Putting New Sidelights on Ed Moses' Work

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Ed Moses is currently in serious danger of overexposure, given his retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art and various events surrounding it, there is still good reason to see his show at L.A. Louver. It is ostensibly devoted to a series of recent paintings, but the real draw is a bit of slapstick mysticism in the form of an installation, titled "V.R.O.T."

First a bit of history: In 1969, Moses created an environment at the Riko Mizuno Gallery by ripping off the gallery's roof, leaving part of the inside of the walls exposed. When sunlight passed through the walls, daunting, latticelike shadows were created.

"V.R.O.T." reverses this logic. Here, Moses has built a roof over L.A. Louver's sky room, where there was not one before, and punched holes into its surface. During the day, sunlight streams through the holes, its intensity and configuration shifting depending upon the time of day.

In the center of the room, a mirrored globe perches upon a frankly silly white pedestal. It reflects the whole polka-dotted spectacle, creating an ambience that's equal parts planetarium, chapel and discotheque.

This installation insists on the sense of humor that is often overlooked in Moses' work. Even so, it might have been a bit of a one-shot if not for its resonance with the six large paintings on view downstairs.

These are compositionally simple works, with background washes of color--a bright pink, a yellow, more often a streaky black--studded by large dots. The dots are thickly painted and project forward as aggressively as the stained passages retreat, creating a nice push-pull effect. In one image, a small crescent moon pushes the planetary metaphor too hard, but otherwise these paintings, though clearly not central for Moses, are nonetheless unusually appealing.

* L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through July 27. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Sizing Up Power: At Gagosian Gallery, it appears as if Chris Burden has crammed three huge sailboats into a too-small space simply because he can. Ego is, of course, not the entire story here. What is actually involved is a hypertrophied Conceptual conceit that might have been more interesting had it remained in the realm of the idea, in the manner of Douglas Huebler's publicly stated ambition to photograph everyone alive.

"Three Ghost Ships," which was originally shown at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., in 1991, consists of a trio of boats electronically equipped to sail without a pilot from Charleston to Plymouth, England. With this, Burden refers to the Nin~a, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, the Trojan Horse and more ironically, to man's seemingly automatic impulse toward conquest.

What is truly ironic, however, is the extent to which Burden's own work emblematizes a will to power--or at least a drive toward monumentality that plagues not only his own recent work, but also that of many artists with more financial clout than smarts.

The installation is accompanied by a selection of works from Burden's "Small Guns" series of 1994. These are assemblages made of tiny plastic and metal soldiers, helicopters, guns, cannons, naval destroyers, etc., that proclaim in sum that violence is bad.

Burden is not the first artist to appropriate children's toys to preach about the ills of militarism; with any luck, he'll be the last. At least these works, as their title indicates, are small.

* Gagosian Gallery, 458 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Aug. 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Images of Lament: We can be pretty certain that "The Age of Innocence: The Child in Photography," at Peter Fetterman Photographic Works of Art, was not intended to be as creepy as it is. Here are laughing preschoolers, mugging street urchins and moody adolescents, shot by everyone from pictorialist Gertrude Kasebier to Henri Cartier-Bresson.

But then, of course, there's Wynn Bullock's photo of an unclothed little girl, lying face down in the grass, like a serial rapist's latest victim. This image is sinister, no doubt by design.

But what's interesting is the way it seems to taint the other images in the show, so that Josef Koudelka's well-known photo of a boy wearing angel wings seems less charming than funereal; and Helen Levitt's shots of children wearing masks seem less serendipitous than freakish, in a distinctly Diane Arbus sort of way. Even Lewis Hine's tiny newsboys seem more forlorn than usual.

Perhaps the point of all this is that children remain innocent, but the photograph is suspect. It's not so much the old Susan Sontag notion that "to photograph someone is a sublimated murder--a soft murder." Nor is it that we can now readily admit to photography's propensity to lie. It's rather that the photograph, in and of itself, has come to signify violence to a degree that subsumes all other meanings.

The mass media have so primed us not just to expect but to crave the spectacular that no photographic image is benign--even, and perhaps especially, an image of a smiling child. In this sense "The Age of Innocence" oddly undermines itself. It is a fascinating show but a lament, not the celebration it was no doubt meant to be.

* Peter Fetterman Photographic Works of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., #A7, Santa Monica, (310) 453-6463, through Aug. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Panic and Lust: A large group show at Sherry Frumkin Gallery takes as its anti-premise Sigmund Freud's contention that the genitals, the sight of which is always exciting, are hardly ever regarded as beautiful. Somewhat turgidly titled "Reproducing Nature . . . exploring the beauty of the organs of pleasure," the exhibition takes the father of psychoanalysis to task, insisting that yes, penises, testicles, vaginas and breasts are lovely to behold.

But instead of verisimilitude, we get soft focus and metaphor: turgid sculptural shapes, suggestive images of flowers, paintings with their centers wryly sliced open, etc. This adds up to a surprisingly tasteful but ultimately boring show.

It is dominated by Surrealist-inspired cliches, in which pieces of honeycomb masquerade as breasts (Linda Ekstrom) or clusters of eucalyptus leaves resemble vulvas (Allen Tombello). Some of these pieces are unintentionally funny--Hoang Vu's, for example, which suggests alternately a vagina and a baked potato.

Others are more intriguing, especially Kymber Holt's drawings on floral wallpaper, in which sexual imagery is intertwined with clotted designs, such that artifice and nature appear equally decadent. Holly Rittenhouse offers a panoply of fantastic mutant forms, mostly made of wax, which sprout odd hairs, dangle egg-like pendants, ooze beads of liquid and sprout roots.

These latter works are beautiful, but edgy; they get at the abject terrors, base lusts and vague panic the genitals inspire--thereby suggesting an alternate trajectory for another exhibition, perhaps. This show would explore the Freudian maxim that neither beauty nor anything else has the power to heal our discontents, since "something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavorable to the realization of complete satisfactions."

* Sherry Frumkin Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-1850, through Aug. 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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