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ART REVIEW : The Focus of ‘Death’ Has Clearly Departed : The Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University takes on a powerful enough topic, but the exhibit lacks direction.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We seem to have death on our minds these days. A book that tells you how to kill yourself has become a bestseller. An aging society worries about how best to provide for the final years of their elderly parents. At the same time, AIDS has brought the anguish of vast numbers of people dying in their prime. A whole new group of people has become familiar with the stages of acceptance of death popularized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (“On Death and Dying”).

Artists, of course, have been dealing with death for centuries--as a noble end for heroes and statesmen, as just desserts for the wicked, as the tragic result of disaster, and as a supernatural transformation available only to religious figures. Oddly, although we are used to being shown how other cultures treat the subject of death in their art and ceremonial artifacts, Western attitudes toward death are rarely the subject of art exhibits.

One rare instance was the group of Victorian photographs of dead children shown at the California Museum of Photography in Riverside last year. This fall, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York has organized “The Interrupted Life,” a big multidisciplinary exhibit that deals with euthanasia, suicide, war, disease, and myth and ritual. Locally, the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University is offering “Death as a Creative Force” (through Oct. 18).

It’s really too bad, given the enormous power of the topic, that the Chapman show is so diffuse in approach. A number of works seem to have little to do with the topic, or represent it in roundabout and lackluster ways. Most disappointing is the lack of art that speaks with urgency and emotion--or humor, or sarcasm--to our own time.

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Gallery director Maggie Owens writes in her accompanying statement that the exhibit “embraces death as an affirmation of life.” She explains that some of the works were made as a response to a particular death and that others deal more obliquely with the subject. But, although she goes on for paragraphs about the history of the way people have viewed death, she doesn’t say anything more about the particular works she chose, or why she thinks they seem particularly life-affirming.

Yes, yes, we see that an experience of death has resulted in the creation of art. But what else is so life-affirming about this work? Why is it necessary to be life-affirming, anyway? Why couldn’t some of the work present bitter or outraged points of view? (At least two of the works do represent ironic or ambivalent points of view.)

The most pointed and spiritedly contemporary work in the show is a videotape by Bruce Nauman. It wasn’t completely operational the day I visited, so I missed the full effect, but it consists of two actors--a middle-aged white woman on one monitor and a youngish black man on the other--each repeating the same script, at different speeds, with different levels of emotion.

“I was a good boy. You were a good boy. We were good boys. This is good . . . I was a virtuous man . . . I was an evil man . . . I had a good life . . . I have work . . . I have play . . . I have sex . . . I love . . . I hate . . . I like to eat . . . I sleep . . . I don’t want to die. You don’t want to die. We don’t want to die. This is fear of death.”

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The speakers list the elemental qualities of being human with a range of typically human reactions at the prospect of checking out from this Earth. Some listeners have found the tapes both mesmerizing and irritating; some have found them weirdly amusing. The ambivalence of the piece is exactly right for such a universal and overwhelming subject.

Most of the other works in the show are heavily mournful without really elucidating anything in particular about the subject of death.

Patrick Graham is a leading Irish artist whose work seems dully unoriginal to me. Deliberately tattered and torn canvases like “Te Deum” that are soaked with paint and scribbled with words seem little more than hollow gestures reflecting an aesthetic that is no longer fresh. Graham’s painting, “So,” contains an image of a truncated female figure with two hearts--one, a stitched-on heart shape; the other, a realistically depicted organ. The images do suggest the theme of hospital suffering ending in death. But the trite imagery of the helpless, doll-like figure is cheaply histrionic in the manner of all sentimental art.

The gnarled figures in Nicholas Sperakis’ prints kill each other in alleyways lined with mask-like faces, weep and rage over an open coffin, and stand mournfully--garbed a la Grim Reaper--amid a field of sheep. We accept such scenes as verities of village life, although we’ve seen their like a thousand times before. But why couple these images with Sperakis’ woodcut of the assassination of French Revolutionary Jean Paul Marat? If Moore meant to contrast depictions of the deaths of public and anonymous people, the point would have been clearer with work by several artists.

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Including Judy Fiskin’s tiny photographs of a painting of flowers and two antique relief sculptures in this show was a curious thing to do because this work is above all about the perception of style--not specifically about death, or the way it is portrayed in art.

One of the reliefs does depict a seated youth (the deceased warrior, whose helmet is under his chair) attended by an old servant. But if Owens simply wanted to show an ancient Greek image of mourning, she would have done better to reproduce a museum photograph, rather than turn to the work of a contemporary artist with an agenda of her own. If Owens intended to make a point about how images of death from other eras are viewed today, it doesn’t come across.

It isn’t altogether clear what Kim Abeles’ piece, “The Image of Saint Bernadette,” is doing here, either. The piece consists of several deliberately kitschy mementos (one is an elaborate, etched-glass knickknack container holding tiny bones, locks of hair and painted roses in winged vials). Each object is dedicated to the saint, a young girl from a poor French family who repeatedly saw an image of the Virgin Mary in a cave. Is the point that religious belief (or superstition) conquers death? Again, an explanation is due--and the temptation is to believe that Owens failed to think through the overall thrust of her show.

Cliff Benjamin’s wonderfully spiky drawings are beguiling and mysterious in a fairy-tale way, but once again, they seem beside the point. Ron Pippin’s “Paradise Vehicle ‘Anahata’ ” is a long, narrow boat sculpture (with projecting elements forming a cross shape) that is propped up against the wall. This boat, like others Pippin has made, is intended as a mythical conveyance to a land beyond death. But the piece represents such a feeble attempt at creating a living myth out of thin air. Why not select art that deals with the reality of death in a more forthright and direct way?

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Some of the other pieces, such as Norman Schwab’s “Demise of a Stone Cutter” (an ammunitions box filled with earth, mulch and jagged pieces of stone--a mingling of references to death) do make sense in the context of the show.

One or two of the series of drawings of coffins by an artist who calls himself simply Jeff add a dash of wit, particularly the one with a cross-pattern of nails poking into the coffin, intended--as the title reveals--for artist Chris Burden, whose early work often dealt with self-inflicted injury (in one case, by crucifixion on a VW bug). Another meaningful object is a cloth coffin cover made by members of a barrio gang for a dead member; neatly ruled lines hold the names of the living behind a bold image of the deceased, who wears sunglasses and bright blue pants.

With fresher works from vernacular traditions--or unhackneyed ones from the fine art world--as well as a better sense of editing and a much firmer grip on the overall direction of the exhibit, “Death as a Creative Force” could have been a landmark show. What a pity.

“Death as a Creative Force” continues through Oct. 18 at Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Admission: free. Hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. A film series and several free lectures will be offered in conjunction with the exhibit, some on psychological topics relating to death and one on art: On Sept. 19 at 7 p.m., Cliff Olds, professor of art history at Bowdoin College in Maine, will speak on “Death as a Creative Force.” Information: (714) 997-6729.

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