It's hard to know which is worse, exhibitions that set out to irritate, or those that do it accidentally. There is likely a bit of both in "Pure Beauty: Some Recent Work From Los Angeles" at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Put together by MOCA's Ann Goldstein, it includes installations by seven lesser-known locals, and comes here after acting as the inaugural show at Frank Gehry's new American Center in Paris. An inauspicious start.
One glance and you know the title is ironic. It's taken from a 1967 painting by John Baldessari, in which he had a sign painter letter the words "Pure Beauty" in pedestrian style. The idea was mildly funny at the time but doubled ironies eat their own tails. Now it serves to remind us there is no intention to address beauty here and, worse, it suggests that this idea-dependent sphere of the art world hasn't had a fresh one in decades.
Los Angeles' major museums are always tardy in catching up with the indigenous art of the moment. When they try they usually get it wrong. Well, what are you going to do? There are so many artists around nobody can sort them out.
That would be a plausible excuse if there weren't a similar demonstration on view in town that gets it right, "Plane/Structures" at the Otis Gallery. That modest, thoughtful show organized by critic (and Times contributor) David Pagel allows its overtly similar art to speak in individual voices about important historical, stylistic and expressive matters. The tactic is intelligent understatement.
"Pure Beauty" is in your face. It's noisy. There are at least a dozen television monitors and projectors blaring away. The loudest is a boom box in a work by T. Kelly Mason that is presumably about how the aggressive intrusions of the media prevent us from thinking. It's tough to see how art that further deadens our poor brain is constructive.
Well, never mind, just endure the electronic assault and save contemplation for when you get home and curl up with the catalogue.
This is not only insulting to the artists, it ignites the viewers' suspicion that, in fact, this show offers nothing to think about. Such ideas as can be gleaned are familiar cliches about destroying art to save it, multiculturalism, and the virtues of infantile regression in a repressive society.
Any of these artists might look interesting in another context. For proof, the work of Pae White is also in "Plane/Structures," where it is as compelling as it is not here. The problem is organizational. In a city whose art is fascinating by its variety we have an exhibition that plays to a small coterie of like-minded collectors, critics and curators. The last concern of such a show is providing accurate insight to art's general audience. Artists are snookered into a position where they look like illustrators of someone else's text.
As closely examined as distraction allows, this exhibition does offer some tantalizing work.
Richard Hawkins, for example, posits imagery that links the gay aesthetic to a fascination with ancient Asia. He presents four elaborate Chinese lanterns collaged with snapshots and reproductions of the gorgeous young hunks who, since the artist is openly homosexual, fascinate him. Generically they share the title "crepuscule" (dusk). He links them to a flamboyant French poet of Proust's generation, Comte Robert de Montesquiou, but--closer to home--they call up Kenneth Anger's underground film masterpiece, "The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome."
Jorge Pardo and White take another tack on the Asian connection. Where Hawkins finds it elaborately exotic, they find a kind of sterility. Their work links the rigor of Japanese art to modernism. Both explore the notion of ignoring distinctions between art and design. She makes little tableaux of Eames-style chairs and modernist influenced design objects. He shows a desk and some architectural fragments. Both say that pure beauty is beauty bereft of emotion.
Thaddeus Strode is not well-served by his surroundings. Taken on his own merit, the artist has a wonderful, wall-eyed sense of humor, as in his video, "Dancing on Small Change/Double Power (Boardwalking)." Unfortunately, the just-closed Bruce Nauman retrospective in adjacent galleries and a recent Mike Kelley survey at the County Museum make Strode look like a follower.
There's an apparent sweetness in Sarah Seager's installation, which consists of some 50 framed pieces of correspondence. The earliest, dating from the 1930s, were written by, or to, one George Watson Cole. They concern his coming to grips with his wife's near-fatal bout with pneumonia. He was the original owner of the Pasadena house where Seager grew up and the first librarian of the Huntington Library, which now also houses the West Coast headquarters of the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art.
Seager writes the archive, attempting to get the Cole correspondence accepted as a conceptual artwork. By the time she succeeds we have tumbled to the fact that the whole thing was an elaborate Duchampian ruse about the guile and manipulation required to make it as an artist today.
Ever since the invention of photography, artists have feared becoming obsolete at the hands of the mass media. The computer has only made it worse. Diana Thater offers two linked video pieces on the subject. One is a room-sized projection of bison walking in the snow. Titled "Long Rise Over Snake River," it is soundless, fuzzy and mysterious. The companion piece, "Wyoming Algon" shows the same video on three normal television monitors, each tuned to one of the primary colors. The point is to expose media imagery as an illusion. We knew that. All art is an illusion.
Taken together, the whole of "Pure Beauty" can be read as art contemplating its own extinction. It is not quite clear whether this is the real message or an organizational glitch, but the lack of energy and conviction here makes art look like it's ready to go.
That has to be wrong.
* The Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., to Jan. 8, closed Mondays, (213) 626-6222.