Still Searching for the Best Use of Technology

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite several decades of exploration and debate, the relationship between art and technology is far from resolved. The current exhibition at Post, titled "e-motion" and curated by Susan Joyce, takes yet another crack at the subject. Despite its modest scope, it manages to capture much of the excitement--and frustration--of new media work.

The frustration, as the show inadvertently demonstrates, often emerges when technical complication or novelty overwhelms a work's artistic potential.

James Rouvelle's "Obhut" (2002) is an interactive work involving three precarious contraptions that seem to have been pieced together from found objects and hardware store trinkets and that function, in a very basic sense, as robots. They jiggle, blink and beep and purportedly use this esoteric language to communicate with one another when they're moved around the gallery. They're charming little creatures, but it's unclear exactly what you're supposed to do with them, and their higher purpose is murky.

Similarly limited are Yucef Merhi's "Poetic Word" pieces: three small black devices that spell out invented words (democrazy, shoppinghour, anorecstacy) when spun properly. Piecing these words together--without looking at the show's checklist--presents an interesting challenge to the eye. But once solved, their novelty--and any gratification--is short-lived.

On the exciting side are three simpler works that challenge traditional modes of viewing without initiating undue confusion. Among these are Kristine Marx's two eloquent video works, each of which diffracts a single projection of a woman moving through an empty room into a spatially puzzling ensemble of images using strategically placed sheets of Plexiglas. Another is Kent Anderson Butler's stunningly beautiful video "Immersion" (2001). Shown on a flat, upturned screen on the floor of an otherwise empty room and accompanied by vague sounds of water, the piece depicts a minimal encounter--a man and a woman embracing in a pool of water--with a visual lyricism that renders it unforgettable.

At another extreme of the art-and-technology debate is the work of Survival Research Laboratories, an organization that builds remote-control machines solely for the purpose of pitting them against one another in violent warfare. A performance staged on opening night--the group's first in L.A. in many years--transformed the street outside the gallery into a hellish battleground of fire and noise. Its heat exudes even from the video documentation that plays in the gallery now. This is technology animated not by cleverness or emotion but by sheer aggression, and it reminds us that a soulless mass of metal and circuitry can indeed be a dangerous thing. In art as in war, we best approach it with some caution.

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Post, 1904 E. 7th Place, L.A., (213) 622-8580, through Aug. 3. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.

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Eerie Goings-On in Middle America

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Gregory Crewdson's large, lavishly staged photographs portray a slice of suburban life gone mysteriously awry. A weird blue haze engulfs the streets. Unearthly white lights glow in garages and tool sheds. Strange things fall from the sky, and residents wander zombie-like.

It is a familiar milieu--idyllic Middle America infiltrated by the unspeakable, whether supernatural, sexual or criminal. It's central to TV's "The X-Files" (and that program's ancestors, "The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits"), as well as such films as "American Beauty," "The Virgin Suicides," "Donnie Darko" and "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys"--to cite only the most recent.

It's fair to ask how much more can really be wrung from the fabric of the middle-class suburban psyche, especially by an urbanite like Crewdson. Judging from these pictures, the answer would be: few major revelations but many compelling curiosities.

A two-story pile of loose flowers sits in the middle of a quiet residential street while inquisitive neighbors gather around. A man abandons his car (and most of his clothes) to climb an enormous beanstalk that's sprouted from someone's front lawn. A modern-day Ophelia floats in a living room flooded with 2 feet of water, her stare cold and lifeless. Another woman stands outside a pop-up camper in her underwear, curiously peeling a skin-like substance from her belly.

Each of these strange scenes is an extremely elaborate production, involving actors, soundstages, artificial lighting and many, many props. As a result, the photographs look an awful lot like paintings. The tone throughout is scrupulously consistent. The colors are synthetic and painstakingly arranged. And the figures are stiff and distant, their gestures oddly motionless.

This extravagant process lends the work a sense of monumentality one rarely sees in photography. Each image is a story unto itself, magnificently composed and singularly affecting.

At the same time, however, there's something uncomfortably oppressive about it. Just as in the movies, where the weight of a big budget has a way of flattening a good story, Crewdson's attention to affect leaves the work feeling rather soulless, its mysteries largely cosmetic. For all its expensive polish, it is not a world in which one feels inclined to linger.

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Gagosian Gallery, 456 Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Aug. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Two Exhibits Feature Sensual Materials

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Jil Weinstock and Tanja Rector employ lush, sensual materials to stirring effect in complementary exhibitions at Frumkin Duval Gallery.

Weinstock's primary medium in this body of work is rubber, which she uses to encase zippers, beads and feather boas--playful accessories loaded with sexual innuendo. She arranges the zippers side by side to create long, multicolored rubber rows ranging from 2 to 16 feet across. The beads and boas she compresses into flat, square blocks, from which they exude a messy sensuality. The boas, which swirl like trapped snakes and break through the surface of the rubber in fluffy patches here and there, are especially fabulous.

Rector works with paint and wax, which she applies in smooth layers over flat panels of wood. In the past, she has employed a similar technique to render figures and decorative motifs (her paintings of a female body were a memorable addition to the Laguna Art Museum's show "Representing L.A." last fall). But these consist entirely of nonobjective shapes and swirls. It is a successful departure. The move toward abstraction seems to have unlocked a truly magical quality in the materials.

The colors are smooth and creamy: coral pinks and lavenders; pale, springtime greens and rich whites. The compositions, equally adept on a large and small scale, are elegantly spare, with plenty of space in which the eye can move around. The forms are delicate and float gracefully between the layers of wax as though suspended in a viscous, cloudy fluid. The effect is organic. Rather than abandoning the body as a subject, Rector seems to have plunged deeper into it, beneath the surface of the skin.

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Frumkin Duval Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-1850, through Saturday. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Bright Colors Reflect Summertime Fun

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The paintings of Milan-based artist Marco Casentini are as lighthearted and cheerful as a lazy summer afternoon. Each consists of several flat, rectangular planes of color, all vertically aligned, that float across the canvas like sheets of paper across a still pool of water.

The colors are thin, mostly bright and extremely pleasant. Casentini's intelligent layering of tones creates a sense of space between the forms, giving the subtle impression of depth. It also stimulates a sense of languid motion. You're inclined to believe that the shapes stop drifting only when your gaze falls upon them, that they will move again once you've looked away.

The edges of each form are ruler sharp, which gives the work a clean, crisp quality, while a slight variation in texture keeps it from feeling plastic-like. The variation is discernable only at close range. Some of the planes are perfectly smooth, some have vertical or horizontal brushstrokes and some have a faintly sponged quality. This subtle interplay of textures also contributes to the works' breezy sense of motion.

Behind each is a simple, genuine love of light and color that is especially refreshing as we head into the serious heat of summer.

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Ruth Bachofner Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 829-3300, through July 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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