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ART REVIEWS : ‘Woven Water’ a Kitschy, Fantastic Voyage Under the Sea

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Walking into “Woven Water,” Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s enchanting installation at Ruth Bloom Gallery, feels like falling into a dream. Thousands of starfish, seashells and sand dollars--suspended from the rafters, attached to the walls and stacked on the floor--make you feel like a big fish in a beautiful aquarium.

The tips of the starfish have been wired together to form undulating, organic nets that float overhead like constellations in the night sky, or cluster underfoot like synchronized troupes of tiny, stylized ballerinas.

The slender, pointed shells of sea snails, which resemble hollow, slightly curved pencils, have been slipped inside one another to form translucent scribbles spiraling through space like nonsensical handwriting. Artificially colored scallop shells are stacked like poker chips, and sand dollars are strung together like enormous necklaces that also resemble the vertebrae of fantastic creatures.

Cardoso’s delightful installation shares many characteristics with the submarine ride at Disneyland. Both are upfront about their fakery, appealing to visitors who willingly suspend disbelief. Neither piece of theater actually takes you into the sea, preferring instead that you visit the watery depths in your imagination.

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After a while, the initial, illusory magic of Cardoso’s sculptures falls flat: Her labor-intensive installation begins to look less like a dream and more like the decor of a cheesy seafood restaurant in the suburbs. The artist’s impressive inventory of seashells simultaneously recalls the handcrafted knickknacks sold in souvenir shops near harbors and beaches all over the world.

Far from diminishing the power of Cardoso’s art, however, these affinities with kitsch bolster the impact of her sculptures. The Colombian-born, Yale-educated and San Francisco-based artist mimics the formal elegance of Minimalist abstraction not to purge traces of touristic cliches from her work, but to emphasize connections among far-flung realms of culture.

With barbed wit, Cardoso proposes that modern art is just another form of tourism. Like visits to out-of-the-ordinary, often exotic lands, art’s significance depends upon context, knowledge, history and point of view.

Cheap souvenirs are intrinsically no more or less interesting than modernist abstractions. What counts are the ways you distill significance from Cardoso’s promiscuous blends of natural materials and cultural forms, making meaning out of smart hybrids in which metaphors freely mix and contradictions abound.

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* Ruth Bloom Gallery, 2036 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 829-7454, through Sept. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *

Sofa Showroom: Part garbage dump, scavenger hunt, Christian myth and art historical sendup, Carter Potter’s installation at TRI Gallery is also a cleverly compressed self-portrait.

Titled “Potter’s Field,” the L.A.-based artist’s ongoing project consists of two tidy piles of thrown-out couches that currently cover the floor of the small back gallery. Each day, for the duration of the exhibition, the 33-year-old Potter adds a junk sofa picked from the neighborhood. By the show’s end, the room will be filled to overflowing.

His growing accumulation of stained, slashed and stripped-down couches refers to the burial ground for the indigent and friendless, first mentioned in the Bible when money that Judas was paid to betray Jesus was inherited by the city authorities and donated to the low-budget cemetery.

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Potter’s modern gloss on the final resting place for the destitute offers a quick sketch of the hard-luck neighborhood of the new gallery, acknowledging the steadily increasing number of homeless people on Hollywood’s streets.

“Potter’s Field” also surveys a major component of the artist’s work. Over the past five years, Potter has pieced together sculptures with found couches and chairs, sometimes affixing them to the wall and at other times arranging them in Minimalist-inspired configurations. Those tattered pieces of furniture mock the middle-class idea of buying art to match the sofa and ridicule the requirement that art be pristine, neat and perfect.

His current arrangement of discarded couches is indiscriminate or acompositional. It pays tongue-in-cheek homage to Potter’s artistic forebears, repeating the once daring and now cliched impulse to fill galleries with garbage, dirt, blocks of wood or stacks of bricks. Following upon Franz West’s celebrated installation of colorful public benches in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s courtyard, “Potter’s Field” appears to be the dumb, ugly cousin of such international ambition.

His abandoned sofas cast such anonymous yet monumental gestures in more personal terms. These damaged pieces of furniture silently bear witness to a host of domestic dramas, to past naps, conversations and comforts that Matisse found in his armchair and that Potter finds on curbsides all over the city.

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* TRI Gallery, 6365 Yucca St., (213) 469-6686, through Sept. 5. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

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Sexual Boredom: Paul Botello’s intimately scaled acrylics on canvas and board depict images never found in his more well-known murals. Sexual reveries take explicit shape in the L.A.-based artist’s 22 boldly colored paintings at Granados 2 Gallery. Nude couples fondle, kiss, have sex, swoon, float into the sky and fuse with the landscape. Unfortunately, Botello’s paintings of men and women engaged in intimate embraces seem schematic and impersonal, as if the subjects of his images are not real individuals but generic types.

Although Botello’s vivid, supposedly private pictures have not been painted for public commissions and thus don’t need the approval of boards or committees, they are nevertheless constrained by a style more suitable for murals than personal meditations on sex. Intimacy’s extremely individual character gets lost in his readily accessible images.

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Part of this is intentional. Titled “Sacred/Savage,” Botello’s exhibition is meant to transcend individuality, to reach back to a base animal nature that is so vital and uncorrupted that it catapults us into the realm of religious transcendence. But Botello’s flat, brusquely painted works do not carry viewers into these mysteries.

* Granados 2 Gallery, 3221 Glendale Blvd., Atwater Village, (213) 662-9930, through Aug. 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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