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ART REVIEWS : ‘Action Station’ Ends Up in Wrong Space

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Action Station: Exploring Open Systems,” curated by art dealer Sue Spaid at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, is a pleasant show of interesting new work that follows a rather naive agenda. Interactivity, which “Action Station” purports to explore, is one of the moment’s most seductive tropes.

In the digital realm, interactivity has thus far proven a chimera, more hype than reality. At the Santa Monica Museum of Art things are, unfortunately, little different. While promising works that take the form of kits, that have no predetermined end point or that the viewer can “disassemble and reassemble into myriad configurations,” the show in fact frustrates any attempt at active engagement. “Look, but don’t touch” remains the preeminent, if unspoken, message here.

In any case, things like the following hardly count as interactive: tentacular sculptures in myriad pastel shades whose wire armature can be squeezed (Toby Mott); fingerprint-stained Mylar towels, which one is invited to further smudge (Ricardo Zulueta); an array of vinyl sleeves, decorated with vaguely familiar superhero stripes and chevrons, which conjure a range of all-powerful, fantasy selves (Laura Howe).

The latter piece, part of Howe’s bitterly ironic “Artemis” series, has little in common with Joseph Grigely’s poignant collection of scrawled notes, transcribed conversations and printed commentaries, which come out of the artist’s experiences as a deaf man. Both are provocative projects, but Spaid uses them as bits of evidence designed to back up a weak thesis.

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Admittedly, neither Grigely nor Howe is particularly enamored of closed forms and fixed meanings. Yet neither are these artists interested in surrendering authorship in order to embrace anarchy, as were the Fluxus artists who are cited here as historical predecessors.

Post-Minimal art seems a more obvious point of reference. Patrizia Giambi’s units of measure, made of fungible bits of rubber, owe a great deal to the work of Robert Morris. Maura Bendett’s satin- and velvet-skirted shelves, which hang from the rafters like columns or sit on the floor in rather glum puddles, take revenge on Donald Judd’s Minimalist sculpture as directly (if not as acerbically) as Morris and his contemporaries did.

Indeed, the work in “Action Station” is more properly historical than revolutionary. The curatorial paradigm into which it is so awkwardly fitted is likewise less predicative than nostalgic.

* Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2437 Main St., (310) 399-0433. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, through Oct. 1.

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Expressionist Flashback: At Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, an exhibition of German Expressionist paintings, prints and drawings by artists including Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Edvard Munch demonstrates the remarkable elasticity of this familiar stylistic label. Produced during the first two decades of this century, as Europe’s most “civilized” country self-destructed, this work reflects disillusion, nostalgia, yearning, impassivity and deep despair.

Of particular interest are images by some of the lesser-known artists. Rudolf Bauer began his career as a cartoonist, and in 1918 developed an abstruse theory of “cosmic movement.” Despite his penchant for manifestoes, his small abstractions are remarkably improvisatory, like spur-of-the-moment high-wire acts.

Though during her lifetime she was scarcely known outside her native Worspede, Paula Modersohn-Becker produced a very important body of work, notable for its simplification of form and abstraction of color. Her 1902 etching of an old woman followed by a duck, one of the show’s highlights, has the concise elegance of a folk tale. Seen within its broader historical context, its stately calm is devastating.

Munch’s 1920 lithograph “Reclining Woman” also boasts a certain stateliness. But if it reeks of 19th-Century Romanticism (very much in the tradition of Delacroix), a 1912 drawing by Ernst Kirchner, confiscated by Nazi officials in 1933 as degenerate, seems to want to erase all traces of what came before. A barrage of sinister marks and claustrophobic forms masquerading as a street scene, the image is frantic and aggressively illogical.

As usual, however, Otto Dix makes everybody else look tame. His “Lady With Fan,” a 1923 watercolor, depicts a woman with dagger nails, one bared breast and a gaze clouded by pools of her own turquoise eye shadow. Dix shares with Matisse an exquisitely attenuated line and a taste for exoticism, but there is nothing soothing about the former’s vision of modernity. He indulges in a characteristic decadence while making it clear that, despite appearances, nobody is having any fun at all.

* Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, 357 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 938-5222. Closed Sundays and Mondays, through Sept. 9.

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Woodworking: Connie Mississippi’s environmentally conscious sculpture, made from scavenged natural wood or prefabricated pieces of laminated plywood, is turned on a custom lathe that can accommodate forms up to 47 feet in diameter and eight feet in length. Traditionally, the lathe is used to make functional vessels no larger than 12 feet in diameter. Mississippi, however, works hard at being untraditional.

To that end, her lathe-turned objects at FIG Gallery resist not only use-value, but intrinsic beauty. Mississippi is fond of working with plywood because it avoids the checking and warping that occurs when a piece of natural wood is turned. Yet she often masks the precise surfaces she achieves with jarring bits of color.

A large oval form sliced in three pieces, for example, boasts a yellow interior as unromantic as the yolk of an egg. Other pieces are smothered in sheets of black rubber and ornamented with confusedly baroque compositions of hammered nails.

Much of this has to do with Mississippi’s literal-mindedness. She favors applications of rubber, nails and paint because they exemplify culture’s intrusions into nature. She favors hollowed-out forms with elaborated interiors because they parallel the individual’s complex psychology.

If such formulas make for rather unsatisfying art, at least one work in the show is allusive and quite lovely. It consists of 53 small, turned pieces that hang delicately from the ceiling’s rafters, arranged in a pair of parallel columns. Made of bits of pine, oak, elm and birch, these abstract forms resemble all manner of things: acorns, eggs, peanuts, horns, cones. That each one marks a year in the artist’s life is incidental. The composition reveals no autobiographical truths, only pleasure in the play of light and shape.

* FIG Gallery, 2022A Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 829-7425. Closed Sundays and Mondays, through Sept. 16.


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