Working Well With Whatever Works : Bruce Nauman's Rich Retrospective Shows an Artist Comfortable in Any Medium

TIMES ART CRITIC

Near as I can figure, Bruce Nauman is the only artist ever to have made convincing works of art using holograms. Many have tried, all have failed. Except him.

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What's more, Nauman used holography only twice (in 1968 and 1969). Not one to invest his artistic capital in any particular medium, he's the kind of artist who'll use whatever works in a given situation--steel, wax, concrete, neon, video, felt, fiberglass. Holograms, those laser-driven photographs in glass that produce head-scratchingly convincing three-dimensional images, just fit a necessary bill.

In the eagerly anticipated, knock-out Nauman retrospective that opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, several works from the "First Hologram Series: Making Faces" and the "Second Hologram Series: Full Figure Poses" are lined up in a darkened room. Within the glowing red panes of glass, 3-D pictures show the artist squeezing together his lips; pulling on his cheek while jabbing an index finger in his throat; linking his tongue to his thumb to his pinky to the big toe of his upraised foot and more.

These goofy gestures are comic and poignant in the aching inarticulateness of their burlesque probing and poking of Nauman's mortal flesh. But managing an end run, they speak volumes.

For the 1960s, holographic three-dimensionality was the latest false prophet of a coming virtual reality, portending an art that is more real than real. In place of such elusive, high-tech illusions, we witness the artist making faces at the promise of a rosy, Utopian future.

Nauman's eccentric achievement with holograms is symptomatic of his larger body of work, both in the refined handling of unexpected materials and in the uncanny way he cuts through clotted artistic issues of the day. The show begins in 1965, early in an unusually protean period of artistic activity within American culture, while two-thirds of the 65 works on view date from the following decade. Throughout, Nauman kept a remarkably clear head.

Abstract Expressionist painting of the 1950s had devolved into a swampy cult of personality, in which art was routinely claimed as an emotive marker of authentic, existential states of being. (That's still art's profile in mass culture.) Against this moribund condition, 1960s Minimalist sculpture erected a fiercely defiant cult of impersonality. In a forced march out from the tar pits of third- and fourth-generation Ab Ex, Minimalist doctrine firmly banished the expressive self from view.

That lost self--physical and mental--became a central subject for Nauman's art. He didn't exactly bring it back; rather, he smuggled into Minimalism a psychological dimension of profound resonance.

Along with a few other pivotal artists, such as Eva Hesse (who died tragically young, at 34, in 1970), Nauman found convincing ways to divest Minimalist ideas of their more ethereal, idealizing and inevitably schoolmarmish tones. He hauled art back to earth--a livelier, much messier place to be:

* In a videotape, the artist sits on the floor, up against a wall, lethargically manipulating a fluorescent-light tube. Perversely, his lanky body is likened to a Dan Flavin light sculpture.

* Sculptures made from long, thin, hollow strips of fiberglass and polyester resin are composed from the same plastic materials then being used by many artists to fabricate sleek, dynamic, highly polished forms, as if untouched by human hands. Nauman's, by dramatic contrast, are disheveled, oddly colored and seem to have been cast from absent, apparently organic objects.

* An empty, cubic, all-white room--ostensibly pure, in good Minimalist fashion--beckons passing viewers, who benignly enter only to be verbally assaulted by a textured voice erupting through audio speakers embedded in the walls: "Get out of the room! Get out of my mind! Get out of the room!"

* A length of heavy rope is tied into a knot, from which is suspended a wax-and-plaster cast of a person's folded arms. Formally, the rhyming shapes of the Minimalist knot and the figurative arms also mimic the mental and physical action of a viewer, quizzically contemplating the wall-bound sculpture. The arms' crossed position conjures a pose common to depictions of the dead, whose soul-less body rests in peace, while the tangled knot is your noggin.

* A free-standing, triangular white room is fitted around its top edge with bright, queasy-yellow, fluorescent lights, which visually color the skin and clothes of anyone who enters. Being inside gives you a sickly pallor. So much for genteel conceptions of art as a wholesome, healing force.

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The "Yellow Room (Triangular)" was made in 1973, during the decade Nauman lived in L.A. (He moved to New Mexico in 1979.) Its nausea-inducing qualities play off the dreamy work of such ascendant Light and Space artists of the day as Robert Irwin and James Turrell. So does 1970's "Corridor Installation," a complex piece first shown at L.A.'s Nicholas Wilder Gallery and not seen since then; its reconstruction is one of the show's highlights.

"Corridor Installation" consists of three long, tall, narrow corridors constructed side-by-side. In one, two stacked television monitors display the corridor's interior; one screen shows you from behind, walking into the corridor, while the other shows the corridor remaining stubbornly empty.

Are you there or not? Are you coming or going? Is the experience live or taped?

The corridor adjacent is empty--and very narrow and dark. Turning sideways you could probably fit in, working your way into its deeper recesses. Yet, the prospect of becoming physically wedged inside, with no escape, is too spooky to encourage that.

The third corridor has a TV monitor whose picture is a moving scan of the corner of a seemingly empty room, interrupted by sudden glimpses of a person. (The monitor, you deduce, is playing a recorded tape.) Around this corridor's actual corner stands another television, which, unbeknown to those inside the corridor, is broadcasting their every move, via a surveillance camera high on the wall. When you leave this spied-upon passageway and turn the corner, you see yourself fleetingly on the monitor--disappearing as you enter a new space. You feel your own lost self.

Nauman's firm grasp of such psycho-physical complexity forms a malleable basis for an astonishing array of interests. Political torture is evoked in "South American Triangle" (1981), whose aggressive, suspended steel beams block your vision of an upended cast-iron chair. Violent slaughter haunts "Carousel" (1988), whose riderless merry-go-round drags aluminum casts of a bobcat, bear, deer and two coyotes in perpetual circles, their truncated limbs squealing loudly as they scrape across the floor.

Then there's "Clown Torture" (1987), a four-channel, multi-monitor installation whose brilliantly hapless performance by Walter Stevens as a Bozo-style clown is hysterical--in all senses of the term. Installed across the way from the holograms, made 20 years before, "Clown Torture" is a poignant elaboration on the expressive possibilities of making buffoonish faces at a camera. Its devastating depiction of a garishly painted man as an angry, frustrated public fool chronicles the artist as emblematic lost-self for contemporary society.

The Nauman retrospective is so rich and gratifying that just about the only complaint anyone familiar with his work might have is simply the yearning to see even more of it. (For that, pick up the fine exhibition catalogue or the invaluable catalogue raisonne, which documents all Nauman's work between 1965 and 1993.) The artist has made eight times what could be contained in a retrospective, and a good chunk of that is as exceptional as the abundantly wonderful work that's here.

* Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 621-6222, through Sept. 25. Closed Mondays.

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