ART REVIEWS : Diane Arbus: Pictures From the Institutions

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

During the year before her suicide in 1971, Diane Arbus traveled to several institutions for mentally retarded women outside of New York and photographed their inhabitants. Of the 29 pictures she decided to print, 22 are presented at Jan Kesner Gallery. These rarely seen photographs are some of the most hauntingly compassionate images made with a camera.

Almost all of the photographs were taken on Halloween, when the members of these strangely exclusive societies put on masks and acted out childhood rituals common to the rest of society. In these deeply moving pictures, Arbus abandoned her trademark use of tight cropping, exaggerated angles and the harsh light of the flash in favor of a more softened, emphatic presentation. Individual trick-or-treaters and some in small groups look directly into the camera before barren, out-of-focus landscapes cast in the long shadows of the late afternoon sun.

The range of expressions Arbus has captured is remarkable in its startling shifts from carefree glee to utter trepidation, ecstatic self-abandonment to shy withdrawal, and simple boredom to neighborly love. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of her photographs is the way they combine sentiments we all share with experiences we can imagine but never know.

Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 938-6834, through June 6. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Half-Way Measures: Cady Noland's installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art looks as if it ran out of funding before it could be finished. Push-pins stick through blurry color Xeroxes on the gallery's walls. Leftover aluminum scaffolding is scattered in a corner and partially hidden behind a sheet-metal barricade. And the tools usually used in installing an exhibition, including hardware and paint buckets, lie around the room as if the installer were fired without warning.

The unfinished quality of Noland's work is deliberate. "Accidental" marks made on the museum's normally pristine white walls are meant to alert us to the fact that real labor is involved in creating the atmosphere of timeless perfection in which art is usually exhibited. Chain-link fences and adjustable steel blockades make physical the fact that museums function by establishing boundaries, between good and bad art, as well as between different social groups.

By focusing on issues outside aesthetics, Noland's art demands that the privilege and elitism associated with museums be dismantled. Her images of a grisly plane crash, the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, and Patricia Hearst--as a flower girl, member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and Barbara Walters' interviewee--propose that tabloid journalism captures more dramatic and compelling stories than those that unfold in art galleries.

The problem with the ideas underlying Noland's work is that they are exactly like her installation: half-finished. By illustrating the fact that labor is involved in art installations, the artist restates the obvious. Noland's objects are based on the notion that we, as viewers, are so gullible that plain white walls immediately transport us to some realm of otherworldly transcendence, making us forget that we had to drive across town and pay for parking before we could have this experience. Her supposedly materialist critique of institutional dominance is really an idealistic recapitulation of the cliches that opposes art and life, seeing and doing.

The scuff marks and drill holes Noland leaves in the walls are based on the pretense that they are aesthetic--that they by-pass the institution and connect her installation to the real world of authentic experience. These supposedly egalitarian gestures themselves forget that they already inhabit a prestigious museum. The boundaries they tear down are wholly symbolic. If they didn't utterly dismiss the museum as a site in which serious propositions could be made, they wouldn't be able to maintain their simplistic dismissal of its potential.

Likewise, the sensationalistic news stories that Noland appropriates grab one's attention more swiftly than many objects of art, but base their effect on ignoring the more nuanced kinds of attention required by aesthetics. To be recognized as anything more than throw-away bits of diversion, they need to be in a museum. Once here, they claim that this realm represents nothing more than a denial of the outside world's ugliness.

Noland's installation thus embodies the contradictions of contemporary institutions that are uncomfortable with their apparent elitism and want to serve the interests of a larger, and largely imaginary, public. Her artless art acts out the guilt and bad faith intrinsic to organizations unwilling to distinguish between elitism and rigor, arrogance and difficulty, insulting exploitation and the social implications of art.

Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. (213) 621-2766, through July 5. Closed Mondays.

Overdose of Vagueness: Sam Durant's first solo show at Richard Green Gallery delivers an overdose of the comforting vagueness that often accompanies attempts to envision the future. Titled "Right Now," his installation makes concrete the misty intangibility that holds fantasy and reality together in improbable but common dreams.

Durant's installation is a modification of his CalArts MFA exhibition from last spring. Compressed into a much smaller room and slightly revised, this year's model intensifies the effectiveness of his work by increasing the viewer's sense of physical discomfort and amplifying the mental uneasiness that comes with every veiled threat that masks itself as being in your best interest.

Durant has installed a fake ceiling in one of the gallery's private viewing rooms where indecisive clients are usually brought to be convinced that they'd be fools not to close the deal. On each of the four walls he has hung a window-like light box whose fluorescent glow illuminates a phrase he has lifted form various brochures advertising the services of brokerage houses and credit agencies.

The generic character of Durant's quotations prevents their exact subject from appearing with clarity. Detached from their normal contexts, "Picture Personalized Luxury," "Pure Beauty Rock Solid Credit," "Right Now" and "Sense of Security" float in the unanchored space between ideas and their realization, hope and its dissolution.

