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ART : Double Bill Isn’t Double the Pleasure

Two installations at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art through Sept. 11 represent the results of a contest juried by Howard N. Fox, curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum. Normally, “jurying” involves deciding which works of art will be exhibited, but in this case Fox chose the two artists (based on their previous work), who were free to do just about whatever they wanted.

The element of surprise is part of the fun of the wide-open genre of installation art. Using virtually any materials--homemade or man-made, live or inanimate, visible or invisible, audible or inaudible--an artist does something in a given space. How we judge that something has to do with the degree to which the artist involves us, provokes us and dazzles our senses. In this case, one piece--by Nancy E. Floyd, whose work is labeled “in-progress"--fails to ignite, while the other, by Phyllis McGibbon, is a tinderbox of ideas and allusions.

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Showing a work “in-progress” to the public may be a good idea when performers want to gauge audience reactions or can’t come up with the money for a full-scale production. In the visual arts, however, we generally expect work to be finished when it’s on public display. After all, good contemporary art makes enough demands on the viewer without the added burden of trying to perform the mental cleanup chores the artist should have done before the guests arrived.

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Based on Floyd’s final visit to her childhood home barely a month ago, “Texas Tales of an American Family” is diffuse and cluttered. Instead of isolating key details of her family’s life and evoking them in vivid and analytical ways, Floyd numbs the viewer with masses of family artifacts and banal vignettes.

Calling the piece a work in-progress seems like a cop-out, an excuse to toss a great deal of material into the hopper and get off scot-free, without waiting to see which items sift through the fine screen that separates art from raw experience.

Floyd, who has a master of arts degree from California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, is no stranger to the installation medium. In “The James M. Floyd Memorial,” shown at the Fullerton Museum Center in 1988, she contrasted corny snapshots of her brother and flip remarks in his letters from Vietnam with the ponderous machinery of Official Grief expressed by the U.S. Army and the White House when he died. Presented as a straightforward documentary of a life lived at a particular time in U.S. history, the piece got its mileage from the emotional charge of its subject.

In “Texas Tales,” Floyd’s tactics are similar. Rows of photos (mostly studio portraits of her family) hang on the wall, encased in plastic; others lie in a heap. Old drawers from the family’s abandoned house hold diaries, family letters, documents and handwritten lists.

Other miscellaneous objects from the family home (a strip of old wallpaper, an old window screen) hang on the wall. A family chronology, from 1898 to the present, and two copies of Floyd’s short story about the owner of the local tire store (who left his wife for a “blond bitch”) are available for perusal. A tape of the neighborhood as it looks today--blandly suburban--plays on a monitor.

The centerpiece of the installation is a slide show with an audio text in which images of the Floyds’ now-dilapidated house on Main Street are matched with the artist’s hodgepodge of reminiscences, mostly from the ‘60s, when she was a child and young teen-ager.

Her childhood memories include: telling a flasher who asked her for directions on the street to get lost; six-month-long visits from her grandfather (who sang to her and took her on special expeditions around town, but--as the years went by--became an alcoholic loathed by her mother); her brother’s death; and mail-order lists for Santa that she and her siblings filled out (citing chapter and verse from the Sears catalogue).

Perhaps Floyd figured that by tumbling together events both large and small, remarkable and routine, she would give them a sense of verisimilitude. Instead, we get impatient, waiting fruitlessly for the artist to give this personal narrative some shape and point.

Every now and then, she does isolate a telling detail. Calmly listing all the household chores performed from dawn to dusk on one particular Mother’s Day by her working mother--concluding ironically, “I don’t remember what she did in the evening"--Floyd makes us see the tightly circumscribed circle of this woman’s life.

But Floyd’s comparison between the leisurely process of buying a freshly cooked hamburger in her youth and fast-food service today is more typical of her overly generalized, flatly predictable treatment of suburban growth and change. Unlike Ilene Segalove, who has transformed her suburban childhood into a humorously mythic realm, Floyd seems to place too much trust in the inherent fascination of raw personal data to complete strangers.

