ART : Curious Work, Showcased in Curious Way, at Laguna Museum : Peter Alexander's 'Century' is a view of Los Angeles at night. The display is presented with unnecessary explanations.

Peter Alexander, a former Cool School sculptor turned romantic landscape painter, has been a darling of collectors for years. Others regard the Venice, Calif., artist's recent output with less enthusiasm. Light has been his preoccupation since he began making translucent plastic slabs in the '60s, but since the late '80s he has been painting such unabashedly hackneyed sights as sunsets and city lights seen from an aerial perch.

The Laguna Art Museum has chosen to showcase "Century"--a nocturnal aerial view of Los Angeles that Alexander painted last year--in a curiously elaborate way. It is accompanied by a profusion of related Polaroid photographs, pastels and gouaches (of city lights and fires, mostly) that the artist made in the past few years. A cynic might wonder if the recent Los Angeles riots had something to do with sudden interest in a big canvas that seems to show smoke clouds hanging over the winking lights of the city.

In fact, the exhibit, which celebrates the gift of the painting to the museum by fellow artist Ed Moses, was conceived before the riots. Still, the extended trappings of the show seem excessive. Studying the genesis of a work of art can provide excellent training in connoisseurship, but the task doesn't seem worthwhile when the subject is as comfortably unambiguous and straightforwardly painted as Alexander's landscapes.

Since Moses also donated 22 other works of art to the museum--including pieces by James Turrell, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha and Moses himself--the best of the batch could have been exhibited, perhaps with a discussion of the phenomenon of artists' own collecting tastes, or the different ways artists have tackled similar visual "problems" or responded to a particular geographic setting.

At any rate, stuck in Alexanderland, we zero in on the way life gets pressed into service as art. One group of Polaroids consists of details of aerial views taken from slides shot from the window of a hired helicopter at night; another group was taken from TV images of the Universal Studios fire in 1990.

In some of the slide details, city lights are reduced almost to the pixel level, as colored dots existing in an anonymous black void, a meltdown in outer space. On the other hand, the TV shots--though mediated by choices made by another cameraman and a news producer, and transmitted onto a small home screen--seem utterly lifelike because they fit our general idea (created by movies and the media in the first place) of what fire is supposed to look like.

But Alexander is an old-fashioned artist who does not concern himself with issues of representation or the status of media imagery. He paints tight grids of blurry lights--which sometimes resemble postcard views of airport runways by night--and covers them with painterly skies of one sort or another. Presumably, the tension between the two is supposed to make these paintings "work." But when you come right down to it, these canvases are little more than stylized illustration of cliched themes, achieved with technically able but otherwise unremarkable handling of paint.

In "Century" (it's not clear whether the painting is named for the boulevard in Los Angeles or for a certain fin-de-siecle malaise), unseen air currents seem to be fanning a haze of smoke above the blobs of street lights.

Painted in sober black and white reminiscent of Moses' own abstract paintings (though I thought I spied a bit of blue in the smoke), the roughly five-foot-square image is imbued with a mighty striving to be majestic and impressive. So the flat, restless city of glitz and displaced wanna-bes gets its comeuppance at last, via a softly hovering white haze presaging urban apocalypse--so subtle, it might still be registering as a smog alert to some folks down below.

It scarcely comes as a surprise to learn that Alexander made the paintings used for the 1975 film version of Nathanael West's 1939 novel, "The Day of the Locust," which kicked off the city-on-fire paintings.

(Todd Hackett, West's protagonist, is a young painter who earns his living making set and costume designs in Hollywood. His surrealistic painting, "The Burning of Los Angeles," prefigures the mob scene that breaks out when a crowd of people gathered to see the stars arrive at a movie premiere horns in on a fight between a disillusioned 40-year-old bookkeeper on his way back to Utah and a boy who attacks him on the street.)

The exhibit also includes a grid of black-and-white Polaroids of progress on another painting in which belts of crisscrossing lights contrast with the velvet blackness of the night sky. In the final stage of that painting--which Alexander kept altering until he finally gave it up as a bad job--flames rise bizarrely from the center of the image, as if simply willed into being.

Why Alexander judged this unnamed painting a failure and let "Century" survive remains a mystery. In the end, what we learn about Alexander's working methods only reinforces the sense that his chief interest is to record his 1,000 points of light as convincingly as possible, leaving flights of fancy, painterly bravado or probing analysis of the visual world to others.

