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The ‘Road’ Daringly Traveled

TIMES ART CRITIC

Hollywood & Highland is negligible as architecture, but this enormous new retail development in the heart of downtown Hollywood can boast something few other shopping malls can: an exceptional work of public art. Erika Rothenberg’s “The Road to Hollywood” ranks among the best public projects in L.A.

The work, as its familiar road-movie title suggests, is happy to accept pop cliches, from which there is no escape in a mass culture world. The trick is not to avoid, deny or denigrate them, but to give them surprising new life. Rothenberg does.

“The Road to Hollywood” begins as a pathway embedded in the shopping mall pavement. It adapts this earthbound form from the sidewalk stars in the nearby Walk of Fame, the handprints and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre next door and the red carpet that Oscar-hungry royalty traverses on the way to the Academy Awards. Rothenberg’s path starts at the Hollywood Boulevard entrance, climbs the staircase, winds its way around the phony Assyrian-style central court and ends out back on a patio overlooking Highland Avenue.

The path, made from red concrete, is interrupted by several dozen marble mosaic panels containing brief narratives explaining what prompted a variety of people in all walks of entertainment life to come to Hollywood. Funny, stupid, poignant, manipulative, straightforward, lucky--they run the gamut. A sample:

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* “I was working in an office in New York, and my boss said to me, ‘You’re not so good as a secretary; is there anything else you’d like to do?’ So I moved to L.A. and began taking acting lessons."--Actress

* “I was teaching at UCLA when a producer called, looking for a student to score a sci-fi movie. ‘I’ll send my best student,’ I said, but I sent myself instead."--Composer

* “I was a welfare mother who got herself together and wrote a one-woman show that made it to Broadway."--Movie star/TV host

* “I came here from the Virgin Islands and got a job cleaning toilets. Eight years later I co-founded a grip truck service."--Key grip

The anonymity of the speakers is important, because it establishes a galaxy populated by Everyman and Everywoman. Some stories seem authentic. (Didn’t that happen to fill-in-the-blank?) Some seem made up. (That couldn’t have happened!) Others seem like they could happen to you. The great Hollywood cliche about the blurring of reality and fiction gets revivified. In the process, your own reason for coming to Hollywood enters the scene.

Rothenberg’s “Road to Hollywood” leads to an oversized, period-style daybed made from sturdy fiberglass and located on an open patio that looks out toward the mythic Hollywood sign in the distant hills. Climb aboard and say “cheese”: This spot is destined to become one of the most photographed places in town--which means, one of the most photographed places in the world. A cultural tourist, you star in your own picture.

The lumpish Babylon Court at the center of the shopping center means to recall the city’s first big-time tourist attraction, erected nearly a century ago. It’s loosely based on the grandiose sets for D.W. Griffith’s 1916 movie, “Intolerance,” which drew hordes of gawkers to town. The dully common theme-park architecture fails, though, because all it offers is false memories, rather than creating a vivid opportunity for new ones.

Rothenberg fixes that. Her work addresses Hollywood & Highland as its own type of stage set. She calmly sizes up the shallow fantasy, injects it with a dose of honesty and fractures it through a human kaleidoscope. Her savvy work puts the Hollywood back in Babylon.

Hollywood & Highland Shopping Center, Hollywood Boulevard at Highland Avenue, Hollywood. Open daily.

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Some Enchanted Light: Like handmade furniture or a carefully sewn quilt, a painting by Mark Innerst typically has a heavily crafted quality. Layer upon layer of acrylic on board combines to yield a sleek, hard, polished surface. The feeling is often autumnal and Old World--painting as relic in a digital era. Recalling America’s first world-caliber painter, Thomas Eakins, he even makes his own frames as part of the picture.

The 12 paintings and seven works on paper in Innerst’s handsome show at Michael Kohn Gallery largely focus on two subjects that underscore the view: urban scenes (mostly Manhattan, where he lives) and fragments of the film logo for Columbia Pictures. In both, light is critical.

The incongruity of a driving range for golf practice rising dockside at Chelsea Piers is sanctified by the airy blue sky that the gigantic nets frame. Views down city streets lead to glinting daggers of bright sky thrust between urban canyon walls (shades of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz). Columbia’s torch lights up the sky--at once illuminating and obscuring the view. Drops of white acrylic soften edges with a fuzzy glow.

Innerst makes paintings that are as much about the intrusion of pictures into direct experience of the world as they are about the world itself. Far from being dismayed by the phenomenon, he’s enchanted--and his paintings seek further enchantment.

It isn’t just camera reproductions that intrude, either: You can’t look at his fluidly painted Columbia logo without thinking of Whistler’s society portraits, or his decaying Hudson River vistas without the Hudson River School. In the beginning was the picture.

Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 658-8088, through Dec. 22. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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The Plastic Past: “Big Plastic” ought to get some kind of award for best show title of the year. Big Tobacco or Big Oil is creepy, but Big Plastic--cool!

Part of the reason is that plastic has a cheesy reputation, making it ripe for playful redemption. Artistically, it’s also laced with optimism. In the 1960s, the industrially pretty “L.A. Look” brought unprecedented materials into art’s vocabulary, replacing marble and bronze with plexiglass and resin. Now that the future implied by those materials is actually here--and inevitably unrecognizable--"Big Plastic” glances into a rearview mirror more than it looks ahead.

If only the show, which fills a former plastics factory that is the temporary home of Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, were as good as its title. The strongest among works by 13 artists are Stephen Shackelford’s mobiles, made from PVC pipe stuffed with artificial flowers and self-propelled by electric fans, which salvage an almost desperate beauty from the mass-market land of Home Depot; and Ashley Thorner’s suspended clusters of plastic sacks and tubing in gorgeous gem-like colors, which look like alien viscera.

Works suspended from the rafters are also offered by most of the other artists, including Megan Geckler, Diana Cohen, Habib Kheradyer and Hilary Norcliffe. The team of Gloria Sedaghat and Anita Rafie lets tangled strips of polypropylene resin in multicolored bands cascade down a high wall, recalling Morris Louis paintings mixed with Robert Morris sculptures. In a related vein, Carlos Mollura inflates a big cube with air, its blue and clear panels transforming a diagrammatic office into a gigantic beach ball.

If 1960s plastics had an industrial aura, the works here are more domesticated. Plastic is used for its flimsier, more liquid appeal, which invites the pull of gravity but eschews gravity’s weightier implications.

Armory Center for the Arts, Armory Northwest, 965 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena, (626) 792-5101, through Jan. 31. Closed Monday.

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Twiggy Turrets: Constructed from thickly layered sheets of decorative wallpaper pierced through with twigs, the five sculptures in the debut solo exhibition by Lisa Lapinski at Richard Telles Fine Art form the centerpiece of the erratic show. Each about 2 feet tall, these curious structures hold a ritualistic appeal.

Lapinski titles each one “Mosque,” and all bear at least a remote resemblance to a building with parapets or towers. The wallpapers are emphatically secular--chinoiserie patterns, Popeye and Olive Oyl, geometrics, etc.--and the twig-piercings seem obsessive. Less models of actual buildings than fetish objects geared toward a derangement of the senses, the sculptures have a Pop Symbolist edge.

Three black-and-white screen-prints elaborate this direction. Composed only of punctuation and diacritical marks--brackets, parentheses, slashes, asterisks, etc.--they go to a place without language where words seek clarification. Lapinski’s work as yet seems scattershot and rather unformed, but it’s moving in a curiously appealing direction.

Richard Telles Fine Art, 7380 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles., (323) 965-5578, through Dec. 22. Closed Sunday and Monday.


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