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ART REVIEWS : Exploring the Wit, Wisdom of Belgian Wim Delvoye

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Clever one-liners take on three-dimensional solidity in Wim Delvoye’s witty exhibition of slightly altered objects and outlandishly fabricated tools. In his first solo show in California, at Ruth Bloom Gallery, the 27-year-old Belgian artist handles scatological jokes, irreverent puns and ambivalent sendups with light-handed ease and refreshing resonance.

Although his brand of Conceptualism is up-to-the minute hip, its well-groomed art-historical references deliver more than a smart-aleck commentary on art world elitism. Delvoye’s multileveled work operates in the realm of metaphor, where dumb objects and abstract ideas cross paths, sometimes colliding with abrupt force, and at others colluding to more slowly reveal more supple meanings.

A large map of an imaginary land introduces the visitor to the conceptual terrain Delvoye’s objects occupy. Elaborately rendered with blue seas, green lowlands, yellow plateaus and brown mountains, this map recalls grade-school geography lessons. What it pictures, however, is pure fiction. Its two major peninsulas form the silhouette of a hammer hitting a nail on the head. If Italy’s geographical resemblance to a boot suggests that images exist in the middle ground between real things and abstract concepts, Delvoye’s map drives this point home with playful clarity.

Its cities, countries and bays are labeled with nonsensical names. The unrecognizable language they make up looks like a combination of Welsh, Greek, Swedish and something vaguely Eastern European. When you try putting your mouth around the odd combination of vowels and consonants, the gibberish sounds like a cross between Nintendo and Stonehenge, Santa Cruz and Alcatraz, Mediterranean exoticism and Siberian exile.

By compressing far-flung associations into single words, and collapsing unrelated elements onto a flat surface, Delvoye’s map neatly illustrates the (il)logic on which his other objects are grounded. Both onomatopoeic and unpronounceable, his humorous words articulate the breakdown of borders at the root of his art. Multiple meanings give his work its double-edged kick.

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The fact that meaning seems both intrinsic to objects and arbitrarily attached to them is elaborated upon by four shovels whose blades have been emblazoned with colorful, heraldic emblems; two concrete mixers made of beautifully carved mahogany; and three butane gas canisters decorated with images of windmills. These pieces wryly comment on the construction of cultural significance in which artworks are held apart from other products of labor.

The exhibition’s centerpiece shifts Delvoye’s exploration of the relationship between art and productive labor to that between art and waste. “Mosaic” consists of an almost 12-foot-square tile floor adorned with dark-brown curved marks. Arranged in a simple, decorative pattern, these embellishments evoke the delicacy and gracefulness of lace.

Closer inspection reveals that each pretty curve is a super-realistic print of a large lump of excrement. On the pure white ceramic tiles, Delvoye’s illusionistic images both repulse and attract. Depending upon the physical--and conceptual--distance from which you view them, they are either extremely disgusting or pleasantly attractive. They effectively demonstrate that abstract concepts can sometimes have profound, physical presence.

Delvoye’s art begins with the language games that Marcel Duchamp brought to modern art. With an echo of Rene Magritte’s popular gloss, and more than a little residue of Marcel Broodthaers’ slippery influence, the young Belgian artist updates and exploits his countrymen’s fascination with the corporeal charge of symbols and the various ways we assign value to common objects.

Ruth Bloom Gallery, 2112 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 829-7454. Jan. 5-16. Closed Sunday and Mondays. The Hunter Hunted: Alienation and facelessness take center stage in Anna Bialobroda’s black-and-white paintings of larger-than-life-size heads. Although each of her seven acrylics on black velvet at Patricia Shea Gallery depicts a couple engaged in some kind of kiss--lip to lip, mouth to throat, tongue to cheek, or teeth to ear--neither passion nor intimacy enters the picture. Nevertheless, these emotionally dead images remain strangely engaging.

Bialobroda intentionally empties her art of drama and sentiment in order to more powerfully replay them inside the minds of her viewers. With careful calculation and almost insidious manipulation, her series, titled “Fair Game,” reverses the roles we normally fall into when we look at paintings.

In the hands of this New York-based artist, the game of looking never seems fair because whoever starts out as the “hunter” almost always ends up as the “hunted.” Rather than providing the viewer with a safe, distanced position from which to contemplate images, Bialobroda turns the tables on even the most sophisticated and suspicious visitors to her exhibition.

On a superficial level, her masterfully crafted yet awkwardly monumental illusions raise serious questions about self-expression, the division between appearances and reality, voyeurism, sublimated desire, and the ways power and vulnerability play into every act of vision. On a more profound level, Bialobroda creates the illusion that the figures in her paintings are looking at the viewer more deeply and intently than one can possibly look back at them.

