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ART/Cathy Curtis : Lorrin, Deane Wong Collection on View in Laguna

Times Staff Writer

Twenty years ago, when Lorrin Wong was a business student at USC, he spotted a tiny photograph of a work by Peter Alexander in Edward Lucie-Smith’s book, “Art Since 1945.” Intrigued that Alexander lived in Los Angeles, Wong pulled out the phone book and randomly dialed one of several Alexanders.

“Are you Peter Alexander the artist?” Wong asked naively.

The bemused artist was indeed on the line and an invitation was soon forthcoming for Wong to visit Alexander’s studio. There was just one object in it: a 12-foot-tall cast polyester resin wedge subtly graduated in tint from deep gray at the bottom to clear at the top.

“Almost categorically, I dismissed it,” Wong recalled recently at the Art Institute of Southern California in Laguna Beach, where a portion of the collection he and his wife, Deane, have assembled is on view through Nov. 18. “Then (Alexander) started explaining what the piece was all about.”

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Eventually, Wong began to see how the piece, if properly installed and lighted, “included the environment around it.” But he was incredulous to hear that the price was $2,000, which represented one-sixth of his family’s annual income.

Still, the work struck him as an “overwhelming” visual experience. So he bought it on credit, putting $200 down and paying $100 a month for a year-and-a-half.

“We didn’t dare screw it into the floor of the apartment we were renting,” Wong said. “So we mounted it on a base.”

Now chief financial officer at Santa Ana-based Infotec Development Inc., Wong is no longer in straitened circumstances. But although he and his wife sometimes buy pieces by established artists, their preference has been for the more affordable and less tradition-bound work of younger artists.

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In recent years, works by many of this younger contingent have baffled and irritated many a gallery-goer. Critical discussions of this work in the art press offer further snubs with forbiddingly dense verbiage and repeated allusions to the impenetrable works of a handful of chic theorists.

But Wong--who admits that few of these articles “are clear or make sense to me"--nevertheless has transferred his earlier interests in the Southern California brand of minimalism to European conceptual art that deals with cultural and political ideas. He is also interested in art with a pronounced structural component and in large-format photography, while Deane Wong has developed a taste for droll and deadpan recent sculpture.

The logic of the collection perhaps can best be seen in the four photographs on view.

On the face of it, work by grand old master Andre Kertesz might seem out of place in company that includes the flashy abstract sleight-of-hand of a Cibachrome print by Barbara Kasten, the sporty wit of Jo Ann Callis’ stage-managed imagery and the sober dictionary of industrial forms assembled by Bernd and Hilla Becher.

But the Kertesz in question happens to be a rather uncharacteristic silver print of a human shadow cast on a textured glass door overlooking an utterly still body of water. No happy-go-lucky humanism here but rather a severe assembly of pure forms and an air of metaphysical mystery.

On the whole, despite the presence of longtime members of the Southern California art pack (DeWain Valentine, Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses, Charles Arnoldi), the exhibit has a cool, cerebral ‘80s feel. Yet most pieces also have a sensory component, and a good number make an excellent case for the personal points of view and unusual configurations of media that distinguish the serious art of our time.

One of these works is Wolfgang Laib’s “Milkstone,” which sits self-effacingly on the floor. It is a rectangular slab of white marble, less than two inches tall, with a very slight lip on the top that holds a small quantity of milk. (The milk will be changed daily.)

Last week, before the milk had been poured, Wong described the way it has to be done: very slowly to allow the liquid to disperse over the surface for 30 minutes or so. The piece is a study in the naked physical properties of two very different substances as well as a meditation on the various associations the milk and stone each call to mind: (motherhood, nurturing versus coldness, perfection).

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Another significant work, which unfortunately does not come off well in this gallery, is Christian Boltanski’s “Monument,” three cruciform arrangements of images inside cheap tin frames. Some frames hold photographs of Christmas wrapping paper; others contain black-and-white images of children’s faces. The whole piece is lit with carefully plotted pyramidal arrangements of small bulbs dangling long wires.

The memorial, shrine component of the image is inescapable. Because the photographs have a dated quality, they suggest that these children may have perished in the Holocaust. (Boltanski himself, a Catholic, views the images as tokens of the belief that anyone may attain sainthood.) Other interpretations center around the notion of photography as a kind of death (because it renders people as fixed, unchanging objects) and the curious status of photographs--just scraps of paper, really--as contemporary monuments.

“Lessons of Darkness,” Boltanski’s ambitious piece on the same theme, made a strong impact on many viewers last summer in darkened galleries at the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles. But bathed in normal lighting at the Institute, the mystical, “religious” quality of “Monument” is harder to perceive.

Space doesn’t permit a discussion of other eminently discussable pieces in the show. But one allied issue is of more than passing interest to observers of the local art scene.

Although the 34 works in the show were purchased in several galleries in Los Angeles and elsewhere, the catalogue essay is by Jack Glenn, proprietor of the Richard Green Gallery in Los Angeles.

Glenn is the former director of the respected and pioneering Jack Glenn Gallery in Newport Beach, which closed in the mid-'70s. Is it significant that this is the second Laguna Beach exhibit with which he has been involved in the space of a few months? The first was a show of work by numerous contemporary artists at Diane Nelson Gallery.

Could he be thinking of a comeback here, now that Orange County is noisily flapping its cultural wings? Considering the serious lack of commercial galleries in the county devoted wholeheartedly to significant contemporary art, that is a tantalizing notion.

“Lorrin and Deane Wong Collection” remains on view through Nov. 18 at the Ettinger and Reynolds Galleries, Art Institute of Southern California, 2222 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Gallery hours are Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free. Information: (714) 497-3309.

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