A new sculpture adorns the outside of the "Art Dome," the temporary post-earthquake housing for art on the CSUN campus. On display this month, the work is a grouping of blue metal triangles of varying sizes, arranged in a semicircle.
The effect, in combination with the onion-domed shape of the gallery itself, suggests religious art, an allusion to spires such as you might find in contemporary church architecture. Or it could be viewed as an etude in sculptural rhythms and geometry.
Either way, it bears the characteristic stamp of Robert Bassler: veteran artist with a scientific bent, teacher with 33 years experience at Cal State Northridge and active Christian. Not all of these attributes typify the average contemporary artist, who is often seen as working in a realm parallel to, but detached from, that of religion and science. Somehow, Bassler makes sense of his ever-changing investigations.
This month, his work, past and present, is being unveiled in a coordinated effort around the Valley. With a generous retrospective exhibit at CSUN on the eve of his retirement this year, and a show of new, space-minded paintings at the Orlando Gallery in Sherman Oaks, the 62-year-old Bassler is very much in the public eye.
The CSUN show, which covers Bassler's diverse evolution from the early '60s on, is one of those retrospectives in which the sheer variety of media and ideas suggests the work of multiple artists, or at least multiple personalities. At the same time, a thread of continuity can be traced, connecting his post-Cubist and Henry Moore-influenced wood sculptures of 30 years ago to the new series of cosmic paintings.
Through it all, Bassler has maintained an inveterate curiosity about the investigative nature of the art process--another link to science. Within that process, he follows instincts and expands on concepts rather than settling for established parameters.
A walk through the gallery reveals a story line itself. From his early wood sculpture, in which the cerebral considerations of Cubist design combined with warm materials and supple forms, Bassler turned in a direction both more industrial and ephemeral. His "Lenticular Forms" consisted of cast resin shapes, smooth almost to the point of goopiness, filtering light and color through translucent surfaces. Weird science was rearing its head, as with the work of '60s artists Donald Judd and Robert Irwin.
The human figure wasn't left out of the picture, exactly. Bassler's recurring "Anatome" theme, with its vaguely erotic interplay of ovals and rectangles, carries over from wood to resin. They hint at amorphous figures--either not quite formed, or returning to formless ooze.
Intrigued by the interplay of form and language, Bassler proceeded to the relatively simple, by his standards, "Roadshow and Barricades." This series of photographs of European road signs touched on the universality of a language of images, rather than words.
The ensuing "Cliffwall Series" is the most extravagant example of artistic process-as-agenda in the show. Here, a simple photograph of a cliff's face is elaborated upon using various media: relief sculpture, etched plexiglass and other treatments.
Which brings us, more or less, to his current phase, a series of pyramid-shaped sculptural representations of the Earth--his "Terrahedrons"--and finally, to the outer limits, with paintings of life in outer space. The dramatic 1996 sculpture "Elemental Oppositions" is a double pyramid perched over a stone garden, a delicate balance, in form and content.
Meanwhile, the concurrent Orlando Gallery show is devoted mostly to Bassler's newer paintings, which are organized in series and given names like "Vortex" and "Gathered Forces." These pieces teem with swirling visual energy, nebulous white-on-blue images that we assume refer to galactic activity, but just as easily put us in mind of raging surf or precipitous clouds.
The paintings, like most of his work over the years, harness a secret life as abstractions. Upon close scrutiny, you can get lost in the illusive space of the canvases: They invite the eye inward.
In a strange point of contrast, the gallery also shows several self-portraits. In these, Bassler strikes us as an archetypally handsome figure who could be a B-movie matinee idol specializing in sci-fi flicks. He stares intently, if a bit impassively, despite sometimes bizarre contexts.
In one painting, he is frankly naked, as if an example of a male Homo sapiens shipped off in a space capsule. In another, his face is viewed amid the cosmic debris of glittery stars, which wash over his face like a filmy mask. Quite literally, his head is in the stars.
More to the point, that's merely the latest place where this exploratory artist has found himself over the past few decades. At this juncture, Bassler emerges as an artist who has taken creative license quite seriously as a license to explore.
"Robert Bassler--Changing Light," through Sept. 20 at the CSUN art gallery, 18111 Nordhoff St. in Northridge. Gallery hours: noon-4 p.m., Monday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesdays-Fridays; (818) 677-2226.
"Robert Bassler--Selected Paintings," through Sept. 27 at the Orlando Gallery, 14553 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesdays-Saturdays; (818) 789-6012.