This vague sense of groundless drifting takes physical form as a fog machine begins to hum, hiss and spit cloudy puffs of the stuff into the small, sealed room. The words, written in black, disappear in the unnaturally fabricated mist. You're left standing there, alone, with nothing to see but everything to feel. You're not sure if your flesh is crawling because of the ideas of amoral manipulation that come to life in Durant's installation, or because the chemical fog is simply reacting with your skin, lungs and eyes.

Durant's totally controlled room collapses idealized artistic abstractions and cut-throat sales strategies in a claustrophobic environment that is simultaneously otherworldly and banal. Blinding in its harshness and relentless in its cheapness, "Right Now" is also mesmerizing in its directness. Its resonance lies in the way its head-on aggressiveness embodies a profound ambivalence about the interconnections between optimism and delusion, despair and clear-thinking.

As the fog settles, the words reappear and the glaring lights return the room to its washed-out brightness. A fleeting moment passes during which you miss the fog's cloudy density and almost yearn for its return. Despite the fact that you know, in your mind, that the fog is the literal manifestation of manipulation and trickery, it still elicits your desire for oblivion, for losing yourself in insubstantial fantasies that are nevertheless real.

"Right Now" thus activates deep-seated dreams that will not go away with a simple demonstration of their fraudulence. Durant's installation operates in the tension-laden territory between fantasy and reality. Its magic derives from its capacity to expose our irrational desires to our rational minds without blocking them from consciousness.

Richard Green Gallery, 2036 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 828-6666, through June 6. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Biting Black Humor: Ed Nunnery's "New Revolting Developments," at the newly relocated Ovsey Gallery, represents the artist's perverse struggle to smuggle the macabre, nightmarish quality of his Neo-expressionist canvases to three genres not normally known for such Angst -driven theatrics. With varying degrees of success, decorative, over-the-sofa abstraction, portraiture and text-based conceptualism get a shot of Nunnery's biting black humor.

His "Sofa Paintings" are murky, inelegant and uninteresting collages of dark lines and abstract forms that do little more than mock those who buy art to match the couch. Too ugly to go with any tasteful arrangement of furniture, Nunnery's demented decorations match the sensibility pictured in his portraits: A single head, repeated in triptych format and various states of dissolution, is meant to embody dread but comes off as an empty homage to Francis Bacon.

Nunnery's word-paintings preserve the hallucinatory, apocalyptic energy of his earlier works. In them, friendly greetings and common phrases mutate into almost incomprehensible utterances. They stutter and mumble to say something new in otherwise stale and outdated forms.

Ovsey Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (213) 935-1883, through June 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Presidential Pontifications: Kim Abeles' "Presidential Commemorative Smog Plates" are tourist souvenirs gone hopelessly wrong. Rather than celebrating the grandeur of a single event, such as an inauguration or an anniversary, they materialize the undramatic day-in and day-out regularity of the conditions in which we live.

Abeles' porcelain plates consist of portraits of every U.S. President from the 20th Century ringed by a gold-lettered quote concerning the relationship between business and the environment. What distinguishes her mementos from normal ones is that she has drawn the Presidents' faces with smog.

Abeles places stencils over clean plates on the roof of her studio in downtown L.A. After as few as four days, the air has done its work and finished her pictures. She peels off the stencils and seals the plates with a fixative so they could be used to serve meals, if one still had an appetite.

Although a schematic history can be traced from the date the word "smog" was coined in 1905 by a London journalist at the Public Health Congress, to Reagan's 1980 statement that vegetation causes 80% of air pollution, the strength of Abeles' work lies in the way it gives physical form to the vast distance between every politician's golden words and the deplorable quality of the air we breathe.

Turner/Krull Gallery, 9006 Melrose Ave., (310) 271-1536, through May 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Creature Comforts: A playful menagerie of imaginary animals animates Rodrigo Pimentel's paintings, watercolors and gouaches at Iturralde Gallery. Drawing from pre-Colombian mythology, contemporary cartoons and Modernist abstraction, the Mexico-based painter concocts one-act dramas in which fantastically colored monkeys, frogs, jaguars, iguanas and birds express human sentiments in terms that are often humorous, sometimes wise and always sensual.

Pimentel's creatures usually merge with a vivacious and irregular kind of pattern-and-decoration abstraction that treats each painting's surface as a space to be completely covered by an all-over design. His interest in the narrative possibilities engendered by the spooky fusions of abstraction and figuration takes shape, most compellingly, in his paintings on paper. More so than in his more well-known and more frequently exhibited canvases, these supple works embody a fresh and open-ended sense of whimsy.

Iturralde Gallery, 154 N. La Brea Ave. (213) 937-4267, through June 6. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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