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ART / Cathy Curtis : ‘Installation’ Pieces: The Main Rule Is There Are No Rules

Most people would tell you that paint doesn’t become a work of art until it is “tastefully” applied to canvas and that household furniture hardly qualifies as “real” sculpture.

But a pair of exhibitions on view in two Orange County locations cheerfully ignore such traditional notions. Each is an “installation,” a major phenomenon in the art of our time. Designed for specific sites, installations often include objects from daily life as well as recognized “art” media. Some installations have the exploratory quality of a science experiment. Others are ventures into improbable realms of the imagination. The main “rule” is that there are no rules: Any material, any amount of space or time, any idea--however farfetched--is fine and dandy so long as it creates its desired effect.

Mathieu Gregoire--whose work is on view through June 18 in Costa Mesa at the South Coast Plaza annex of the Laguna Art Museum, makes very odd-looking sculptures that combine the no-nonsense skills of a carpenter with an idiosyncratic brand of logic.

The sculptor from San Diego confounds normal ideas about what the inside or the outside of an object is, what shape is appropriate to its function and what function is appropriate to its shape. Curious slot-like openings abound in these pieces, offering a further puzzle-like quality to tease the viewer. Gregoire often presents two objects as a package for reasons that remain obscure.

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For “Partitions/Divider"--which looks somewhat like a voting booth from the outside--he upholstered two L-shaped lengths of particle board in white canvas, mounted them on steel legs and positioned the pieces inside each other with the fabric portions facing away from the viewer.

The amount of space these “partitions” frame is just the few inches that exist between them, a tiny passageway too narrow for a person to walk through. The third component of the piece, a rectangular slab of black plexiglass attached to the wall with a metal bracket at roughly shoulder height, is equally odd: It “divides” nothing but air.

“Deep Chair” is a rocking chair upholstered in a textured sea-foam green material that is locked in place by a sheet of plywood hung from the ceiling and carved out to accommodate the silhouette of the top of the chair. The wood emphasizes the depth of the chair and yet prevents viewers from sitting down and experiencing it for themselves.

“Slot/Headboard” involves a tacit comparison between two elements set into the wall: an ornate vintage headboard in dark wood with an inlaid design and its brash echo, a plain, squared-off construction made of cheap wallboard with a slot running the length of its outer edge.

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This unlikely combo is just similar enough to suggest that points of comparison are in order. Well, you may say to yourself, the slot--which has no apparent function--might be the equivalent of the inlaid design on the headboard. Come to think of it, the slot also diverts attention to inside surfaces, as opposed to the external showiness of the finial-sporting headboard.

Gregoire’s sly agenda is not likely to charm those who like their art in familiar packages. But for those open to something new, there is a freshness and fantasy that clings to these odd works. They possess an anarchic spiritedness that suggests any answer is the right one so long as it gives you the feeling of having figured something out.

Carl Cheng’s work--on view at the Rancho Santiago College Art Gallery in Santa Ana through April 6--is about raw materials and process. He’s interested in such things as the way dripped paint looks as it hardens as well as the minute differences that occur when identical actions are repeated over time. He has said that it was difficult for him to be a painter because he was “always so fascinated with just the phenomenon of squeezing paint out of a tube.”

His installation, “Solid Rain,” is part mechanical gadget, part work-in-progress. A paint-dripping apparatus is mounted on metal scaffolding affixed to two runners. Moving slowly from side to side as well as down the length of the runners, the machine deposits blobs of paint and wax on a grid of plexiglass squares on the floor.

After this process has gone on for a while, each square begins to look like a miniature relief map. The artist’s penciled notes on the wall next to the piece indicate the order in which the colors have been dripped and the landscape formations (“canal buildup,” “volcanic buildup,” “meteorite smash”) that they resemble.

Unfortunately, the day I saw the exhibit the equipment was out of order--the heating mechanism had broken down, so the wax hardened and refused to drip out of the machine. But even granted the gee-whiz fascination of its working methods, the project seems essentially one-dimensional.

Despite the variables in the process (the paint colors, the amount of drip and so forth), once the little “landscapes” assume their basic form, the project acquires a certain rote predictability. The cumbersome aspect of the enterprise gets in the way of its experimental, stop-action quality, better revealed in some of Cheng’s earlier works that are included in the show.

In an untitled piece from 1964, he dripped light brown-colored plaster on a sheet of glass to form a rather blandly symmetrical pattern of shapes. Then he graduated to making “Paint Apparatuses,” pristinely carpentered little wooden constructions with chutes and troughs that collected multicolored layers of paint that dried into stilled lakes.

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“Blue Cells,” a series from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, involved dripping blue paint and glue on wood with an eye-dropper to make small, viscous rounded forms, each tipped with a blue iris-like shape. Grouped in uneven grids straggling across pieces of paper, these little forms look somewhat like the results of a very patient student’s biology-class experiment.

Stubbornly single-minded in his work, Cheng nevertheless is capable of both hermetic, small-scale pieces like “Blue Cells” and broadly accessible projects, like the swatch of sand on a Santa Monica beach that he imprinted last year with a raised pattern of Los Angeles sights (“Walk on L.A.”). At the very least, visions like his and Gregoire’s refresh the jaded eye and offer the kind of surprise and wonder that the much-vaunted “art experience” is all about.

“Mathieu Gregoire: Sculpture” is on view through June 18 at the Laguna Art Museum’s South Coast Plaza site, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Hours are: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Information: (714) 662-3366.

“Solid Rain,” an installation by Carl Cheng, is on view through April 6 in the Rancho Santiago College Art Gallery, Building C, 17th and Bristol streets, Santa Ana. (Gallery is closed for spring break through Sunday.) Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday; 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Admission is free. Information: (714) 667-3177.


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