ART REVIEWS : Going Through the Motions : Newport Harbor’s ‘Machine’ Is Fun to Look at, but It Doesn’t Work
“Machine” is a beguiling show to look at, no question about it. Spaciously installed at Newport Harbor Art Museum through Nov. 26, it contains pieces that whir, spin, vibrate or just sit still and look intriguing.
But few of the works by the 10 artists address machinery or “machine culture” as such. Most were made with distinctly different reference points. It’s as if chief curator Bruce Guenther selected the sculptures simply because they had real or simulated machine parts, rather than on the basis of the artists’ long-term strategies and references.
This is a lazy (or, at best, an uncreative) way of curating. It doesn’t illuminate the art; it merely serves as a convenient way of filling the galleries. That said, most of the pieces are well worth seeing on an individual basis, even if the connections between them are vague or nonexistent.
Dennis Oppenheim’s 1982-83 installation, “Vibrating Forest,” has been exhibited at the museum just once, shortly after Newport Harbor acquired it in 1985.
A conceptual artist who has worked with diverse materials since the mid-'60s, Oppenheim has long been concerned with the nature of psychological traps. In his 1974 piece, “Theme for a Major Hit,” a mechanized marionette keeps repeating a single song and dance. Other works of his have incorporated a conveyor belt, a circular toy train track and a revolving record in similarly metaphorical ways.
“Vibrating Forest” is a noisy and elaborate contraption that produces and destroys batches of cotton candy (the most evanescent treat imaginable) formed around a cluster of vibrating tubes. The tipped container that pitches them forward toward a glowing quartz lamp resembles a roller-coaster seat--evoking both the thrills of simulated danger and the quaking terror of annihilation.
Terri Friedman, an up-and-coming Los Angeles artist, also deals with mortality, but in a way that deliberately defies traditional notions of good taste and the sacredness of life.
In “Sunny Side Down,” gold glitter-flecked liquid continuously flows through an arrangement of looping plastic tubes ornamented with tiny baubles, into a plastic hospital beaker. The title’s reference is to Sunny von Bulow, the socialite who has been in a coma for 15 years. Her husband, Claus, was acquitted (in a second, 1985 trial) of trying to murder her with insulin injections.
The upbeat, seductively pretty piece invokes the tabloids’ fascination with the couple’s glittery life and the curiosity value of Von Bulow’s inert body, preserved as (in Friedman’s words) a “decorated living corpse.”
Among the non-motorized pieces in the show, Erik Levine’s huge “Apparatus,” a promised gift to the museum, sets up a tense dialogue between right-angled plastic foam scaffolding and the polyurethane forms--resembling sliced gourds--that it encloses. Using disposable man-made materials to fashion both a rigid grid and a pair of organic shapes, Levine sets up another set of hopeless contradictions. The net effect is of sheer entropy.
Other strong works addressing a plethora of issues are by Alan Rath, Tim Hawkinson, Kim Abeles, Susan Hornbeak-Ortiz, Catherine MacLean and Daniel Wheeler. The only clunkers are the two “theme” lamps by R.M. Fischer, kitschy conglomerations of utilitarian and ornamental components that add up to less than the sum of their parts.
* “Machine,” through Nov. 26 at Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday, noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. $4 adults, $2 students and seniors, free for children under 12. Free on Tuesdays. (714) 759-1122 .
In Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks” isolated patrons can be seen through the windows of a brightly lit coffee shop. In “Luncheonette,” Ann Marie Rousseau observes another kind of nocturnal urban isolation.
The photograph, blown up to stately proportions, shows a homeless woman with shopping bags at her feet. The lone patron of an all-night restaurant, she stares out the window with the exhausted resignation of someone able to rest only briefly from her continuous forced march through city streets.
This image is one of several from Rousseau’s book, “Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About Their Lives” (Pilgrim Press, 1981), that are at Orange Coast College Art Gallery through Thursday.
The black-and-white photographs, shot mostly during the 1970s in New York, Boston and San Francisco, reveal a world of cruel fluorescent lights, immovable plastic chairs and hard, dirty floors--the rest rooms, train station “waiting rooms” and shelter cafeterias where these women huddle like so many forgotten old coats.
Outdoors, they are observed sitting in the shadows of shops on derelict streets, rummaging through garbage bins, sunning themselves or eyeing middle-class women who stride by, oblivious or repelled.
Brief statements from some of the women sketch in the circumstances--a lost check, ill health, venal landlords--that have landed them on the streets, and subjected them to the sort of unimaginable indignities they endure every day in pursuit of rest, food, cleanliness and even control over their own bodies.
A few of the images, like “The Benediction” and “The Importance of Art"--are dependent on chance juxtapositions creating ironic social commentary, a strategy (most famously used during by Depression-era photographers) that now looks dated or didactic.
But Rousseau generally avoids obvious commentary. Her great strength is her attentiveness to both the tiny joys (a cheese sandwich, a piece of fabric from a dumpster) and the great pockets of numb despair in these women’s lives. Although there has been no end of media coverage of “the homeless,” the photographs remind viewers of the individuals behind the label.
* “Out of Place, Out of Mind,” through Thursday at Orange Coast College Art Gallery, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday night. Free. (714) 432-5039.
Artist Gomez Bueno placed a number of personal ads in the Recycler that were supposedly written by an “athletic” male doctor, a “very good looking” woman seeking a “funny man,” and other singles. When the responses came in, he produced a piece by turns amusing, pathetic and revelatory.
In “Classifieds,” at Daniel Arvizu Gallery through Nov. 12, the ads and some of the responses are shown together with the generalized, poster-like portraits Bueno painted of the respondents, based on photos they sent of themselves.
Supplied with only the briefest of personal descriptions, the letter-writers tend to base their entire response on a single characteristic. They often reply on cheap lined paper or peculiar stationery, and unwittingly reveal all manner of obsessions and insecurities while trying to “sell” themselves as the ideal date.
Viewers may initially feel superior as they note the huge gap between what the writers evidently want to express and what they actually say. But we all experience this disjunction in our social interactions.
Granted, people who reply to a blind ad seem particularly vulnerable--even more so in this case, since none of the letter writers (whose names and phone numbers have been blanked out) knew that they were merely pawns in an artistic experiment. But the piece merely places under the microscope the elements of control and trust basic to virtually every social interaction.
The portraits have a strange, generic quality that corresponds with the notion that these people are somehow different from us. Identically sized and presented in rows, like police mug shots, yet painted with arbitrary, unnatural skin tones, the images also seem to emphasize how little choice we have about how others view us.
Like a hall of mirrors, this engrossing piece keeps reflecting back on itself, offering no way out of the dilemmas of self-knowledge and communication. In its psychological richness, “Classifieds” has a lot in common with Sophie Calle’s extraordinary photo-and-text piece, “The Blind,” at Newport Harbor Art Museum through Dec. 31, which will be reviewed later.
* “Gomez Bueno: Classifieds,” through Nov. 12 at Daniel Arvizu Gallery, 215 N. Broadway (Santora Arts Complex), Santa Ana. Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Ends Sunday. Free. (714) 972-4836.