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Art Review : Playful, Suggestive Sculptures From One of Today’s Finest

TIMES ART CRITIC

Is Richard Deacon the best sculptor of his generation?

At an artistic moment when camera- and text-based art, installations and a hybridized mixing of mediums are the norm, sculpture (not unlike painting) sometimes seems an endangered species. Yet, as the most interesting painters today also manage to do, the 45-year-old Londoner seems able to take the “demise” of his medium as a liberating cue.

Deacon doesn’t throw away precedents; his sculpture invokes artistic legacies as distinct as those of Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and various Minimalist sculptors of the 1960s. He acknowledges the weightiness of tradition, then tears it apart and rebuilds it from scratch, in a manner at once organic yet rudely hand-built.

Deacon is just now having his first solo exhibition in a Los Angeles gallery, although his work is not entirely unknown to Southern California. As part of a generation of British sculptors who came to prominence in the mid-1980s, several of his early works were included in a group survey that traveled to the Newport Harbor Art Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art presented a small but compelling solo exhibition in 1988.

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The latter featured a sculpture on MOCA’s outdoor plaza, titled “Distance No Object,” that demanded from viewers an immediate reconsideration of the critical prohibition that had congealed during the previous 20 years against the traditional idea of free-standing plaza sculpture. MOCA wasn’t able to secure the funds to acquire the extraordinary piece, but the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art quickly snapped it up.

At L.A. Louver Gallery, whose graceful new building in Venice (designed by architect Fred Fisher) this show inaugurates, Deacon shows a pair of sculptures from 1993 and five from 1994. Like “Distance No Object,” most have been given eccentrically evocative titles, some in the form of brief, complete sentences: “Nothing is forbidden,” “Tickle him under there,” “Not yet beautiful,” “Nothing is allowed.”

Titles like these don’t describe inert objects. Contradictory, playful, suggestive--the titles are like the sculptures themselves, which suggest an artist intent on rethinking the activity of making sculpture.

For British sculptors of Deacon’s generation, that activity had languished under the heroic shadow of Henry Moore (1898-1986). The elder artist’s work loomed large as an impediment, because he had accumulated a kind of end-of-the-line stature. But the hurdle ironically helped to generate Deacon’s remarkable vocabulary, in which nature and culture get equal billing.

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“Not yet beautiful” is a hilly mound made from welded pieces of polycarbonate--a clear plastic--about 7 feet long and 4 feet high, which looks like some strangely man-made chrysalis out of which a reclining bronze figure by Moore might someday emerge. “Second Skin” is a metastasizing mass of tetrahedrons assembled from thick pieces of corrugated cardboard, slathered with oozing epoxy resin. “Nothing is forbidden” is an undulating, tortoise-shell-like shelter leaning against a wall, constructed from heavily laminated layers of plywood.

The show is almost uniformly strong, but the knockout is “Nothing is allowed.” An industrial orifice 10 feet long and nearly 5 feet high, and made from bolted stainless-steel panels and struts, the metal sculpture seems uncannily buoyant and inflated with air. Like some sexy, cybernetic blow-up doll, it’s a Moore for the 1990s.

Structurally these sculptures are emphatically overbuilt--a Deacon trademark--which serves to emphasize the process of their making. Even more important, it celebrates gratuitousness, which is a powerful source of art’s pleasure. Tapping into that deep well, Deacon’s work exudes a refreshing, restorative spirit. It’s among the finest sculpture being made anywhere today.

* L.A. Louver Gallery, 45 N. Venice Blvd., (310) 822-4955, through Feb. 11. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Painting Attire: The quirky idea of making clothing for paintings had been latent in Jason McKechnie’s earlier art, but it has now moved front and center. Most of his nine new paintings at ACME are draped in dresses, skirts or sarongs, and a few are adorned with what passes for jewelry and handbags.

Before, McKechnie had been making aggressive, wildly decorated, abstract paintings whose surfaces were overloaded with so much goopy paint, attached gewgaws and glitter that it all oozed beyond the confining rectangle and began to creep across the gallery wall. It still does, but now it has representational associations.

In this slightly overcrowded show, painted ladies strut their stuff. An identification of art with traditional femininity, in general, and with the playful excesses of fashion, in particular, puts the young, formerly L.A.-based artist’s work into interesting new territory.

His earlier work proposed that the traditional canvas was limited and restricting, a historic straitjacket from which escape seemed essential. Now those confinements are being considered in their socially constructed dimension, which is giving McKechnie some room in which to move.

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On a formal level, his new paintings seem to snap into coherent place because their scale is right. Suddenly, dressed like we are, they begin to establish a physical dialogue with a spectator standing before them. As they do, today’s reigning artistic fetish for art about the body begins to get deliriously upended, transformed into the latest fashion show.

If McKechnie’s paintings haven’t quite arrived at their destination, they have been following a provocative trajectory. Surely it’s a worthwhile ride.

* ACME, 1800B Berkeley St., Santa Monica, (310) 264-5818, through Feb. 4. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.

Museum Guide

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* If the only culture in your life is growing in your refrigerator, check out the Museum Guide on the TimesLink on-line service. Find out about the permanent collections and view images of major works. Sign on and “jump” to keyword “museums.”

Details on Times electronic services, A5


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