Art Review : ‘Underexposed’: Some Gems in the Rough
The exhibition is called “Underexposed.” The place is the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park. The title is a pun. It refers to about 80 artists and the materials with which they ply their trade. The core technique is art’s old stepchild, photography now extended into the even more artistically esoteric areas of video, video installation, digital imagery and performance art.
Makers do everything from little peep shows to assemblage in the manner of Joseph Cornell. There are piles of books by Wojciech Szaszor and an exceptionally intelligent video installation by Ming-Yuen Ma. Unfortunately, both outsmart themselves with complexity.
It’s all put together in the spirit of giving a break to artists and media that rarely get one. It’s a multimedia, multicultural extravaganza. If it strikes the seasoned viewer as looking a bit like a precocious graduate exhibition, that’s the point. This is the Muni’s annual juried exhibition. Art stars don’t expose themselves to this kind of cattle-call audition unless it’s in Germany.
Predictably there is a lot of second-rate work. Even more underwhelming is the percentage of it that traffics in polemical conceptualism related to divisive issues in the culture. The trouble with such themes wrapped around art is that they tend to preach to viewers, wiping out that important percentage of the art experience that belongs to them.
Themes of gay rights, feminism, racial prejudice and the like are artistically dicey not because they are inappropriate but because they challenge the artist to add fresh insights to subjects that are sacred cows already talked to death by fervid believers who toe party lines. In the circumstance, the artists’ job is to play their traditional role as humanizing nonconformist. Doing this should offend all people with fixed ideological views, bringing some semblance of sense to a screwed-up situation.
This sort of behavior is intrinsically difficult and is incorrect in a politically correct climate. It’s nice to be able to report that some artists here bring it off. Success tends to equate with the elegance of simplicity.
Nancy Floyd, for example, offers “More Than Enough Stopping Power.” It consists of three nearly identical photographs of a pregnant woman’s torso in profile draped in a loose gown. In each picture she holds a handgun of progressively higher caliber.
The politics of the thing are not clear. The weapon seems to be there to protect the child. On the other hand, maybe it’s there to stop anyone who tells her she can’t abort it. What makes it all work is the compelling stereotype-busting image of an expectant mother with a lethal weapon. Floyd, instead of cajoling, does the artistically correct thing, asking questions that suggest we rethink our preconceptions.
John Rand is nearly as effective in a Manet-like full-length portrait of a chap closely resembling a motorcycle cop. A bomb-size cigar angles jauntily away from his walrus-size mustache. Maybe he’s not a cop but one of those chaps who likes to come off very scary and butch while playing dress-up. Maybe he’s gay. You can’t tell. The picture sets itself in that fertile field of ambiguity where the viewer is left to muse on the nature of macho or the even more profound question of how much we can really tell about someone by looking at them.
This humorless epoch has forgotten that the best way to uproot prejudice is to laugh it to death. Keith Nakata remembers in “Wigwam Motel.” He shows one of its famous tepee-shaped rooms with a maid’s cart at the door-flap. The image leaves the Native American’s dignity entirely intact while devastating the pretensions of sentimentality.
Joe Bussink has the courage to remind us that blight can be beautiful in “Mono Lake.” Debbie Doolittle sweetly skews authority by draping a bureaucratic building with costume jewelry in “State Capitol Adorned.”
Finally there are those who assert that which is worth valuing. Christine Dellosso’s “Leo’s Barber Chair” is saturated with respect and affection. Robert Shapiro shows an old guy on a shabby street contemplating the body of a bird in “Dead Pigeon.” There is something about the sight of a small, innocently dead animal that briefly causes us to get our priorities straight.
Jurors for “Underexposed” were Claire Aguilar, Jonathan Green, Joe Smoke and Louise Steinman.
* Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., through Aug. 21, Tues.-Sun. 12:30-5 p.m., (213) 458-4581.