ART : Work That Is Vapid and Old Hat : If Andres Nagel were a stand-up comedian, he would 'die' before audience members had time to flag the waitress for drinks.

What I want to know is, how much was famous critic Donald Kuspit paid to slobber so unconvincingly over obscure foreign artist Andres Nagel in the catalogue for an exhibit installed at the Museum of Modern Art in Santa Ana?

Here's a sample of Kuspit's unbelievably fatuous prose, written apropos of "Lead Feet," a sculpture of a pair of skinny, long feet--painted in gray with pastel designs--that stand on an artist-made gray rock:

"These are not just plain, unabashedly naked feet, they are the feet of suffering. They are neither a peasant's feet nor bourgeois feet, they are allegorical feet--fundamental feet, the feet on which we stand or fall. And the blackness, the leadenness, tell us we have fallen on them, fallen on our feet: these are the feet of the defeated."

A few sentences earlier, Kuspit said Nagel "makes elongated feet of black lead." Whoops, that's not true--they were fabricated from paint, polyester and fiberglass. In parentheses, Kuspit backtracks: "The material is technically not lead but has the look of lead." Now the critical rhapsody machine is off and running: "Nagel's feet smell of death, inertia, the passive sorrow of melancholia. . . . "

Puleeze. You'd think this Basque artist (not to be confused with Patrick Nagel, the guy who does those women's images you see at the hairdresser's) was a figure on the order of Anselm Kiefer, the contemporary German painter. On the contrary, Nagel's attempt at meaningfulness is smothered in secondhand whimsy and vapid fantasy.

We've seen the look of this painting and sculpture time and time again in "boutique" art. It lures uninitiated buyers with the vampy appearance of cultural sophistication but lacks the intelligence that's supposed to stand behind it. Making worthy art in any genre doesn't necessarily involve being all doom-y and gloom-y; it's a question of having something substantive and fresh to say. If Nagel were a stand-up comedian, he'd "die" before audience members had time to flag the waitress for drinks.

The artist was born in 1947 in San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain and studied architecture (though not art) at the University of Navarra in Pamplona. His previous one-person shows have been mostly in Spain, except for a few European and American art fairs and a gallery in La Jolla. This exhibit was assembled by the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which specializes in Spanish art.

Kuspit stresses the fragmentation of Nagel's images (many of the hanging works involve three-dimensional cutouts that break up the surface). Obliged to admit that this gambit is incredibly old hat ("Fragmentation is a familiar modernist strategy"), the critic nevertheless presses on, ingenuously trying to make a case for Nagel's "idiomatic--idiosyncratic--Synthetic Cubist mode."

Well, considering that the heyday of Synthetic Cubism was more than 70 years ago, this is not much of a claim.

The recent work in the exhibit draws on a broad array of cultural material. There are images of St. Sebastian (in a painting inexplicably called "Main Street") and the 13th-Century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, who is transformed for some reason into a faux-primitif horned creature spearing a crocodile--which bleeds green blood--while standing on its back.

The Roman god Saturn makes an appearance devouring his child, with the planet named after him hovering helpfully nearby. There is an outsize couple in a big-screen clinch called: ". . . He took her in his arms and kissed her lovingly II."

There's social commentary on the order of a knock-knock joke in "My Husband Fulfills Me," in which repeated images of large spikes provide, shall we say, the sexual thrust. A scrap-metal horse and rider balance on the back of a life-size green cow with the words "Schweppes" painted on its side ("Monkey Business"), possibly a jaunty dig at the commercialization of open land in the Basque country.

And there's more, alas, much more. This is work that just goes its own oblivious way, trying for humor that comes off simply as flatfootedness. Maybe those sculptured feet did have special meaning after all.

The catalogue also contains the text of a conversation between Nagel and Donald Knaub, the director of the Meadows Museum. This is "a record of two friends discussing art," and a telling record it is.

"Artists take their work too seriously," Nagel complains, charging that art critics "push" artists to take "this philosophical stand." He laments the distaste of Spanish art critics for humor in art, and Knaub sympathetically adds that Americans don't seem to like it, either.

Strangely enough, once Nagel is no longer answering questions about such peripheral matters as how long he has worked in fiberglass and what kind of colors he prefers, he has nothing whatever to say regarding the themes or motivations of his art.

Dear God, please make the Modern Museum hire a knowledgeable staff member who knows how to weed through the would-be's and has-beens, and come up with artists really worth our time and attention.

Work by Andres Nagel remains through Oct. 28 at the Modern Museum of Art, Griffin Towers, 5 Hutton Centre Drive, Santa Ana. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday though Saturday. Admission is free. Information: (714) 754-4111.

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