Laddie John Dill's dramatic installation, now at the Conejo Valley Art Museum, defies the old notion of art as a precious and more or less immortal commodity that can weather calamities, wars and acts of God.
Dill's artwork is of a form that would be directly affected by an earthquake. Of course, that's the point, or at least one of them. The installation in question is, in essence, one of Dill's trademark sandpiles.
The sand comes in two tones, which evoke light and shadow and the illusionistic contours. The amorphous configuration on the gallery floor is locked into a grid-like pattern by glass panes/planes set at tilted angles, giving the piece rhythm and regularity.
Dill, Santa Monica-born and now Venice-based, has been a well-regarded figure in conceptual art since the late-'60s. Dill's art--both his installations and his multimedia wall constructions-- find their sources and materials as much in the great outdoors as from an art supply store.
Sand itself is a material rich with symbolism, and its appearance in the hermetic space of an art gallery--one in a shopping mall, no less--adds a layer of poetic irony. There is also a symbiotic, metamorphic relationship at play here: Sand makes glass, and here glass governs sand.
One basic peculiarity of the setting is the contrast between the sandpile and the green carpeting. Were this piece on a standard wood gallery floor, the disparity wouldn't be as stark or as telling.
In his wall pieces, Dill demonstrates a similar balance of geometry to formlessness. The definition of a painting is stretched and mutated. While the works function like abstract paintings, the elaborate processes and raw, abused tactile surfaces offer a more iconoclastic approach.
In Dill's art, geological, topographical and biochemical references are ripe for the picking, but the artist usually prefers suggestion to specificity. Dill's list of materials, in itself, is an object lesson in melding the natural world and the art world. Pieces from the mid-'70s consist of cement wash and volcanic ash on canvas.
The idea of reflecting nature and harnessing the energies of nature--within the controlled parameters of art--is central to Dill's aesthetic. Still, the work is bolstered with the analytical, inductive discipline of the artist.
In a piece from 1989, the glossy element of glass plays against the deeply ridged, craggy black surface. A few well-chosen, spare lines in the composition hint at monolithic structures or perspective drawing amidst the unruliness.
More recently, Dill's scale has ballooned. One huge piece has a rough, sediment-like surface, but with muted swipes of black and red giving an effect of veined marble beneath sludge. You get the impression of a marble floor obscured by the mucky debris of a flood.
Here, as with most of Dill's art, there is constant tension between civilized artifacts--produced by art, geometry and technology-- and the irrepressible, asymmetrical expression of nature.
Big is not the only byword in this show. A small pencil study of a sand piece is dedicated "for Morandi," and has some of the late artist Giorgio Morandi's mystical economy. The charming drawing almost gets trampled underfoot amidst the louder, larger art.
Suddenly, with his piece "L.A. Riots '92," there enters a stinging social resonance otherwise absent in Dill's work. If all the other works are untitled and are open to subjective interpretation, the reference here is hot and indisputable.
The familiar Dill grid is in place, even more assertively than usual, but chaos and destruction reign. A violent, raging inferno is forcefully conveyed with shades of yellow, red and black. The familiar relief quality now serves a very specific purpose: to depict buildings being ravaged by fire. A hint of blue sky in the upper corner threatens to be choked off altogether.
The piece is a logical extension of his art and one of the more potent statements about the lurking social rage burning below the surface.
Also on view at the Museum are works by students at Santa Monica College of Design, Art and Architecture, where Dill teaches. Not surprisingly, many of the students make use of unorthodox materials and methods.
Claudia Parducci-Turner's art consists of tar/oil on unstretched canvas. Stephanie Du Tan's deals with plaster and sand. For Tony Beauxy, oil on steel is the mixed media of choice. Lace is also a popular item. Cecily Rush's "Fallen Angel" is a life-size figure of celestial dismay, made of feathers, plaster and wire.
Comic relief comes courtesy of Jonye Feldman's surrealistic installation, in which wacky brooms smear black paint on a roll of paper, a nod to "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Jeri Jackson's "Don't Make Me Pull Over" is a cheeky homage to the memory of family car trips and urging bladders.
The finest conventional painting on view (in terms of paint- on-canvas formats) is Lora Stone's enigmatic "Forest." Dane Scarborough shows a large triptych of footprints radiating outward in a mandala pattern.
Some of the socially pointed works are provocative, albeit unsubtle. In Steve Siergrist's "Innertruth," protruding black skulls ring with echoes of the Cambodian killing fields. Julie Fantl's "Femme Fatale" makes a socio-sexual comment, with its female silhouette viewed by lusty, voyeuristic eyeballs.
All in all, this is one of the strongest shows yet seen at the Conejo Museum since roosting in its current spot in the corner at Janss Mall. It comes in the nick of time, just after disappointing, haphazard shows made one wonder about the museum's direction (or lack thereof).
With this show of Dill's earth-to-gallery investigations, the museum seems very much back on an aesthetic track.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Laddie John Dill, A Survey: 1970-1992, through July 19, at the Conejo Valley Art Museum, 193-A N. Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks. For more information call 373-0054.