Post-Modernism is to art as oat bran is to nutrition; the current wisdom is that it never hurts to toss a little in. Thus does "Configurations," a wildly divergent exhibition at Security Pacific Plaza, come to ask the question: When is a portrait a portrait, and when is it a Post-Modern metaphor?
Illustrating a wide range of approaches to the human figure as seen in work by nine California artists (eight from Los Angeles), the show, which runs to Sept. 16, raises a few vaguely substantiated points about the present state of the human form in art and makes a halfhearted attempt at aligning itself with the Post-Modern camp. It doesn't quite wash, however; much of this show, which was curated by Mark Johnstone, is simply too quirky, personal and sincere to pass itself off as P.M.
A well-written catalogue essay by Ruth Weisberg makes a case (owing much to Roland Barthes) that these artists are Post-Modernists in that they favor "a disavowal of the direct experience of the figure," but that's not entirely true. While some of them do employ the figure as an anonymous archetype, others give it a highly specific and personal reading.
Straddling both camps are Dan McCleary, Mark Stock and Leo Robinson, traditional painters whose work has the intellectual detachment of allegory and the peculiarity and intensity of real life. Stock is the most accessible of the three--his luminous paintings invite us into a cool, tastefully wealthy milieu that's highly seductive. Painting men for the most part, Stock focuses on people whose station in life is at odds with their clothing. Orchestra musicians, butlers--we see them in white tie and tails, looking as though they had just stepped out of "The Great Gatsby," yet they are powerless players. The sense of powerlessness and emotional repression that informs Stock's work is certainly Post-Modern.
Dan McCleary paints in a flat, iconic style that mixes equal parts Alex Katz, Edward Hopper and David Hockney, and like work by Hockney, his portraits--of a sleeping couple, a shirtless man being escorted into a police station, employees in fast-food restaurants--are strangely drained and enervated. Leo Robinson shows impressionistic seascapes punctuated with human figures dwarfed by the vast settings that surround them. It's next to impossible to get the scent of kitsch off a seascape, and while Robinson pulls it off in two of five canvases here, the remaining three are a bit treacly and sweet.
Four artists use recorded history as a point of departure, with Rudy Mercado making the most of the approach. Reenacting the battle of Waterloo in eight stages, his "Episode From Waterloo" is a living diorama that changes every week as the battle progresses. The 1,100 figures and 500 horses that Mercado moves around his miniature set (he comes in every Friday night and repositions them) look like lead soldiers; in fact, they're made of soft clay that allows them to be reshaped. More and more of the figures strike the pose of corpses as the battle limps to a close.
Stanley Somers bases his latex and resin paintings on frieze motifs lifted from the art of ancient Greece, while Antoinette Geldun takes the Last Supper as the inspiration for one of her three mixed-media installations. Combining a video montage of supper-table scenes from various movies, religious objects and a large color photograph of a family gathered around a kitchen table laden with a ghastly combination of foodstuffs, "Rituals: The Last Supper" takes shots at both Catholicism and the ritual of meal time.
Geldun looks to her own personal history for "Rituals: Baptism," which deals both with the tragic deaths of several of her family members and the eternal life of the photographic image, while Carolyn Reynolds' shaped steel figures based on kachina dolls explore the Indian mythology of Arizona.
Also including work by Chris Kidd and Laura Schatzkin, "Configurations" is ultimately an ambiguous potpourri open to any interpretation, Post-Modern or otherwise, that one cares to give it.