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LONG BEACH TRIPLE TREAT : At Museum of Art, a Look at Furniture, Video ‘Diaries’ and the ‘Age of Plague’

<i> Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Even if you haven’t been to the Long Beach Museum of Art for awhile, a triple bill of engaging shows (all through Nov. 14) is likely to lure you northward this fall.

Surprisingly enough, one of these exhibitions--"Above and Beyond the Sofa"--consists of work from the permanent collection, normally a snooze at most museums. But curator Noriko Gamblin gives the theme a witty spin by installing several galleries with a few examples of furniture and accessories popular when the art was acquired or made.

Although only a few works on view are truly exceptional, the environmental context--suggestive of a personal collection--allows viewers to see both greater and lesser pieces as representative of particular eras of taste. The fact that the museum formerly was a private home, with small, odd-sized rooms, makes the installation especially apropos.

A peach room with a formal-looking sofa and an Oriental carpet ushers in the founding of the museum’s collection in 1950. On the walls are landscape paintings by Jean Mannheim and Maurice Braun--both of whom had died just a few years previously--as well as by lesser-known colleagues associated with the early 20th-Century plein-air school in California.

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Other works in the room include a 1923 crayon drawing of people in stiff, 19th-Century dress (“1860 Group”) by George Bellows, the American “Ashcan School” artist best known for his ringside fight scenes, and a 1953 etching, “Brief Encounter,” by Isobel Bishop, a keenly observant artist of urban street life.

The show’s interior design concept really takes off in the “early ‘60s” room, where the walls are painted avocado green. A shag carpet, Barcelona chairs and a casual display of small wood and ceramic objects with bird, fish and teardrop motifs (by several artists) helps set the scene.

The piece de resistance in this gallery is Lorser Feitelson’s brilliantly hued painting, “Magical Space Forms,” in which an abstracted series of rooms appears to project or recede in unexpected ways. Other works of interest include Vic Joachim Smith’s “Anniversary"--an image of spiky black tentacles “leaking” streaks of rusty brown on slabs of dry white paint--and a quiet suite of relief prints (“Struttura Grafica”) by sculptor Claire Faulkenstein.

A menacing, linear welded bronze sculpture, “Nest of the Crab,” by almost forgotten artist Bernard Rosenthal, recalls the decades-earlier influence of Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzales. Just outside the doorway, an abstracted, bird-like female figure, “Femina,” by obscure sculptor Ed Rugels neatly confronts a James Strombotne painting of a nude man seemingly startled by the appearance of a hulking beaked creature (“Recognition,” from 1958).

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After a while, you may begin to wonder why scary-looking birds and crustaceans were such a constant in art of the period. (Even Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, “The Birds,” came out in 1963.) Perhaps these creatures embodied the era’s fear of nuclear war and increased awareness of psychological malaise--worries also summoned up by a spectral 1956 lithograph by master printer June Wayne, in which a throng of discordant humanity winds its way up the Tower of Babel.

The final room of this show, still being installed when I visited, contains works in many media spanning the two ends of this century, from a 1909 brush drawing of a young girl with huge, cartoon-like eyes by Alexej Jawlensky (whose later portraits would become increasingly abstract) to a laser disc piece by Bill Viola, a resonantly poetic, nationally celebrated video artist.

Upstairs, the museum is showing work by Stephanie Wilde, a self-taught artist living in Utah. Her fluidly patterned pen-and-ink drawings of profiled figures seem indebted to such sources as medieval manuscript illuminations, Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings, Vienna Workshop and Art Nouveau graphics of the late 19th-Century and early 20th-Century Russian folkloric imagery.

With their deep blacks and pure whites, sweet-faced, profiled figures and fluid, tendril-like lines, Wilde’s images might well be illustrations for an exquisite edition of children’s stories, in the style of the “My Book House” series of the 1920s. But despite their beguiling surfaces, these works are meant to tackle serious subjects.

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“The Plague,” a series of drawings begun in 1982--years before AIDS became an international health issue--deals with fearful reactions to the “Black Death,” Europe’s 14th-Century bubonic plague. “The Causes” shows rats burrowing under tall, flame-like grasses and the sun almost blotted out by a menacing face. In “Necrology,” coffins lie in disarray while men and women are stopped in their tracks by the relentless death-grip of ornately grotesque demons.

Other drawings by Wilde deal with such subjects as the devastation of AIDS in Africa, nuclear fallout (in “Blind to Chernobyl,” even the stags have mournful faces), and racist American views of Japanese (in “The Shopping Spree,” delicate-fingered masked characters in kimonos hoard shopping bags filled with flowers).

Despite the exquisite rendering of the drawings, however, their one-dimensional emotional qualities (everyone is either sad or happy, menacing or victimized) and their overwhelmingly didactic emphasis make them rather cloying. Although Wilde’s tightly controlled patterning gives these works a visual richness, their moralistic rigidity doesn’t allow viewers the moral space in which to reach their own conclusions.

In the video room, “Diaries” vaults over the dullsville of so much contemporary video to offer a sometimes painfully personal peek into four lives.

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Video “diaries” by Sadie Benning, Lynn Hershman, Michel Auder and George Kuchar are about as diverse as any comparable group of written diaries could be, and the viewer gets a similar voyeuristic thrill in “peeking” at them. The entire set of tapes would take 18 hours to watch, but the comments below are based on seeing just a small portion of the program.

Benning is a 15-year-old girl who used a toy camera to record her observations on videotape. In “Living Inside,” close-ups of Benning’s eye, cigarette and bubble gum combine with sounds from a TV and ‘60s pop hits while she talks in a stream-of-consciousness fashion about her ongoing truancy and the “freak” she met in a bus station. (“Some people are really sick,” she concludes, “and I’m one of them.”) In another brief tape, “Me and Rubyfruit,” the young video artist talks plaintively about kissing a girlfriend she wishes she could marry.

In Hershman’s confessional tapes, multiple images of her face suggest the many “selves” she describes. In one of the tapes, “Confessions of a Chameleon,” she speaks matter-of-factly yet compellingly about the startling contrasts and almost unbelievable twists of her life as a socialite, battered woman, prostitute, artist and desperately ill person.

Her experience of sex and “the depth of light” she saw after leaving the hospital made her become an artist, she claims. Do we believe her? “I always tell the truth,” she says.

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Kuchar, a fabled underground filmmaker since the 1960s, has been making video diaries since the mid-'80s. His rambling style and droll humor take a bit of getting used to. In “Going Nowhere,” we see him washing dishes, feeding a coin bank, raising clouds of white dust by petting his cat, and entertaining an eccentric middle-aged woman who claims to be 28. When she asks him to demonstrate the Dust Buster he’s so proud of, he uses it to remove the crumbs around her mouth.

Auder’s tapes include moments from the private lives of well-known members of the downtown New York art scene--combined with fragments of TV imagery--as well as intimate “travelogues” that steep the viewer in the emotional heart of a culture.

In “Chronicles/Morocco,” the camera noses around the marketplace and the communal dinner dish, tracks the free, desert-romping life of young boys (so different from the cloistered world of girls and women), and follows one handsome youth as he gathers eggs from screeching flocks of wild birds (yes, more birds!) and revels in his own sexual exuberance.


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