Armory Center in Pasadena's Old Town Is Ready to Open : Art: The Art Workshops group has finally found a home, but its inaugural exhibition there presents an uneven mix of Southland artists.


Pasadena hasn't had very good luck maintaining public showplaces for contemporary art. All adult artniks remember the 1974 collapse of the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art. Even the nice little Baxter Art Gallery at Caltech didn't last. One might wonder who needs an art-of-the-moment outpost in a geography that boasts the great Norton Simon Museum and the Huntington Gallery, but art being made today has its own fascination.

Anyway, it now looks like the problem may be solved by the Armory Center for the Arts, which opens to the public today at 145 N. Raymond Ave. in Pasadena's Old Town. Actually, it looks like several problems may be solved because the place is more than just an exhibition hall--it's one of those enlightened combinations of civic redevelopment, educational enthusiasm and aesthetic ambition that doesn't appear to have any down side. Just nice, nice, nice.

Basically, the Armory is the new home of the 40-odd-year-old Pasadena Art Workshops, a private nonprofit group that educates schoolkids in art. The Armory's executive director, Elisa Greben Crystal, took time to explain the place to a visitor over the din of last-minute preparations. ("Now I know why people get divorced during house renovations. The noise really is distracting.")

She explained that the workshops' approach is to use real artists as teachers and to not just have the kids muck about but rather to do projects inspired by artworks borrowed from museums. In the old days, they used to come from the collection of the Pasadena MOMA when the workshops were attached to it. In recent years, the workshops have floated in temporary quarters in various schools, borrowing a lot of their teaching examples from UCLA's Museum of Cultural History.

Naturally, they wanted a permanent roost and, after much poking about in the civic possibilities, the city offered the old 1932 Armory building rent-free for 15 years if the workshops would kick in the cost of renovation, which turned out to be about $630,000. The building had housed the Pasadena Badminton Club and the place had gotten so run down that Sylvester Stallone used the main hall as a set for a prison dining room in one of his epics.

"It looked pretty awful," Crystal said, "but the minute I saw it I knew there was space for a gallery. It will also be used for performances. That beautiful floor was already there under layers of paint and grime. It has a sprung dance floor so we can have dancers. We're still not sure about the acoustics."

The renovation was designed by Donna Vaccarino and looks neat in a kind of Post-Mod gray-and-olive. The facade is simple but has a lot of WPA panache with a chiseled American eagle over the portal.

"Arco was a big help," said Crystal, who likes to spread credit around. "They loaned us technical people to assist with the renovation and gave us cash support. I know my limits and one of them is engineering. Arco has been wonderful."

The gym-like main hall is divided. The larger part is the workshop, which looks all set for the onslaught of kids--big tables and huge electric-orange plastic barrels labeled Yarn and Rags .

The rest is a 3,000-square-foot gallery with regulation white walls and panels. The room is two stories, so the space dribbles upward and may dwarf the art a bit, but it's OK.

The inaugural exhibition was organized by the respected free-floating support group the Fellows of Contemporary Art, who chose USC Atelier director Noel Korten as curator of this edition of their annual show.

"I thought it would be two years before we'd be able to do an exhibition," said Crystal, "but the Fellows were looking for a space so we all lucked out."

It's titled "The Pasadena Armory Show," recalling the epic 1913 Armory Exhibition in New York and Chicago that introduced radical European art to America, caused huge scandals and brought sophistication to the provinces. Unfortunately, the resemblance between the exhibitions ends with the name.

Thirteen Southland artists of the generation that emerged around the mid-'70s are included. Although none of their reputations exceed that of "local hero," there are talented people here and several ingredients of a punchy show--ambitious installations, large paintings. One work by each artist, which is not always a good idea. Almost inexplicably, the ensemble seems bland and unfocused, like a lively conversation that never gets to the point. The work seems centerless and vaguely timid, almost fearful of telling us what it's up to, as if the recent scare about offensive art and cutoffs of National Endowment for the Arts funds has made everybody guarded and cautious.

The most notable exception is Michael McMillen's "The Tunnel of Babel: Pasadena-Peking." The title is lettered on a humorously crude sign above the doorway to a scruffy old utility corridor. We see some sort of miniature structure at the end, but can't figure it out until we get down there. Turns out to be a mini-mine shaft with drilling machines busily digging straight down: the old joke about tunneling to China. It's a one-liner, but it resonates from politics to childhood fantasies. Its charm takes you off guard and provokes the only spontaneous reaction in the whole show: a nice delighted guffaw.

Michael Davis' "Illuminati" also has things going for it. It's a great junk sculpture chandelier of rusty metal loops suspended from the ceiling. It's best seen from the old reviewing-stand balcony, where you can identify grotty inedible stuff on plates that have hatchets and switch-blade knives for silverware. It doesn't quite jell, but it does evoke the creepiness of an Edgar Allan Poe short story.

Some protective part of the mind wants to excuse this work. Karen Carson is a respected painter, but her mirror-sharded "Butterflys Are Free to Burn" seems thwarted. Maybe if there were more examples? The truth is, when we go to the Romantics gallery at the Louvre, the individual pieces stand up as masterworks.

What is eating these artists?

Ann Page's installation "Tips" looks like a derelict's lean-to and hints at social and political anger, but won't cough it up. John Outterbridge's "The Aesthetics of Urban Blight" uses impressive slabs of patinated metal for a strong start but fizzles out on a junk sculpture car that's too underscaled for its surroundings. Art doesn't have to have a message. It does have to have visual rhythm and climax.

John Valadez's painting "Europa II" gets our attention with its visual stew of cathedral, classic nudes and a bullfight rendered Leroy Neiman style, but its garbled juxtapositions don't resolve. Ditto for Carol Caroompas' illustrative montage "Red Riding Hood."

If the show is uneven, you get the feeling the Armory will learn from it and get on with its nice mission.

The exhibition continues to Jan. 31. For the record, the other artists are William Leavitt, Jerry McMillan, James Doolin, Scott Grieger, Raul Guerrero and Margit Omar.

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