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This ‘Science/Fiction’ Feature Isn’t Playing at Your Multiplex

TIMES ART CRITIC

One of the several sculptural tableaux in Luciano Perna’s recently opened exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art juxtaposes a famous chair with an odd traveling case. The chair is Le Corbusier’s languorous chaise made of tubular steel, here covered in the classic, brown-and-white pony skin. The open traveling case lying next to it on the floor looks like it should hold a musical instrument or related equipment, especially as the wall behind it is papered over with photographs of a busy deejay working a pair of turntables. Only, it doesn’t.

Instead, the long, narrow carrying case holds two identical wall clocks, one set into each end. They tick off the passage of time.

The design of the two clocks is modern--which is to say, numberless, with the minutes and hours marked off by simple black lines of different sizes. The chair is modern, too--or, specifically, Modern, meaning a classic executed in a style that was avant-garde before World War II. The term “avant-garde” suggests the leading edge, but when an avant-garde object is significantly older than you are, your perception of time begins to slip and slide in notably disorienting ways.

The twin clocks won’t help you stabilize. Both are set one hour ahead; or, perhaps they’re set 11 hours behind, since a modern clock doesn’t distinguish between day and night. They’re certainly marking time, but it might be the future or the past.

As for the present, the two second-hands appear to be sweeping around their identical dials in unison. Still, you can never tell for sure. The two clocks have been placed just far enough apart so that, looking back and forth from one end of the case to the other, certainty becomes an impossibility. One hand may be chasing the other, in an endlessly futile game of catch-up.

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With this simple but compelling tableau, Perna begins to unfold a quirky, often pleasurable installation that seems as indebted to cable television’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000" as it does to arte povera, the Italian tradition of sculpture composed from everyday materials that was prominent in the late 1960s and ‘70s. (Perna was born in Naples in 1958.) Indeed, the often junky imagery of mass culture is itself one of the everyday materials the artist puts to excellent use in his art.

Perna’s show performs an eccentric, extended meditation on art, music and the elasticity of time, which comes just as the millennial wave is about to break on our collective shore. (Unfortunately, the show has no catalog.) Titled “Science/Fiction--A Movie Studio Set: Ahead of Schedule and Camera Shy,” the installation uses the metaphor of cheesy Hollywood sci-fi to capture something no camera could.

Against a backdrop prominently including rows of purple egg cartons stapled to the wall, nicely offering cheap imitation of the futuristic interior of a space station or rocket ship, or the soundproofing of a recording studio, Perna has assembled several sculptural tableaux. Some are simple, such as a Modern, bent-plywood chair, whose seat and back are caned in vaguely “tribal” patterns. A primitive core to modern life, which began in the last century by extolling the distance civilization had supposedly traveled from antiquity, is slyly evoked.

Other sculptures are more complex. The centerpiece is a tall, wide plinth painted black--shades of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey"--which stands amid drifting piles of what appears to be rock salt. A goofy toy alien is perched atop the plinth, while twin turntables at the bottom sport a pair of desert boots instead of records. These boots are made for walking, but that’s not what they do. Instead, they’re vehicles for toys: a pair of Casper the Friendly Ghosts and a couple of unnameable plush creatures.

Nearby, a second black plinth lies on its side atop a dolly (Strike that set!). The prop doubles as a baffle, hiding from view a spectacularly streamlined, cherry-red Ducati motorcycle.

Hanging on the wall directly above these two Earth-bound testaments to futuristic flights of fancy is a canvas triptych redolent of another sort of spatial realm. Squiggles of dried spaghetti merge Jackson Pollock’s tangled galaxies of dripped paint with a spilled plate of pasta.

Perna has a wonderful way with witty juxtapositions like these, though his sculptural contraptions tend to be more compelling than his paintings. A group of monochrome canvases in metallic colors seems meant to recall the revolutionary dreams of a Russian artist like Malevich, for example, but on their own they’re rather thin.

Those canvases rely heavily on their context for meaning, and contextually Perna deftly mixes up the fictions played out in art museums with those that come from movie studios. And, in a world where recorded music now comes on CDs, while records and turntables seem like relics of an antique age, you can’t help wondering if the plethora of LPs that turn up here isn’t a veiled bit of autobiography, slyly recalling the artist’s own name.

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* Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., (310) 586-6488, through March 14. Closed Sunday and Monday.


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