressured and celebrated.
Berlant's tendency to smother the viewer in great bear hugs of indigestible visual smorgasbord is still sometimes a bother. So is a curiously muffled narrative ability. Funny little Post-Mod figures and amusing cars popping out of more ambiguous matter suggest that Berlant is inexplicably holding back an urge to deal with thematic material in the manner of, say, Romare Bearden.
Never mind. Berlant, along with McCracken, has discovered a new world for himself. When that happens we all get in on it, feeling cheered up and younger.