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ART REVIEWS : Cirrus Offers Minimalism With a West Coast Slant

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Minimal art is one of the most difficult and complex trends in 20th-Century art, and it’s never been terribly popular with the mass audience. It’s also one of the most enduring genres of the modern era, and one that continues to exert a pull on artists, even after 40 years of having been examined from every conceivable angle by worthy artists who arguably mastered the style. Still, acolytes continue to make the pilgrimage to the altar of the void; “Minimal 1960-1990 Los Angeles,” an exhibition on view at the Cirrus Gallery in downtown Los Angeles through Feb. 2, offers a look at 23 local artists who’ve made the trek over the past 30 years.

The term Minimalism is somewhat nebulous, but it’s generally acknowledged to refer to art works with a low degree of differentiation (monochromatic canvases), or works that display only the most discreet evidence of the artist’s hand because the components involved approximate mass-produced forms (Duchamp’s ready-mades were an obvious precursor here). Often dismissed as empty and unfeeling, this seemingly strict and austere school is in fact curiously lush and sensual; the sensuality of Minimalism lies in its self-referential narcissism and in its rapturous embrace of the life of the mind.

Gaining popularity in the ‘50s, largely as a reaction against action painting, Minimalism was first referred to in 1929 by writer David Burliuk in a catalogue essay about the work of artist John Graham. Said Burliuk: “Minimalistic painting is purely realistic--the subject being the painting itself.” Central to Minimalism is the elimination of all artifice or “artistic” manipulation. Anti-romantic in the extreme, it stands in direct opposition to the traditional archetype of the artist as wildly impassioned bohemian, and in its blank, mute neutrality, strikes a blow against the cult of personality central to the Western understanding of art.

Much of the Pop and serial art of the ‘60s appropriated elements of Minimalism, and by the early ‘70s when the style reached a grand crescendo of chic it had splintered in several different directions and was open to widely varied interpretation. It had also come to be perfumed with metaphysics; this was particularly true of West Coast Minimalism, which combined elements of hard-edge abstraction, the local finish fetish school, and most significantly, California light and space art.

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Though the bulk of this survey is given over to crisp, hard-edge abstractions with an international flavor (that describes pieces by eight of the artists here), much of the work puts a slightly different spin on the ball, a spin that’s distinctly regional.

The four sculptural works in the show--a blue resin wedge by Peter Alexander, one of Robert Irwin’s classic plastic discs, an imposing black resin and fiberglass monolith by John McCracken, and a vintage Larry Bell glass cube--exude a mysticism that alludes to the desert light and vast empty space of the West. Craig Kauffman’s bright, Popsicle orange vacuum-formed plastic painting is more finish fetish than Minimal, while other artists--Ron Cooper, Mary Corse, Jay McCafferty and Robert Therrien--filter the Minimalist ethic through a softening, vaguely romantic lens. The most inscrutable works on view are monochromatic canvases by Ed Moses, James Hayward, Jerry Brane and Roy Thurston. These pieces call for an extremely sophisticated eye and embody the essence of the style.

There are a few notable omissions here; Scott Heywood is conspicuous in his absence, as is Joe Goode. Otherwise, this is a concise and illuminating show.

Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., downtown Los Angeles, (213) 680-3473, to Feb. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Nature Studies: While the Cirrus survey is precise and clear in its intentions, the current group show at the Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park tends to meander in a slightly confused way around the terrain it’s marked out for itself. Titled “Natural Forces: In Los Angeles Sculpture,” the show is ostensibly an exploration of “man’s relationship to nature and the consequences of human activity on environment.” This critically important subject is surfacing quite a bit in art these days (most notably hereabouts at LACMA’s recent “Primal Spirit” exhibition), and curator Noel Korten is to be applauded for tackling it. However, the mood of this show is inconsistent and the thinking behind it is fuzzy. It’s a handsome exhibit that features several strong pieces, but grouping this work together fails to add up to a larger meaning and much of the work doesn’t clearly address the theme.

Throwing the viewer off the track from the git-go is the fact that nearly half the 16 artists here utilize industrial and mass produced materials. It makes sense that debris from the exhausted Industrial Revolution--which played a central role in 20th-Century man’s misguided sense of a superior position in the natural order--should be recycled into art that seeks to make modest amends for one of humankind’s larger mistakes. Nonetheless, nature is not what comes to mind when you look at these pieces, and it requires a considerable stretch to connect them with Korten’s theme.

Steve Dobbin’s mixed media collages, for instance, have a hermetic quality that put one in mind of Joseph Cornell’s imploding universe, and seem rooted in the realm of the imagination rather than in the natural world. Dede Bazyk and Michael Tansey fashion huge, brightly colored forms that look as patently artificial as props from a ride at Disneyland. The titles of Bazyk’s works--"Paramecium,” “Damaged Sperm"--give you a clue as to what she’s up to, but you’d be hard-pressed to make that connection with the visual information she provides. Rudy Calderon works in marble, chiseling partially formed human figures that appear to be emerging from chunks of marble; Auguste Rodin (which is to say, culture rather than nature) is what you think of when you look at his work.

Among the artists whose work pointedly comments on man’s relationship with nature is Salvadoran artist Dago, whose exquisite HydroCal reliefs refer to nature related myths of his native country. Nathaniel Bustion also employs motifs associated with South American folk art, while Ismael Cazarez’ fantastical and frightening wood forms explore shamanistic themes. Cazarez’ work is pretty creepy, but the most disturbing work in the show by far is by Jacqueline Dreager. Large fiberglass forms that resemble mutant pods, Dreager’s work puts one in mind of the chilling implications of genetic engineering, which surely represents human arrogance in regards to nature at an unprecedented height.

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On view in conjunction with the exhibition, which continues through January 27, are two installations by Paul Tzanetopoulos in the Junior Arts Center Gallery.

Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., (213) 485-4581, to Jan. 27. Closed Mondays.


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