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Phyllis McGibbon’s visually elegant and quietly resonant installation “Incubating Shadows” is the product of a very different sensibility. The piece is based on the Greek myth of Danae, daughter of the King of Argos. To forestall her destiny--giving birth to a son who would kill his grandfather--the king locked her in a bronze room with only one small skylight. But the god Zeus, a notorious womanizer, had the hots for her and broke into her room disguised as a shower of gold.

Nervous when Danae subsequently bore a son, Perseus, her father cast them both out to sea, hoping they’d drown. But mother and child were rescued by a fisherman and began a new life on a distant island.

Danae was courted by the local ruler who cruelly sent teen-aged Perseus out of town to slay the snake-haired Medusa. Perseus came back with the head--whose deadly gaze conveniently turned Danae’s unwanted suitor to stone--and a new wife, whom he had rescued from the monster.

Danae and the happy couple went back home to Argos. Meanwhile, the King of Argos had fled, terrified that the prophecy would catch up with him. Some time later, Perseus was in another city, participating in an athletic contest, when he threw a discus that struck and killed a bystander--who happened to be his grandfather.

In McGibbon’s version of Zeus’ disguised visit to the young princess, test tubes partly coated in gold paint dangle from the skylight in the gallery; the figure of Danae appears in multiple silhouettes painted on the wall, and a mound of straw lies on the floor.

The test tubes suggest several images and ideas: the shape of the male member; the scientific aspect of contemporary issues relating to pregnancy (artificial insemination, abortion); medieval confusion between science and wishful thinking that led to a belief in alchemy (making gold out of base metals); and--following this line of thought--contemporary confusion between rational and emotional aspects of women’s reproductive rights.

The straw is more puzzling. Maybe it is meant to remind us of another victim of patriarchy, the miller’s daughter in “Rumpelstiltskin” whose father boasted that she could spin straw into gold, and whose king ordered her to do it on pain of death.

On the bronze-painted walls--which tilt inward, emphasizing the disorientation Danae must have felt--her monumental nude body is shown responding sequentially to a bizarre and life-changing event she was powerless to avoid.

She sits; she holds a pan (as if panning for the gold falling into her room); she is on her knees (perhaps watching in amazement as the unseen Zeus transforms himself back into male form). Then, presumably looking through Zeus’ eyes, we see only her upraised legs as she lies on her back. Finally, she appears to be cowering, her arms raised in self-defense against her rapist.

The silhouettes and the ancient Greek theme bring to mind the shadows in the cave Plato describes in the “Republic.” In his allegory, human experience is compared to the limited vision of prisoners chained in a cave, able to see only the shadows cast by people passing in front of a fire.

Is McGibbon proposing that the traditional view of Danae’s experience--and by extension, women’s experience in general--is only a shadow of the truth?

In any case, although the myth of Danae ultimately is about the inescapable power of fate, it isn’t quite clear how McGibbon, an assistant professor of art at Pomona College in Claremont, proposes to relate this theme to contemporary women and their claim to control their own bodies.

Danae does seem to have done OK for herself--saved from death, she gave birth to a brave and supportive son who got rid of yet another powerful guy who wanted to have his way with her. The hand of fate saw to it that Danae’s dad couldn’t get away with trying to kill his daughter and grandson to save himself.

But fate didn’t punish Zeus, the most powerful god in the Greek universe, for deceiving and violating a young woman. Of course, that’s the rub about power and the license it permits. Whether the issue is Anita Hill’s alleged treatment by Clarence Thomas or the right of a wife to abort a child her husband wants her to have, male power looms large in this landscape.

McGibbon’s visually spare work transforms a mythical event into a ritualized drama in which (as in Greek tragedy) the most important moment happens off-stage. Commingling myth and contemporary culture, sensual rendering and feminist issues, “Incubating Shadows” is an example of installation art at its most eloquent.

Installations by Nancy E. Floyd and Phyllis McGibbon remain through Sept. 11 at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 3621 W. MacArthur Blvd., Space 111, Santa Ana. The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. (714) 549-4989.


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