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AUTHENTICALLY AFFECTING WORKS : ‘OTHER GODS'--VISIONS OF POWER : Embracing Artists of Diverse Heritage and Some Who Borrow From Foreign Cultures, Show Tracks Art’s Search for the Marvelous Plus Appeals to Higher Beings

Times Art Writer

If you’re wondering where the beef--or juice--of contemporary art has gone, take a look at “Other Gods: Containers of Belief,” at the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park. Every piece won’t set your teeth on edge, but the level of authentically affecting work is so much higher than the average contemporary group show that you may decide you’ve been looking in the wrong neighborhood.

Consider four wood masks carved by Lawrence Ullaag Ahvakana, an Inupiat Indian from the state of Washington. Overlaying human faces with those of animals or wrapping an arm around a head and letting an eye double as a sunburst, he comes up with beautifully crafted objects that are uncommonly captivating.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 22, 1987 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday May 22, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 8 Column 6 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
A photograph of “American Satyr,” a bronze sculpture by Frank Munns, was incorrectly captioned as Joseph Kurhajec’s “Horse Man” in the May 21 review of “Other Gods: Containers of Belief,” a show at the Municipal Art Gallery.

Frank Munns’ “American Satyr,” a life-size human figure with the skull and soaring horns of an animal, is also inspired by Native American culture. Currently picking its way through a bed of black sand in the center of the gallery, this weird being introduces viewers to a world of dark spirits.

Another human-animal merger takes place nearby in Joseph Kurhajec’s ceramic “Horse Man,” a Janus-style head with animal horns that wears a leather harness. Kurhajec credits Egyptian, Minoan and Etruscan sources for his sculptures that include creepy black fetishes alluding to spiders and monkeys.

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Los Angeles artist John Outterbridge’s “Captive Image” assemblages and a figure called “Elder” are even harder to ignore. I know of no other artist who so eloquently expresses the horror of black bondage. That he does it through the gestures and forms of stuffed “dolls” makes the message all the more powerful.

Such are the strengths of an exhibition that seems to probe the inner sanctum of ethnicity but is actually more concerned with primal visions of power. Embracing artists of diverse heritage and some who borrow from foreign cultures, “Other Gods” tracks art’s search for the marvelous as well as its appeals to higher beings.

There are ritual objects, shrines, altars and fetishes, made of some very strange materials. Domingo Cisneros, for example, makes wall pieces of moose hide, goose breastbone, fungus, porcupine claws and--are you ready?--dried and waxed groundhog. George Longfish adorns denim and leather head coverings with shotgun shells, nipples from baby bottles and all manner of metal pins and insignias. Italo Scanga steps out of mainstream Expressionism to contribute a wood tower, topped with a horn and oddly hung with brown potatoes.

Among works by about 30 artists are Carol Shaw-Sutton’s lyrical willow “canoes” that float out of a spiral configuration. Betye Saar’s magical assemblages are inlaid with found objects, and the chest of Alison Saar’s metal-sheathed man opens into a medicine cabinet. Mary and Bill Buchen make musical instruments that incorporate animal attributes, while Charles Dickson carves baroque ritual

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stools out of tree trunks, letting the roots grow into faces, breasts and entwined bodies.

This territory--primarily that of “primitive” art--has been so widely excavated that some pieces look familiar or worked to death. Alfred DeCredico’s fetishistic objects, elaborately “framed” by symmetrical slabs of stone and metal, are reduced to a state of decorative formalism. Amalia Mesa-Bains’ disintegrating shrines just look like so much color-coordinated debris, while Skunder Boghossian’s strips of painted parchment hanging from dowels appear limp in present context.

Yet for every piece that is hackneyed, mannered or overdesigned, there’s another that seems to have a fix on the supernatural or an inside track to primal instinct. The timing of the exhibition is interesting, too, for it offers an earthy counterpoint to “The Spiritual in Art,” an exploration of spiritual sources for abstract painting, organized for the County Museum of Art by Maurice Tuchman.

“Other Gods” is, by comparison, a distinctly unscholarly presentation, but it scratches the underbelly of the same animal. Instead of translating arcane thought systems into art or distilling a spiritual essence, these artists make offerings to terrifying gods as they reveal private fears and fantasies.

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The show, curated by Rebecca Kelley Crumlish, ends its national tour here on June 21.


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