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ART REVIEWS : A Garouste Spectacle in Santa Monica

TIMES ART CRITIC

The French are fabled for being good at a lot of things, from gastronomy to romance, but we don’t always think of them excelling at spectacle.

Actually, one need search memory no further than the musical “Les Miserables” to recall that in fact they do the spectacular with particular panache. The first thing that strikes home about about Gerard Garouste’s exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is that it looks like a stage set in search of script.

Actually, there is a script. Never mind that the ensemble of paintings, watercolors and sculpture is titled “Les Indiennes"--that’s a reference to the way Garouste makes his painting, by staining color directly into burlap-colored canvas, rather the way they do madras or tie-dye in India. The real inspiration is Dante’s “The Human Comedy.”

Truth to tell, you could look at the work forever and not figure that out. It is its sense of theatrical spectacle that comes across most assertively. The largest piece is a huge horizontal canvas draped like Gulliver’s pup-tent. It must be 50 feet long, but its size is more impressive than what’s on it.

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Then there is a three-sided enclosure made of hanging banners that goes up nearly 30 feet to the ceiling. Here we begin to get a sense of what’s on Garouste’s mind. The whole feels architectural. Enigmatic imagery suggests a baroque building with painted lunettes surrounded by whipped-cream plaster reliefs.

Oh, so that’s it. Garouste’s real subject is history and the way it haunts the modern European mind. Fairly familiar. Remember back in the ‘50s when the Abstract Expressionist Georges Mathieu painted wearing greaves while page boys recited from books of ancestral lineage?

Garouste’s imagery looks like a surreal nightmare visiting itself on one of the three Musketeers. Root-like figures prance through scenes that remind you of Picasso or Wilfredo Lamm and run into a lumpy shape that could be the severed head of Rene Descartes. Garouste’s abstract swirls bear a suspicious resemblance to elaborate Renaissance furniture carving. Every time he tries to make it into the modern world, his basic talent as a set designer asserts itself, he gets a bit too graphic and everything winds up as an entertainment.

Spectacular though. (Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2437 Main St.; to June 3.)

A Cultural Stew: History is also on the mind of David Salle, one of New York’s leading paint stars. Anyway, he was last year. Generically described, his latest batch of pictures all have backgrounds that resemble mythical Baroque or lyric Rococo compositions of the particularly schlocky sort one finds translated onto swap-meet tapestries.

Into these, he inserts his usual motifs: sketchy furniture, comic-strip figures, empty talk-balloons and rectangles containing approximately realistic images. A woman drinking from a glass shows up a couple of times and somehow you know she is taking something for a headache this big--almost certainly an overdose. Another recurrent actor is a contemporary guy in a commedia dell’arte jester’s costume seen clutching his genitals.

Some themes are familiar to Salle’s art: urban alienation and sexual obsession. These works play up life’s present cacophonous cultural stew by throwing in images of primitive art along with the rest. Salle’s work seems disconsolate with its look of having accidentally been tossed into a Laundromat washer. Older examples blended a certain romanticism with callow postures of cynicism. This group--and some works on paper--seem to want to say that Old Master art at least had some energy, but that would seem nostalgic, so it’s made fun of too, winding up more firmly calloused than ever. (Fred Hoffman Gallery, 912 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica; to May 14.)

Back to Basics: Mike Todd’s studio blew up in a gas explosion back in the ‘70s, destroying both his current work and the tools to make more. Needing something to do, the sculptor took to fashioning simple works from bits of wire and then doing drawings from the results.

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A large gaggle of these on view in a big 75-work show give giggling insight into the creative process. Few suggest subject matter, but the animal’s head fashioned from a cloud of steel wool and two copper scouring pads is a charming variant on Picasso’s horned bicycle seat. Most are whimsical doodles that show how much mileage an inventive artist can get from bits of screening, bamboo sticks, rubber tubing and whatever else is in the rubble heap.

Todd’s full-dress abstract sculpture used to be rather Zen-solemn with its big universal circles, but it keeps getting crazier--to its profit. Here “Shift” rises from a writhing lizard-skin form supporting a metal grille, takes off again with an upright blob of bronze and ends with an open occult triangle. From one angle, the triangle seems to float on air.

Nowadays, the work is metaphorically about the alternating insanity and rationality needed to make the creative process work. It’s a technical and spiritual balancing act that comes clear in “Pirumania"--a hoop-juggle without the juggler.

The show caps off with a group of drawings of flowers, some of which are dedicated to Todd’s art-world friends who have died, such as Nick Wilder and Eva Hesse. (Tortue Gallery, 2917 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; to May 26.)

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‘Round and ‘Round: Over the years, even some of Billy Al Bengston’s staunchest admirers have wished he’d take his own gifts a little more seriously. Now he has and they are liable to wish he’d stayed flip.

Eight large new paintings depict circles that appear to be planets and bear titles like “Osorkon” and “Smenkarka.” These galactic basketballs are firmly seen through interlaced bands of pure color that are too wide to be laser beams and too angled to be window mullions. They do give Bengston a chance to show off his flawless sense of decorative color and remind us that these are, after all, abstract compositions.

Yet he can’t duck the suggestions of his imagery, all of which are serious, from their intimations of space travel to ecological blight to metaphysical breakdown of the system. There is both ancient religion and millennial fear in “Cheops.”

The paintings are brought off with accustomed brio but beneath it lurks turgid indecision. The circles are painted with thick textures that approximate planetary surface features, but the forms hang like inert bowling balls. Bengston has found maturity but he doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Not yet.

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(James Corcoran Gallery, 1327 5th St., Santa Monoca; to May 27.)


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