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ART REVIEW : Lynn Aldrich’s Winging Streak : Artist Uses Audubon Drawings to Show Irony in Our Worship of the Wild

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I still remember the moment when, stuck in traffic on the San Diego Freeway, I first noticed a billboard advertising a certain South County development. I was incredulous. What nerve to call a housing tract so near environmentally sensitive Laguna Canyon “Laguna Audubon,” co-opting the name of one of America’s best-known naturalists.

Los Angeles artist Lynn Aldrich engages in a low-key meditation on that sort of dichotomy between ideals and things we say we cherish, and how we really act, in an installation called “Altarwings: The Birds of America,” at the Rancho Santiago College Art Gallery (through Oct. 5).

John James Audubon was a failed businessman whose hobby of drawing birds eventually made his name a household word. In his four-volume “The Birds of America,” published in the 1820s and ‘30s, he published his illustrations for the first time: 435 hand-colored engraved plates that represented all known species in North America.

The central portion of Aldrich’s piece consists of 209 sheets of Audubon’s illustrations tacked up on the wall. Only a few finely detailed, exquisitely colored bird wings are visible on each sheet; the remainder of each image has vanished under a layer of gold paint.

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Viewers are clearly meant to think of the combination of fine detail and lavish gold leaf to be found in medieval manuscript illustration and altarpiece paintings. The piped-in Gregorian chants reinforces this image. But the extraordinary detail and worshipful use of gold are contradicted by the fragmentary nature of the images, and the suspicion that so much gold is showy overkill.

The piece suggests that we worship nature in a noisy but ineffectual way even as it disappears. The wings that count today are attached to airplanes: On the pages of a row of open books, plane wingspans are compared to those of various species of birds. The dulcet music on the soundtrack switches to the roar of airplane motors.

A pair of binoculars, ostensibly for the “naturalist” viewer looking at the bird wings, rests on a green velvet pillow atop a tree trunk. At first blush, these props look too literal, too cute. Actually, the silly fakery they represent seems very much part of the piece: skewering the vapid side of trendy environmental furor. Other parts of the installation--a toy plane in a gold cage, a bird whistle mounted high on the wall and a video monitor showing airline departures--possibly could have been dispensed with. But the piece as a whole has a strong, fruitfully eccentric presence.

Aldrich has a good track record for smart, ironic work, mostly with “found” objects, such as the salt lick that became a surrogate for a Henry Moore sculpture in “Sculpture Found While Seeking Landscape,” shown at the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery last year. So far, however, her gallery-mate Michael Davis (whose glitzy columnar sculpture is sunk into one of the outer walls of the Laguna Art Museum) has yet to prove himself more than just a “boutique” artist. With his repertoire of pleasing silhouettes and fashionably weathered metals, he gestures blandly toward grandiose ideas.

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Curator Gene Ogami writes in a stylishly produced but not terribly informative little pamphlet that the work of both artists has “a strong grounding in nature juxtaposed with elements of scientific investigation.” That remains to be seen. Once again, in Davis’ installation, “Atom and Eve,” his central idea is represented by a grouping of attractive objects quite lacking in urgency or conceptual acuity.

Among the components of Davis’ piece are two clocks (one seen on a video monitor), a slender, revolving metal element (powered by a grinding motor) that dips into a large, rusty hemisphere filled with liquid, and a typically Davis-style tower framework of rusted industrial elements supporting two globes. There are also two small etched glass plates that throw slightly distorted shadow versions of their images--old engravings of Adam and Eve--on the wall.

With a total of three globes in the piece--four, actually, counting the hemisphere--Davis makes darn sure we see that his piece is about the Earth. The globes on the tower are mounted so that they look somewhat like part of a model of atomic structure--recalling the basic component of all matter. The clocks remind us that time is running out for us, Adam and Eve’s descendants.

The piece involves some deductive work on the part of the viewer, but the symbolism turns out to be so cut and dried that it leaves little brain room for maneuvering. In contrast, the best installations contain freshly minted images suggesting multiple readings, images that catch the viewer off guard. One of the few seemingly open-ended elements of this piece is the rusty liquid coating the tips of the revolving rod--a contaminant seemingly drawn from the bowels of the Earth and inexorably returned to its source.

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* Installations by Lynn Aldrich and Michael Davis remain through Oct. 5 at the Rancho Santiago College Art Gallery, 1530 W. 17th St., Santa Ana. Gallery: open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday (evening hours: 6:30 to 8:30 Tuesday and Wednesday). Admission: free. (714) 564-5615.


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