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The Mario Merz Environment : Artist offers healing vision of man reintegrated with nature

The planet seems mired in a global replay of the Middle Ages. Life is plagued by spooky sense that things don’t go the way they used to. Danger lurks in unexpected places. Hi, dear, I’m home. Why do your eyes look so glassy? Is that somebody in the kitchen?

Moles gnaw blindly at the pilings of civility. A writer in London publishes an irreverent book and half-way ‘round the planet an implacable holy man in black calls down death on the infidel. The Christian knights rattle their armor, but the truth is they don’t quite know what to do in these ungentlemanly circumstances. It will be a long time before any artist makes an artwork with the epic proportions and astonishing resonances of the Salman Rushdie affair.

Anointed kings of the Holy Western Empire meet upon the mountain to praise themselves for continued growth in the Gross National Product, but there is an irritating din from unwashed tribes milling outside the battlements.

Sire, a colony of men say they are dying of a plague.

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Terrible. We must find a cure. On the other hand, those men are immoral and unnatural. The planet is overpopulated. Better do nothing. Form a blue - ribbon committee.

Sire, a tribe of women want to stop their infants from being born, but another tribe of women says that is murder and wish to kill the other women.

Terrible. Life is precious. On the other hand, the planet is overpopulated. Form a committee.

Sire, your court wizard is pouring his used potions into the moat and the fish are dying.

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Terrible. Animals are God’s creatures and must be protected. On the other hand, the wizard makes my aphrodisiacs. Better hold off on that one.

But, sire, you must take some action.

Right. OK. Everybody will herewith cease to indulge in rich foods, tobacco, strong drink and making love for fun. Anybody who does will have broken the law and feel too guilty to pester me with all these problems.

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Given that kind of brutally absurdist scenario, it is no wonder artists have been making weird art. It is also no wonder that when a gallery visitor encounters it on a nice sunny day of cultural browsing he can’t quite make it out. It reminds him of things he doesn’t want to think about.

At least two current museum exhibitions will fail to make sense unless viewed with an eye mindful of the notion that artists filter the cultural condition into their work.

Through June 18, the Museum of Contemporary Art presents a huge three-gallery environment by Mario Merz, a veteran Italian pioneer of the Arte Povera movement of the ‘70s. Albeit little-known hereabouts, Merz is familiar to artniks who travel the European summer art-circus circuit of mega-exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale or Germany’s Documenta.

Here as there, the artist’s trademarks include big igloo-shaped domes fashioned of pipe ribs and numerals spelled out in neon. His first MOCA gallery is filled with a 15-foot dome faced with panes of glass balanced on big C-clamps, the base festooned with large slabs of leaning stone.

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Despite its architectural scale and transparency, the hemisphere cannot be entered. It contains a smaller Eskimo-size version of itself covered in yellowish sheeting that appears to be plastic but suggests animal skin. The set-up bespeaks a general idea of shelter that can be read prosaically or expanded to a galactic metaphor. The big dome could stand for the ozone layer, the little one our cozy Earth.

Next comes a room where a delicate triangular metal frame supports panes of glass pointing to a row of neon numbers crawling up the wall. It takes a second to figure out that their sequence results from adding each two adjacent numbers 1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21-34 and so forth. Culminating the ladder of numerals is a stuffed alligator crawling up the ceiling. Maybe it’s a crocodile. City kids don’t know that stuff. Anyway, the sequence seems to go from the rational to the metaphysical to the primitive, reversing the usual Darwinian order.

If the first section is a metaphor for ecology and the second anthropology, then the third is surely culture. It looks like a little post-apocalyptic village prepared for a social ritual. Two hut-size domes stand at the far end, one covered in glass and stone, the other festooned with bundles of twigs. A fountain gurgles inside. Tables are arranged round about suggesting a spiraling circle and spread with tablecloths made of sheet lead. Nearby stands a row of chairs, neon numbers and painted cloth we could have lived without.

Merz’s metaphysic is surely complex and open-ended but clearly interested in large questions. Its key probably lies in the artist’s interest in transformation. Everything is more than one thing. Glass is also ice. Lead is cloth. Pipe is bamboo and dead twigs are living blossoms.

The artist proffers a gentle, healing vision of man reintegrated with nature. He makes austere, elemental materials look curiously celebratory and festive so that a stark work of neo-medievalist art becomes an image of an Italian country carnival. It’s a rare note of almost visionary hope in these opulent dark ages.

Such accents are seldom heard in “Focus on the Image” at Cal State Long Beach to April 30. It is a traveling collection of one work each by about 30 American and European artists of a roughly Neo-Expressionist persuasion drawn from the private collection of Richard and Marlies Black, who have dubbed their compendium “The Rivendell Collection.”

Going in, one is obliged to say a number of gloomy things about the show. First, such samplers are usually about as revealing of an individual artist as a photograph of his bellybutton. Upside is the hope of singular masterworks or some significance revealed by the ensemble.

The Blacks have managed to come up with good-to-superior examples in a highly competitive market. The problem is that Neo-Expressionist works in general tend to look as though they were executed in a state of total panic. Usually they are so thin and harried they lack the underlying density of material and thought (the two go together) that made previous Expressionist art convincing from Grunewald to Beckmann. In this show their profound Angst often comes across as the callow hysteria of a spoiled 14-year-old. This ephemeral aura coupled with the exploitative superficiality of the current art world makes many of these recent works smell like relics of fashion already past.

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Finally, attempting to get to the exhibition confronts one with a prosaic symbol of the social Angst expressed by the show--including its shallowness. Parking at Cal State Long Beach is a minor nightmare. Potential visitors are well advised to call (213) 985-5761 for parking information before bumbling into the campus’ labyrinthine bureaucracy.

Once safely in the gallery, the exhibition is surprisingly interesting. At the very least, it reassures us we are not isolated crazies plagued by problems nobody else notices. Jon Borofsky’s “Chattering Man” yammers away at a green vortex like a million citizens making small talk to avoid confronting the void of reality.

Keith Haring paints optimistic visions of heraldic gingerbread heroes that are so patently dingy they escape the pain of life the same way Pee-wee Herman does. Reminds you of the self-elected cuckoo in the ‘60s song who counts flowers in the wallpaper and plays solitaire all night knowing his deck only has 51 cards.

Cindy Sherman retreats into narcissistic fantasy, acting all the roles in her drama by playing dress-up in front of the camera, all alone. Here she looks like a courageous pioneer aviator.

Aggression and violence play major roles in the new feudalism. The German Markus Lupertz gives us an ambiguous image of coercive authority. Eric Fishl wafts a nasty scene of racial violence among kids on the beach.

Life has always been a pain. In the past the ache was eased by the love of gods and saviors. Modern people substituted carnal love for religious love. Artists here don’t think highly of the solution. For David Salle, love is a raunchy peep-show of masturbatory fantasies; for Jedd Garrett, it’s a tangle of two Gumby bodies in purgatory.

Maybe there is hope. Robert Longo’s big, gross bronze relief, “Corporate Wars,” shows men and women in power suits ripping each other to shreds, but up in the corner a man seems to be helping a wounded woman. Actually you can’t tell. He may be just hauling her over to throw her out the window.

But there is something telling in Longo’s work. It’s about vicious competition whose weapons are memos, whose battlefield is a convention hall and whose uniform is a pinstriped suit.

All that lethal combat, and it’s not even colorful or romantic or heroic. Where are the flying banners, the rearing horses and gold braid? Where are the lantern-jawed heroes and the brave buxom maidens carrying the tricolor over the barricades?

It’s bad enough to live in a deadly world, but to live in one that also is boring is a real insult.


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