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In ‘Investigations,’ a Few Good Works Shine

TIMES ART CRITIC

Los Angeles artist Robert Irwin once said that among his best insights was the realization that science proceeds by trial and error, just like art. His spirit is very much present in the Municipal Art Gallery’s current show even though his work isn’t. Titled “Investigations,” it was organized by Muni curator Noel Corten, who deserves credit for undertaking an exhibition frankly based on dicey experimentation. That takes courage since most exercises in pure curiosity fail. There is a bit of that among the 14 California artists on view. Their fruits are various but united by a common interest in the relationship between art, science and mathematics.

The links between these disciplines are well, if informally, established. Most people who make traditional art, for example, eventually realize that geometry plays a big part in their lives even if they don’t consciously understand it. Many a music lover listening to a Bach fugue has had the sensation of hearing some kind of aural math. One artist on view, Nancy Mooslin, in fact paints handsome abstract compositions using a formula of relationships between color and sound.

One thing successful art has in common with the sciences is that at their best all achieve the elegance of clarity. Gary Quinonez presents a couple of pieces that do that admirably. “Pioneer” is a record turntable with three playing arms. Just as a visual thing it has a wonderful, deadpan Dada aura. But it goes further. It plays an old LP--in this case a selection of ballads recorded by Doris Day. Each arm simultaneously plays a different section of the record. Instead of emitting the discordant cacophony one might expect the resulting sound artfully remixes the tracks. Echoes and overlappings dramatize the poignancy of heartbreak torch songs. Quinonez actually makes the record better.

The ever-inventive, persistently under-recognized Carl Cheng presents “Friendship Acrobatic Troupe.” It consists of a tank of clear water with doughnut-shaped holes in the bottom. Using hydraulic pressure from below, it pushes up various configurations of ring-shaped bubbles that rise and spread, delightfully dispersing at the top. It’s like a poetic surrogate for smoke rings in an anti-tobacco culture.

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Susan Brandow’s “Circle of Perpetual Apparition” looks like a big Minimalist steel sculpture shaped like a truncated upside-down cone. It makes noises. Angled mirrors suspended above give viewers a glimpse inside. The noise comes from a small mechanized hammer that travels the upper rim on a track, tapping away. The effect is very human, as if the hammer were some imprisoned soul hoping to attract attention, looking for a way out.

Anyone who’s ever enjoyed those stereo viewers that make photographs look three-dimensional will get a kick out of Robert Wedemeyer’s “Stereo Pinhole Family Portrait.” He creates the 3-D effect using just two apparently identical snapshot transparencies reflected in two mirrors set at right angles. Every visitor inclined to tinkering will want to run right home to try this themselves. Ditto for Paul Tzanetopoulos’ pieces that prove you can create your own tartan plaid using nothing but a typewriter, colored ribbons and endless patience.

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Then the trouble starts. It’s not that the remaining pieces are bad. They just run afoul of generic bugaboos that plague this kind of art with seemingly malevolent inevitability. Habib Kheradyar, for example, shows an untitled wall relief about 40 feet long. Fashioned of black nylon, it’s stretched so as to create moire optical effects as you walk by. It works but anybody who has ever had a loose screen in the house will find the exercise too familiar. Something similar happens to Russell Crotty’s “Planetary Observations From the Solstice Peak Observatory.” Images seem to be little more than huge blowups of note-pad scribbles and sketches. Somehow these pieces don’t convey enough information to engage attention.

Something opposite happens to projects by Eric Chan and Heather Schatz, Lothar Schmitz, Kim Abeles and an artist who calls himself davidkremers. Their widely varied works are so complex they never fuse into a Gestalt.

Most frustrating of all for artist and visitor alike are apparently interesting projects that fail to communicate due to technical difficulties. Michael Brewster’s sound room, “An Acoustic Sculpture,” had a burned-out light bulb. Roger Feldman’s “Is That All? Watch Your Head, Hear Your Heart” is an engaging Frank Gehry-style structure that invites viewers to stick their heads into an attic-like space where some auditory revelation is apparently supposed to occur. Sometimes it doesn’t happen--according to a gallery spokesman--due to the intervention of competing ambient sound. Who said technology simplifies our lives?

* Municipal and Junior Art Center galleries, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., through June 16, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (213) 485-4581.


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