What can it mean for an artist to reinvent a landscape? It might mean painting pink trees or playing with perspective. Or it might involve pondering the relationship between a given environment and the people who settle there, for love or money or freedom or because of ancestral ties.
In "Mapped Out: Reinventing the New Mexico Landscape" at the UC Irvine Art Gallery (through Nov. 11), the latter approach unites diverse works by seven artists from New Mexico, chosen by gallery director Catherine Lord.
The pieces seem largely concerned with issues of race, gender, ecology and technology as they apply to a desert state known for its cattle ranching and mining as well as for the development of the atomic bomb (at Los Alamos National Laboratory) and bitter 19th-Century clashes between settlers and Native Americans.
The most visually arresting works in the show create an ambiguous, substitute landscape with the curving contours of a supine naked human body, powerless against the incursions of outside forces.
In two of Allan Labb's photo-murals, collectively called "Pound of Flesh," a fleshy man lying on his back is stomped by the gleaming, expensive-looking shoes of unseen men or is subject to genital manipulation. In the third mural, he seems more at ease, with superimposed photographs of female erogenous zones giving him a male-female identity.
The homoerotic content of these images is intriguingly open-ended. Labb seems to be portraying male dominance in a questionable light, while his playful proposal of a dual sexual identity questions the absolutism of gender stereotyping, proposing instead an alliance of male and female qualities.
In a very different way, the nudes in Delmas Howe's painting "Education of the Mortals" are linked to some of the same issues. Cowboys in a sylvan glade are shown removing their jeans to strike transfixed poses somewhere between musclemen and descendants of the worshipful nudes in pantheistic scenes by the late 19th-Century Symbolists. This tongue-in-cheek scene fantastically proposes a homoerotic, New Age transformation of the Marlboro Man.
The other works in the show tend to lack visual immediacy, except for Harmony Hammond's elegiac "Burden," a straw-stuffed horse collar burst open like an overripe fruit in the center of a field of bloodied straw. For all its stagy drama, the frame of reference of this piece--assuming it extends beyond the broad theme of mortality--remains unclear. Is it meant to invoke the bloody history of settlers' dealings with Native Americans?
A sprawling collage ("Making Them See Me") by Melanie Yazzie, an installation ("Red Sticks") by C. Maxx Stevens and possibly also a set of spare drawings by Mary Ristow do address Native American culture but in uninvolving, awkward or baffling ways.
Yazzie incorporates a diffuse array of references to indigenous and imported animals, peoples and foodstuffs in the United States, on which she plots her ghostly silhouette. Stevens' mock burial mound of plaster noses (resembling stones) surrounded by painted sticks is accompanied by a baldly didactic text.
Ristow's work is so hermetic that it would appear entirely abstract in another context. If only for her sake, it's a pity Lord didn't provide her own interpretation of the show's theme.
A trio of works by Meridel Rubenstein is closely related to her 1993 installation "Critical Mass" (a collaboration with composer Ellen Zweig and video artists Steina and Woody Vasulka), which deals with the impact of Los Alamos on historical and ordinary people. Without this context, the works in the current show seem dry and overly dependent on wall label information.
One of Rubenstein's photo pieces, "Oppenheimer/Archimedes No. 4," links two famous scientists--J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Los Alamos director who resigned from the lab in 1945 after the first bomb was exploded, and the ancient Greek mathematician who also was a designer of war machines.
The three photographs are of a wide-eyed boy with a model ship, a gas mask and a staring owl. Visually linked by the eye motif (perhaps symbolic of foresight or mental acuity), these images evoke youthful promise, war, extinction and wisdom. They evoke, in highly condensed form, the moral challenges faced by scientists in a bellicose world.
* "Mapped Out: Reinventing the New Mexico Landscape" continues through Nov. 11 at the UC Irvine Art Gallery, off Bridge Road on the UCI campus. Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Free. (714) 824-6610.