An awareness of internationalism has marked discussion of contemporary art at least since the stunning return to prominence of German art well over a decade ago, following a long, postwar stretch of American dominance. Generally, internationalism has meant the universal acceptance of a formal language embodied in the postwar work of European and American artists.
For artists working elsewhere, one problem of this internationalism has been the same as for artists working in Europe and the United States: How does an artist make a personally and socially specific art that is also cosmopolitan, not bound by local or national prejudices? How does one escape provincial pieties, in which convention defines activity?
“Locus: Contemporary Art From Israel,” which opened Friday at USC’s Fisher Art Gallery and was organized as part of the Los Angeles Festival by Israeli critic Shlomit Shakked, inevitably poses the international question. You’ll find yourself going round and round in search of an answer, though, for two reasons: First, survey shows usually aren’t very good at problem-solving, and, second, you have to keep your mind occupied somehow, in the face of what is mostly an assembly of tedious and undernourished art.
Duly noted are the usual curatorial disclaimers that this survey of art from Israel is not definitive. In fact, not all the 19 artists even live in Israel--Diti Almog, Joshua Neustein, Yigal Ozeri and Michal Rovner are based in New York, while Benni Effrat, who is the most well-known of the group, used to work in New York and is now based in Antwerp--although it’s likely that all keep ties to the Middle East.
Yet, finally, any discussion of internationalism or of the character of current art in Israel is not much advanced because not much here recommends itself to more than cursory regard. “Locus” has the feel of a graduate student exhibition in which lessons have been learned but not transformed.
You can go through the show and pick out the “influences” and “predecessors,” some of them suggestive of personal pantheons, others of simple acknowledgment of the dominant artistic vocabulary of the day. Almog’s painted construction simulating jewels in a black-velvet box inevitably recalls the paintings of Ross Bleckner, for example, while Eldad Shaatiel’s “Bunker No. 20A” is a long, low, Minimalist shelter constructed from painted glass--Tony Smith’s crystalline architecture redux.
Sigal Primor starts with the abstract image of a bride from Marcel Duchamp’s famous construction, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” which she fabricates in three dimensions and then multiplies. Four identical, highly polished steel shapes rest in four eccentrically crafted violin cases placed atop four wheeled carts. Primor’s inbred objects are ambitious, but they’re good old-fashioned Surrealism.
Elsewhere the diaphanous layering of incongruous imagery or of veils of color is employed in the paintings of Daganit Berest, in the corrugated plastic and glass-covered works of Michal Shamir and in the boxed constructions of Nurit David. Techniques of image overlay have been a staple of art since the late 1970s.
And so on. But the work in the show generally treats the international language of art as merely a matter of given style--Minimalist, Duchampian, whatever--as if it’s composed of goods off the rack with which to dress up personal meanings. You’ll barely find an artist who, in addition to articulating personal perspectives, seems the slightest bit interested in making art to challenge ruling conceptions of what art is or how it functions.
Much of the work is competent, which is the next best thing to deadly. For the internationalism of contemporary art is--or can be--another way of saying that most art has become thoroughly academic, its pedantic forms and strategies disseminated to countless students through countless schools in countless nations.
With one apparent exception, all the artists in “Locus” have been through the art-school mill. The apparent exception is Effrat, who, according to the biographical information in the back of the show’s slim catalogue, is unique among his compatriots in that he has no B.A. or M.F.A. from any standardized art school in Israel or elsewhere.
Effrat is of an older generation than the rest; their average age is 38, Effrat is 57. He was born into a world where contemporary art, as a distinct, self-conscious phenomenon separating itself out from the traditions of European Modernism, did not yet exist in even the most rudimentary way.
Perhaps this helps to explain why Effrat’s large, outdoor installation--"Black Was All the Colors, Summer 2043"--is the most compelling work in the exhibition. Beneath the bright blue sky of the courtyard behind the Fisher Gallery, he’s built a big, roofless room from plywood painted white. The floor is composed of tons of reddish clay, baked and cracking in the heat, formed into small mounds or craters that bear the imprints of tiny feet.
Climbing out onto a wooden ramp that projects over the empty field, you can read a “New Year’s Greeting” cut into one long wall of the space. The whiteness of the room is blinding in the September sun, effectively making the text difficult to read. Its greeting, chiseled into the wall as if into an ancient tablet, is an ironic ode extolling the bounteous glories of overpopulation, ozone depletion, acid rain, deforestation and the proliferation of toxic wastes, as the beginning of yet another Jewish year is marked this week.
Alone among the artists in the show, Effrat takes on artistic customs that rule the day, by deploying the modern convention of irony within a wryly critical space. His parched, bedazzling white room transforms the blank and ostensibly neutral territory of the typical contemporary gallery, asserting that it’s in fact a dry and arid desert. There, hapless visitors are merely invited to walk the plank and cast their musing gaze across the bleak expanse.
* Fisher Gallery, Harris Hall, USC, 823 Exposition Blvd., (213) 740-4561, through Nov. 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.