You experience this unsettling effect as an advanced stage of paranoia. Bialobroda’s genius is to make this craziness seem reasonable. Clearly taken from fuzzy images off the screens of outdated black-and-white TVs, her characters have the presence of anonymous actors in forgettable melodramas. They seem to have grown so tired of performing unending reruns that they stare out at you, looking for anything more gripping than simple distraction.

Because Bialobroda paints from memory, none of her characters have the specificity of real individuals. They aren’t really generic, but possess a shifty, in-between quality. Like ghosts, they haunt our consciousness most powerfully when we no longer stand before them. They echo in our memory long after we’ve left the gallery.

Bialobroda’s paintings are troubling because they elicit the need for diversion at the same time that they almost maliciously refuse to deliver this respite. By balancing the desire for escape against the emptiness of easy retreat, her haunting images distinguish self-analysis from other kinds of scrutiny.

Patricia Shea Gallery, 2114 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 452-4210, Jan. 5-16. Closed Sundays and Mondays. What the Doctor-Artist Ordered: Simple facts of life, like sustenance and reproduction, take mesmerizing shape in Wolfgang Laib’s spartan sculptures. Made from marble, rice, brass, beeswax and pollen, the starkly sensual pieces by the German doctor-turned-artist quietly offer a sort of devotional meditation on the points of intersection between spiritual transcendence and earth-bound corporeality.

Three floor pieces at Burnett Miller Gallery emphasize the humility that infuses all of Laib’s work. “The Rice Meals” consists of nine brass plates, common to India, that the artist has arranged in a neat row. Each has been heaped with a full serving of white rice, except one, on which Laib has piled a smaller mound of bright yellow pollen.

The constellation of plates, whose number refers to the planets that circle our sun, allude to issues of world hunger and provoke reflections about a more equitable distribution of the world’s most common food. These socially oriented associations eventually give way to much less mundane thoughts.

Laib’s line of plates updates the biblical passage about man not living by bread alone. The gorgeous mound of pollen suggests that a measure of beauty is as essential to life as is bodily nourishment. The ratio of rice to pollen in the arrangement intimates that fulfilling the human need for beauty breaks the day-in and day-out routine that governs mere existence. Like a crude calendar, “The Rice Meals” marks out a cycle of time regularly interrupted by an ongoing celebration of art’s place in life.

Two other works evoke the presence of tomblike memorials. As in all of Laib’s work, their intimations of death are fully integrated into the cycle of life. “Rice House” is a 3-foot-long, house-shaped section of unpolished, bone-white Carrara marble. It sits amid little piles of rice, as if it were a storehouse out of which spilled an abundant surplus of sustenance. “Beeswax House” is a blocky ziggurat of wax. Its rich, golden color recalls the pollen and also suggests humanity’s animal nature. Here, Laib aligns the cooperative activity of bees with the communal requirements of any functioning society.

Two larger pieces in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art flesh out the sublime side of Laib’s artistic project. An approximately 12-foot square field of sumptuous hazelnut pollen, under the museum’s single largest pyramidal skylight, presents a stunning instance of color’s capacity to dissolve the materials that supposedly contain it. As invisible currents of air pick up bits of pollen and momentarily swirl them above the surface of the floor, the color itself appears to vibrate as the material world seems to open onto the void.

Two very large beeswax houses mounted high on the wall in the next gallery (under double skylights) also seem to hover weightlessly between this world and the next. Laib’s quietly unassuming work presents us with one of the most compelling, contemporary visions in which materiality and spirituality dovetail.

Burnett Miller Gallery, 964 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 874-4757. Jan. 5-30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 621-1750, through Feb. 7. Closed New Year’s Day and every Monday.

Where There’s Life . . . : Gregory A.J. Miller’s “American Journals” at William Turner Gallery consists of big collages and life-size mannequins completely papered over with magazine cutouts. The artist makes his two-dimensional work by pulling the pages out of Life magazines from the early ‘60s and pasting them to large boards or canvases. He then paints schematic faces over the fragmented images of dated news stories, nostalgic fashions and retro-designs.

The results are not as interesting as paging through the old magazines themselves. There’s nothing offensive about Miller’s uninspired work. Its basic idea--that life is made up of bits and pieces of information that are held together for many reasons--makes good sense. The problem is that the artist brings nothing original or particularly resonant to his images. They are neither formally inventive nor conceptually engaging.

William Turner Gallery, 69 Market St., Venice, (310) 392-8399, through Feb. 1. Open daily except New Year’s Day.


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