A graphite drawing by Alexander, "Tuna Canyon," happens to be part of "Drawings From the Collection," a long-running exhibit closing Sunday. The best thing the show has going for it is its tacit plea of poverty: Help this museum collect some decent drawings before it's too late!

This is a collection that seems to have grown by sheer passive receptivity, the equivalent of the way newlyweds pile up cheese boards and fondue pots given by unimaginative wedding guests. Some drawings are clinkers by nonentities who happened to have lived in Southern California. Others are trifles by memorable figures. Shown in isolation, without a sampling of other work, work like this does these artists an injustice.

Even leaving aside such pedestrian items as Max Wieczorek's portrait of a young woman trying to look coy, or Ruth Peabody's diagrammatic attempt at a decorative offshoot of Cubism, there are too many disappointments.

Dating from 1950, Rico Lebrun's large charcoal drawing from his "Crucifixion" series of a bloated doll-like figure with no hands and big bare feet, clothed in a voluminous smock, looks more laughable than tragic. Historically, Lebrun is known as Southern California's resident Romantic Surrealist during the 1940s and early '50s, but much of his work has not aged well.

You'd never know from Agnes Pelton's delicate but conventional pastel of a branch of blossoms from 1912 that she went on to paint Space Age visionary abstractions with a sensual glow. (I don't know if any sketches for these paintings exist. Pelton died in semi-obscurity in 1961, at the age of 73.) Similarly, a tiny untitled pair of doodles (one looks like a cloud of smoke and its shadow) by a young Jay de Feo don't begin to make the case for her startling personal vision.

At least the passage of decades has given Ben Kutcher's kitschy 1930 ink illustration for a book by Thomas Moore called "Lalla Rookh" the nutty appeal of high camp. It features an intricately patterned interior under which a vapid, jewelry-laden Rudolph Valentino look-alike gingerly romances a lady.

Roger Kuntz's four workmanlike studies in graphite for "Double Underpass" show how the artist kept altering the proportions of the curves and bulk of the freeway arch and the road beneath it. But they are of little interest apart from the finished painting in the museum's collection (why isn't it on view?), which reveals the solution Kuntz finally chose.

A few pieces were worth pulling out once again. Christopher Georgesco's "No. 2" from 1973 is a small meditation on volume and space; the careful pen doodle by Paul Outerbridge at least has the virtue of being a rare drawing by the well-known photographer.

One lovely surprise is John Paul Jones' "Ivory Lovers 5," a vaporous charcoal drawing on yellow paper of a woman lying in bed. Her breasts are bared but her lower body seems to be awkwardly wrapped in the bedsheet. Her companion is hard to see at first. Only prolonged scrutiny reveals his face, at the other end of the bed. His body is almost invisible, and it's hard to say for sure whether a rather preternaturally large baton-like shape belongs to him or is simply a figment of somebody's imagination. Is this a moody post-coital scene? A fantasy? Jones lets us decide.

Rendered in the light, skittering style that was John Altoon's trademark (in figurative and abstract works alike), an untitled watercolor with ink from his "Cowboy and Indian" series shows two scrubby-looking kids squirming over the flat whiteness of the paper. The pint-size warrior has just shot his arrow into the startled little cowboy's back while a hawk-nosed, long-chinned, long-suffering adult remains buried in his newspaper.

Masami Teraoka's "Kamogawa Sushi Menu 1," which is one of his familiar ersatz 19th-Century Japanese wood block prints, places an extravagantly gesticulating robed figure in a modern-day sushi restaurant, under a row of "photographs" of dishes on the menu. The figure's robes slip provocatively off the shoulder, revealing a bit of cleavage, and his tongue curls in a parody of sensual desire.

If this were a real ukiyo-e print, a man would be playing the role of a female courtesan; in this case, sexual ambiguity floats free from the clear confines of tradition. A curatorial note next to the drawing says that Teraoka's work is "filled with social commentary," but fails to explain what issues, if any, are at stake in this particular piece.

Lacking historical follow-through and deficient in overall quality, this motley group of drawings actually comes to our attention at a fortuitous moment. Next year is the Laguna Art Museum's 75th anniversary. Between now and then, perhaps Southern California collectors will take the hint and come forward with prized pieces that can form the nucleus of a more distinguished collection of works on paper.

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