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O.C. Art Reviews : Biberman’s ‘City’ Holds True to the Noir Tradition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When 32-year-old artist Edward Biberman moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1936, he found a city in the grip of the Great Depression, with small businessmen, developers and retired farmers hard hit by speculation in failed oil and real-estate deals.

As Mike Davis writes in his invaluable history of L.A., “City of Quartz,” the “Depression-crazed middle classes . . . became . . . the original protagonists of that great anti-myth usually known as noir .” Such books and movies as James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” evoked the bitter, dark side of the California dream.

In “Silence in the City,” a vest-pocket show of Biberman’s paintings at the Laguna Art Museum (through Feb. 26), the temper of the ‘30s and ‘40s is revealed in the grim endurance of labor protesters toting fluttering signs (“Pavement Patterns--Pickets”) and the enigmatic layout of an abandoned construction site bristling with useless rebar (steel concrete-reinforcement rods), under a perversely cheerful blue sky (“Abandoned Project--Wasteland”).

True to the noir tradition, Biberman’s brush locates the “anti-myth” of Southern California in seemingly innocuous city images. In “Slow Curve,” a 1945 portrait of a desolate ocean-view street that seems to disappear into thin air, a (military?) plane flies overhead. In “Wilshire Corner,” from 1938, an ornate street lamp, a modest, ivy-covered building and a hulking slab of contemporary architecture evoke a neighborhood in transition.

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Biberman sometimes indulged in mawkish histrionics: The prisoner in the T-shirt behind a barbed-wire fence in “Dedication--The Unseen Wind” gazes soulfully at a sky dramatically streaked with light. But he had a cinematographic eye for establishing the mood of a scene with striking silhouettes and expressive poses.

In “The Staff,” from 1952, the shifty expressions of the three men getting a briefing from Sen. Joseph McCarthy--seated with his broad back to the viewer and attended by a heavyset goon--leave little doubt about the shady nature of the meeting. Biberman’s brother, Herbert, was one of the Hollywood Ten jailed for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ investigation into Communist activities.

Other paintings by Biberman from the ‘50s and early ‘60s focus on the concrete and stucco infrastructure of a Los Angeles with no visible human presence. The flat, sun-struck surfaces of stucco buildings, the undersides of elevated freeways and the rich, blue void of the sky--occasionally broken by the shadows of palm trees or a spongy patch of foliage--convey the vacancy and languor of the Southland.

In a few of these later paintings, Biberman experimented with more abstracted landscape imagery: prismatic bits of color seen in the spaces between tree trunks (“Shadows and Substance”) or a mysterious geometric glow in the sky, like an airborne Mark Rothko painting (“The End of the Dam--Spillway”).

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“Silence in the City” is a welcome addition to acting director Susan Anderson’s ongoing series of small shows of vintage California art, accompanied by brief documentation. (More historical context in the wall texts might have been useful; this show also is accompanied by a video interview with the artist, who died in 1986.)

Incidental intelligence: Biberman’s 1971 painting “Esprit” (an image of a building emblazoned with the red-and-white sign of the clothing manufacturer) hangs just steps away from “Lit From Within,” an exhibition showcasing part of the Esprit Corp.'s Amish quilt collection.

By the way, it turns out that that exhibition actually had been approved by former director Charles Desmarais, contrary to conjecture previously in this column . The postponement of the John McLaughlin retrospective after Desmarais was fired moved the quilt display to an earlier slot on the museum’s schedule.

* “Silence in the City: Edward Biberman’s Los Angeles,” through Feb. 26, Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. $5 adults, $4 seniors and students, free for children younger than 12. (714) 494-8971.

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PAGAN COMFORTS: All that’s missing is aroma therapy, chanting and candlelight in “Saturnalia/Solstice,” a funky show of art, decoration and engineering at BC Space in Laguna Beach by 12 local artists engaged by notions of evolution, growth and seasonal cycles.

