A new show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is called “The Layered Look: Towards an Aesthetic of Accumulation Among Six Los Angeles Artists.” In addition to being too long, that title sounds a little odd for an art exhibition. It evokes the world of fashion and the shameless self-aggrandizement that surrounds it.
Potential viewers may rest assured the handle is ironic to the point of hostility. This exhibition is about desperation. The French call it desespoir , which literally means “without hope.” Naturally such a state of despair requires a light touch to give it the proper aura of pathos.
First you must select flimsy materials that bespeak the crumbly and fleeting nature of all humanity’s attempts to perpetuate itself beyond its mortal compass. Doug Hammett gets right down to it by making architectural moldings out of cake frosting. These works, generically titled “Finger Licks,” evoke classic architecture from Greek temples to Mayan pyramids.
It’s a bit of a wonder that Hammett would pick on some of the rare human structures that actually endured. It’s as if he wants to make fun of himself making fun of the human impulse to immortality. It’s a double-take that minimizes the work’s overt Dadaist cynicism and makes it kind of cute.
The cute syndrome is endemic to this show. Larry Mantello’s two large installations are entirely fashioned of cultural cute. The largest is called “Continental Enter Chain” and has an automated Santa as its centerpiece. The Santa is surrounded by a myriad of cheap plastic objects, balloons and Japanese lanterns shaped like everything from leprechauns to bunnies, globes of the planet and a fire hydrant labeled “Top Dog Award.” A tape loop of Asian pop music lends the piece a decidedly multicultural flavor.
Its celebratory facade recalls the innocent delight on the faces of toddlers having their first Christmas. Its innards evoke an adult understanding of the monstrous consumerism, greed and infantile hysteria embedded in all this schlock. The whole is looped with a yellow plastic tape repeating, “Caution, caution, caution.”
Like most of the others, Mantello gets wedged between an impulse to criticize society and a weakness for its vulgar energy and seductive sentimentality. All this work admits to a hopeless inability to set priorities.
Some of it derives a certain rigor from regressing into autistic compulsion like a kid whose games become his reality. Chris Finley collects all manner of objects common to suburban life from plastic containers to bottle-tops. “Seven Circles Are Removable, Please Reset When Finished” is an intricate wall relief in the form of a cross. Its combination of dusky blue and salmon pink objects make it look like a huge, infant’s toy. Movable parts reveal progressively more intricate stashes inside. It’s the secret universe of a 3-year-old.
Pauline Stella Sanchez shows paintings from a series called “bubbles, bubbles, bubbles and bubbles that POP.” The dreamy-kid title designates paintings built up of pigment in circular layers topped with a coat of fluorescent yellow. They are like serious theoretical abstract paintings made in the nursery.
Joyce Lightbody’s world is on the scale of a postage stamp. She uses them and other equally minuscule snippets to make small encrusted collages that manage to reach back to the poetics of Paul Klee and Joseph Cornell. They have lovely titles like “Potato Moon” and “40 Years of Booty.”
Constance Mallinson comes at her problems from an adult perspective, but they are no less discouraging. Her “Las Meninas Mound” consists of 100 figurative paintings done over the past year. Their subjects tend to be those available to a wife and mother--kids, meat from the supermarket, folks and friends. Canvases vary vertiginously in character as if done by several artists of divergent talent. They are piled in such fashion as to suggest imminent incineration. Their quality of hopelessness is chilling.
The show is part of the LAX/94 festival. Santa Monica Museum of Art director Thomas Rhoads did a first-rate job of making his point. It bears on matters that have affected art for a long time now. Aspects of Jon Borofsky and Mike Kelley hover here. All of it feels like the gutted end of the once-liberating enlistment of popular culture to invigorate the fine arts. Now it feels like the pathetic dance of a precious child whose voice has changed.
All of this has happened before. The century bracketing the French Revolution produced curious haunted sentimentalist painters like the Le Nain brothers and artists like Antoine Watteau whose sense of the poignant made silliness into poetry. There were heartfelt genre artists like Chardin and kinky moralist scolds like J.B. Greuze.
What’s happening today enlists sympathy while suggesting there are severe limits on art whose main purpose is to make you feel sorry for it. If it needs a category we can call it Rococo Pop.
* Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2437 Main St., through Jan. 15, closed Monday and Tuesday, (310) 399-0433.