ART REVIEW : Caution: Bad Art Up Ahead : The Hollywood La Brea Gateway is an unfortunate piece of public sculpture whose biggest fault is its representation of women.

TIMES ART CRITIC

Poor Hollywood. The neighborhood's already tarnished image wasn't helped by the 1992 riots, which further marred its eastern sections, nor by the rambunctious 1993 mayoral campaign, in which the winner made political hay by holding up the town as a civic symbol of L.A.'s decline.

And now this: The most depressingly awful work of public art in recent memory has lately been constructed, and at a highly visible locale.

On a palm-studded traffic island at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue stands a 30-foot-tall gazebo. Its latticed dome, capped by a tall spire, is held aloft by four life-size sculptural figures. Officially titled the Hollywood La Brea Gateway, the monument is plainly meant as a landmark to announce your arrival at the western edge of Tinseltown.

The La Brea Gateway is one of several street alterations along Hollywood Boulevard expected to be in place by spring. The Community Redevelopment Agency has been trying to spruce up the main downtown artery with bursts of tall and willowy palms, with clusters of theatrical street lights and with sparkly, light-reflective asphalt paving.

Also on the way (or already in place) are several commissioned works: a small information kiosk at the corner of Cherokee Avenue, designed by Kenny Schneider; an "arch of light" at Vine Street, by theatrical lighting designer Tom Ruzika; and a decorative crosswalk at Ivar Avenue, designed by Susan Stinsmuehlen-Amend, a glass artisan who is the lead artist for the entire Hollywood Boulevard project.

Meanwhile, back at the gazebo, the name "Hollywood" appears no fewer than eight times atop the structure--four of them in neon. Any doubt about where you might be is emphatically erased, while handily accommodated are tourist shutterbugs anxious for a souvenir that can be pictured from their favorite angle.

Say cheese.

Or, to be precise, say cheesecake. For the life-size figures holding up the gazebo's Hollywood-encrusted roof are curvaceous, silver-screen beauties of yore, sculpted in shiny stainless steel.

The nostalgia button is pushed straightaway by the structure's cartoonish reference to machine-age, Art Deco styling, as well as by its clumsy adaptation of a classical belvedere--a gazebo or summer house from which to view the surrounding scenery. Here, however, you're meant to gaze at the gazebo itself. The caryatids are its visual focus.

Who are these four, glossy glamour-girls from days gone by, on which the Heavenly Dome of Hollywood so lightly rests? Alas, you can't tell just by looking, so crudely sculpted are the figures.

Stylistically reminiscent of the bumpers on a '47 Cadillac, all four are essentially identical, as if each is but a slightly altered variation on a standard model. A helpful plaque below each one identifies the shining star above: Mae West (1893-1988), Dolores Del Rio (1904-1983), Anna May Wong (1907-1961), Dorothy Dandridge (1923-1967).

White, Latina, Asian American, African American--a generous guess would be that this ugly landmark was intended to stand as a tribute to women in Hollywood. Its supporting female players do claim lofty art-historical ancestors: the 5th-Century B.C. figures gracefully holding up the porch of the Erecthium on the ancient Greek Acropolis, for example, or those that once flanked a 6th-Century B.C. entryway at Delphi's sanctuary of Apollo.

Yet, even setting aside the coarseness of the La Brea Gateway's sculptural design, an iconic celebration of "women in Hollywood" is far from what is finally declared. It is not, after all, a Hattie McDaniel or a Margaret Dumont who is doing caryatid duty.

Instead, the four voluptuous variations on a glamour-girl theme celebrate the idea that the power in movies that goes to women is confined to sexual power. Multicultural sexism certainly counts as a new twist on an old theme, but you'd be hard pressed to describe it as an improvement.

From the terrazzo star on which the gazebo rests, to a little sculpted finial of Marilyn Monroe--her golden skirt billowing gaily around her head--with which its spire is ignominiously crowned, sex as a woman's historic gateway to Hollywood couldn't be more explicitly described. Or cheered.

The paucity of imaginative thinking evident in the project is plain from the very conception of the site as a neighborhood's gateway. Sculptural gateways have recently been springing up all over Los Angeles--or, at least they've been trying to.

The first came in 1987 with the ill-fated scheme for a West Coast Gateway, L.A.'s proposed answer to New York's Statue of Liberty. Then came the regional mass transit hub, dubbed Union Station Gateway Plaza, now under construction downtown.

Gateway Plaza includes several mediocre plans for public art, among them one expressly designated a Gateway to East L.A. And now, the La Brea Gateway will be matched at the strip's eastern end by an arch of lights: the Hollywood & Vine Gateway.

Clearly, the proliferating gateway-as-civic-symbol motif deserves a rest.

From the wreckage of this well-intentioned fiasco we can salvage one slight bit of good, if eccentric, news. Thankfully, the dismal Hollywood La Brea Gateway was not designed by an artist. At least, not by an artist in the usual sense.

For Hollywood, the CRA made the unusual decision to tap into a tangential pipeline of creative talent: applied artists who work in the movie industry. The project's 11-member selection jury did include three traditionally considered artists, but it also included a movie producer, a scenic painter and a set designer.

To create the La Brea Gateway the jury selected Catherine Hardwicke, a production designer whose credits include "The Sad Professor" for public television, "The New Monkees" for Columbia TV, "Car 54, Where Are You?" for Orion Pictures and "Tombstone," currently in release from Hollywood Pictures, as well as a variety of music videos for Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, Oingo Boingo and Smokey Robinson. Hardwicke subcontracted the fabrication of the gazebo's component parts to others, including Jack Brogan, Margo Chase, Richard Prantis and Karl West.

Sure, an argument can be made for bringing non-traditional talents into the public art process. But, a specific dilemma looms large for any attempt to create a monumental tribute to women in the movie industry.

Movies, as the late film critic Vito Russo concisely put it, have always been our culture's principle cheerleader for strict, heterosexual role-playing, championed as an enduring norm. Given that track record, can Hollywood's own artisans seriously be expected to erect a monument that would do anything but keep the pitiful drum-beat going?

That a sculptural ode to a restrictive tradition of straight, female sexual power in movie-land has emerged from within the ranks of Hollywood's own artisans should surprise no one. That the CRA should spend $75,000 on such a demeaning, anachronistic--and permanent--song of praise should disappoint everyone.

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