Winter’s mysteries are evoked in the most delightful way in Fritz Smith’s mixed-media photograph, “Alice’s Last Chance.” In an eerily red-hued winter landscape, an alert baby marvels at a jinni escaped from a bottle. This computer “glyph"--a fanciful, fish-tailed shape--floats near an ornate, architectural dome (a teapot lid?). The air of enchantment is almost palpable.

John Forkner’s computer-created light box, “Homage to the Sunflower,” serves as a sort of electronic fireplace. Superimposed, rotating designs form a continuously shifting and pulsing flower design sketched in a successive array of rainbow colors. Thanks to a built-in wobble in the mechanics of the piece, the patterns never precisely repeat.

It’s no wonder that circular motifs predominate in this show, given the visual link between the winter solstice, the shape of the Earth and sun, and the Earth’s orbit.

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Most of the imagery sunnily invokes harmony and wholeness (Paul Darrow’s untitled paper relief with concentric rings, Robert Esterley’ living wreath, Andy Wing’s radiant abstraction, “The Right Angel”). But the elegiac tone of gallery proprietor Mark Chamberlain’s “found” hubcap with fragmentary chrome lettering and dried grasses (“OR 2000") invokes a culture at once estranged from and dependent on the natural world, on the brink of the 21st Century.

John Warren opts for astronomical metaphor in “Solstice--The Changing of Days.” Fifty-two steel rays of various lengths surrounding a suspended igneous rock represent the sun’s effect on seemingly fixed, calendar time. Other works are by Larry Gill, Bobby Ballesteros, Jerry Burchfield, Jorg Dubin and Lau Haaning.

* “Saturnalia/ Solstice,” through Feb. 18, BC Space, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach. Hours: 1 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; other times by appointment. Free. (714) 497-1880.

“SMALL AND UNTITLED”: The light-hearted conceit behind a group show at Griffin Fine Art in Costa Mesa (through Jan. 29) is that all 21 artists are represented by untitled work smaller than a bread box “or no larger than two loaves of Wonder Bread,” according to the press release.

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Although the size limitation simply allows more pieces to fit in limited space, the lack of titles has a more serious purpose: obliging artists to get their points across without resorting to verbal cleverness--a real challenge in this post-conceptual age.

Some of the mixed-media offerings are quite puzzling without written clues, but paintings that depend on the sheer joy of color, texture and pattern--often with a saucy, retro flavor--fare best of all.

The new treat in this lineup is Maura Bendett, a 1987 master of fine arts graduate of UCLA who has shown at domestic setting, a gallery in Los Angeles. Her bright and busy paintings incorporate motifs ranging from an atomic diagram to comma shapes reminiscent of Elizabeth Murray. Three-dimensional elements--thread, pushpins, paintings on paper mounted on wood brackets raised above the level of the canvas--add to the insouciant restlessness of Bendett’s never-never land.

A painting by Jacqueline Cooper, a student at Otis School of Art and Design in Los Angeles, looks like a collision between a Tonalist landscape and a house painter’s accident. Beige dots and an extended swath of beige Cover Girl Liquid Foundation interrupt a bumpy, misty field of delicate brush strokes. Although the piece could be a one-liner (if makeup creates flawless skin, think what it could do to paintings), its disjunctive qualities are weirdly appealing in a purely visual sense.

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Cornelius O’Leary, a quixotic 27-year-old Santa Ana artist whose unlikely combinations of objects have been shown at the Irvine Fine Arts Center and Cal State Fullerton, is represented by a sculpture incorporating a tiny shell and strands of hair within a sheet of metal with doily-like cutouts.

Other works are by Dan Manns, Kristin Siracusa, Liza Ryan and more of the up-and-coming gang familiar to frequent Griffin visitors. Upstairs, the gallery is showing quirky photographs from the 1970s by such memorable non-mainstream artists as Les Krims, Allen Teller, Phil Melnick and Marcia Resnick.

* “Small and Untitled,” through Jan. 29, Griffin Fine Art, 1640 Pomona Ave., Costa Mesa. Hours: 6 to 11 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Free. (714) 646-5665.


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