ART REVIEWS : Chris Drury's Shrines to Nature Fill Ace Gallery

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A no-nonsense reverence for both art and life suffuses Chris Drury's sculptural installations in the labyrinthine caverns of Ace Gallery's east wing. Shelters made from stones, logs and mud; baskets woven from antlers, feathers and reeds; and spheres built of bog wood, pine cones and animal droppings come together in the British artist's first U.S. solo show. These organic works transform the gallery's pristine, museum-like chambers into a strange territory that hovers between the functionality of the natural world and the unreality of the signs and symbols that make up art's vocabulary of forms.

In one square room, several tons of rocks seem to swell out of the gallery's cement floor in a gentle mound that would function, if it were outdoors, as a sturdy, dark and less than comfortable hideout from nature's other, even harsher elements.

In another room, notched logs form an octagonal corral that is capped with a gracefully curved dome of red clay and dried grass. Its waist-high door opens onto a mysterious, aromatic interior more suggestive of the protection offered by rituals than that promised by shelters.

Scattered throughout the rest of the exhibition's 10 rooms are miniature tepees made from thatch, woven tree branches and stacked stones. Too small to be inhabited, they function more like altars or shrines to nature's ongoing processes. By marking humanity's inescapable need to find meaning in nature, they emphasize the symbolic aspects of Drury's larger sculptures.

Both functional and formal, his shelters are suspended between the worlds of utility and symbolism. They propose that culture springs forth even from nature's most base forms. In the world given form by his simple, powerful art, symbolic significance is inextricably linked to life's raw materials.

In the almost magical organic whole made concrete by Drury's elegant sculptures, meaning meanders freely between sophisticated art forms and the brute matter that makes up the physical world. For example, 56 mountain goat horns mounted in a grid on the gallery wall resemble delicately drawn glyphs capable of competing with the most advanced refinements that have animated formalist abstraction for nearly a century. Knowing the origin of these repeated shapes gives them a double meaning, however, one that brings to mind the animals that have died to yield the elements of Drury's art.

Like his best work, this haunting, three-dimensional wall drawing neither erases the beauty of its formal arrangement nor diminishes the significance of its constitutive forms. Instead, it accentuates a fleeting but irrepressible elegance at the point of intersection between artifice and nature.

* Ace Gallery, 5514 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 935-4411, through Jan . 30 . Closed Mondays.

Abstraction Attraction: Douglas Meyer's paintings at Newspace Gallery straddle the border between abstraction and figuration. The largest and most ambitious works in his fourth solo show collapse both approaches to image-making onto the plane of each canvas or panel. This aggressive attempt to marry geometric reductivism and figurative painting allows Meyer's somewhat schizophrenic art to effectively tease out the differences between these often contradictory styles.

In "Ideals of Inheritance," a crucifix gets repeated so that its vertical and horizontal components become elements of an extended, Mondrian-like grid that divides the image into regularly repeated segments. The viewer's attention and comprehension shift between recognizing this element as a formal device--a line--and as an essential part of a narrative that relates the inimitable death and resurrection of the Christian savior.

Meyer's choice of subject matter is far from accidental. His selection of an extended and duplicated cross recalls--and also mocks--the exalted role abstract painting has been called upon to play throughout this century. Paradoxically, his painting gives form to the Modernist confusion between art and religion. It embodies the inability to distinguish icons that promise otherworldly salvation from those that would replace such outdated sentiments with the worldly redemption underwritten by an art concerned with perception.

Meyer attempts to collide abstract painting's pretense toward purity--its geometric perfection and formal refinement--with recognizable images from the ordinary world. The problem is that both modes of picture-making are diminished.

The tension generated by Meyer's paintings too often dissipates into a bland and facile leveling of the characteristics that distinguish abstraction from representation. He falters in his attempt to invest formalist abstraction with the seductive power of figurative images, and to reinvigorate immediately recognizable cliches with the drawn-out attractions of abstraction.

Meyer's paintings lose interest because they remain trapped in a kind of thinking more adequate to debates between painters in the '20s and '30s than those that drive the most compelling discussions today. Back then, socially oriented muralists and realists attacked abstract painters for making content-less decorations or art-for-art's-sake formalism whose inventiveness held little relevance for the rest of society.

The tiredness and nostalgia of Meyer's paintings derive from their willingness to ignore American art from the '60s. In that decade of watersheds, abstract painting's achievements were forced together with commercial culture's capacity to grab one's eyes. Pop art combined the desires incited by flagrantly sexy images and seductive colors with the highly charged formal arrangements of so-called "pure" abstraction. In that youthful movement, high art and low culture momentarily dovetailed in visually compelling objects whose figurative content also packed a walloping punch.

Meyer's paintings are throw-backs not because they try to resuscitate an outdated art form, but because they replay the conundrums of Pop by trying to turn back the clock. Their integrity and seriousness give them the feel of history lessons, of solid but academic accounts of how painting came to an exciting peak three decades ago--and then foundered on its own newly discovered achievements.

* Newspace Gallery, 5241 Melrose Ave., (213) 469-9353, through Jan. 11. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Shifting Styles, Strategies: To a visitor unfamiliar with Elliot Schwartz's photographs, the salon-style exhibition of almost 50 of his works at Jan Kesner Gallery might look like a group show of three different but related photographers. The impressive, almost overloaded installation shows Schwartz at his best, energetically shifting among styles and strategies, bouncing between stale, overworked cliches and fresh, weird humor.

His photographs fall roughly into three groups: still-lifes of unidentifiable objects, nearly conventional portraits of people in strange poses, and rather obvious illustrations of "reversed" expectations. The installation accentuates Schwartz's talents, drawing out relationships between various bodies of work and highlighting distinctions within otherwise consistent categories.

Schwartz is perhaps best known for his intimately demented still-lifes of odds and ends from the insides of broken machines. His genius is to give us clear pictures of objects we can't identify, but can only come close to in our imaginations. We know, for example, that "The Last Castrato" is a picture of a couple of curved pieces of plastic foam on which a fragment of metal rests, but we can't help suspecting that the image is really a close up of a one-eyed, toothless lizard whose skin is anything but dry.

In his portraits, Schwartz also captures this ambivalence between surface appearance and a murkier underlying reality. They keep us guessing about where we draw the line between fact and the imagination's capacity to twist anything simple into a pretzel-like complexity.

"I Feel the Goodness Going Out of Me" depicts a tight-lipped, blank-faced girl staring straight at the camera from in front of two Mondrian paintings and two severe chairs based on Mondrian's radical geometry. A stray arm clutches the little girl's dress, as if to restrain her from upsetting the formal order of the photo's momentary, and fragile, composition.

Schwartz's third group of pictures, which includes "Urban Satyr" (a person painted black) and "How Not to Raise Children" (a child playing in a barred window cage), too often falls into the mere illustration of cliches. Some, however, escape this staleness. To make "An Interest in Aviation," Schwartz has turned the image of a crashed, upside-down airplane upside-down again, thus putting the sky beneath its wheels and turning the earth into something like a ceiling. With wit and humor he presents us with a topsy-turvy world filled with dark fun and intriguing danger.

* Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 938-6834, through Jan. 11. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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