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‘Charlie’ gets the point at MOCA: Art can be fun

Times Staff Writer

Over the weekend, the Museum of Contemporary Art opened “Mid-Century Masterworks From the Collection,” a large sampling of 58 paintings, sculptures and works on paper by School of Paris and New York School artists, plus a few others. It joins two more shows: “Conversations,” a disparate selection of more recent works installed in ways meant to suggest relationships between and among them, and “Gifts by Artists,” works donated to MOCA by members of its primary constituency.

Until October, and perhaps for reasons of economy, all but one of the galleries at the museum’s Grand Avenue location have been given over to the permanent collection -- which, despite our now-standard expectation for a steady supply of temporary traveling shows, is after all the final reason any art museum exists.

Into this tidy oasis of museum propriety rides “Charlie” -- an unassuming robot-child with a sweet disposition, inquisitive eyes and a blue tricycle slung low to the ground. “Charlie” is at play. Stand and peruse the webs of multicolored and metallic paints in Jackson Pollock’s august 1949 drip-painting “No. 1,” and the little android with the prominent nose and the permanent grin might well pedal up silently behind you to join the fun.

Then, with a twist of his head and a roll of his eyes he’s off, riding into another gallery to check out what might be going on.

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“Charlie” isn’t owned by MOCA, but he was commissioned by the museum. A remote-controlled mechanical sculpture by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, the work made its debut in early June during the three-day preview of the Venice Biennale. This Biennale, otherwise universally panned, had at least one thing going for it in its opening days: It seemed every critic -- from the Los Angeles Times to the Irish Times -- mentioned the mechanical sculpture by Cattelan, a jokester who now is as much a fixture in the Venice show as is the ripe odor rising from the polluted canals. (Born in nearby Padua, he’s an almost-local hero whose work has appeared in each of the last four Biennale installments.) Given the sweet, endearing humor of the carefully crafted piece, it’s easy to see why.

“Charlie” is a modest work. The boy looks mischievous, but don’t expect him to pop a wheelie. He is capable of only minor, puppet-like effects -- an anxious rocking of the tricycle’s pedals, a twisting of the handlebars and eyes that scan the room. The latex skin and shaggy hair might be expressive, but when he rolls up silently behind a museum visitor, nobody will mistake him for a real live boy. Instead, he’s a boy-toy. The frank simplicity of “Charlie” is part of its charm.

Cattelan’s career is a mixed bag. At 43, he’s best known for a cheeky 1999 sculpture of Pope John Paul II sprawled on the ground, crucifix and chasuble askew, with an errant meteorite embedded in his side. Dispensing with the concept of sin, Cattelan always is happy to cast the first stone.

Even in photographs, this startling evocation of the unanswerable conflict between faith and fate was memorable. But, corny or hopelessly redundant sculptures also are prominent on his resume.

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A 1996 suite of slashed monochrome canvases refers to the earlier work of Italian artist Lucio Fontana, who would fit right into MOCA’s “Mid-Century Masterworks” exhibition. Starting in the 1950s Fontana made punctures and razor-sharp cuts into single-color canvases; an unsuspecting viewer was subtly transformed into a doubting Thomas, carefully probing the metaphoric wounds of that ostensible modern savior, abstract painting. By contrast, Cattelan’s cuts into abstract canvases just made us an audience for a dumb, self-aggrandizing joke: His slashes take the shape of a letter Z, calling card of the absent Zorro.

In 1999, he used yards of duct tape to affix his gallerist to a wall. Critics cooed, but the performance merely rephrased a famous 1974 work by the Chicano artists’ collective, ASCO, in which Patssi Valdez and Humberto Sandoval were taped to a public wall in East L.A. to become an “instant mural.” The following year, Cattelan cut a tiny mouse hole into a gallery wall and gave it a little door and a diminutive trash can, virtually re-creating a 1980 installation by Alexis Smith. Cattelan may or may not be aware of such precedents in Los Angeles (I’d doubt it), but their existence highlights the limits of a practice based on one-liners and inside jokes.

At MOCA, things are a bit more complex. The difference between the hands-on modesty of art culture and the Gargantua of post-industrial media culture seems central to this engaging bit of whimsy. Cattelan is a Warholian artist, and for the summer of 2003, “Charlie” emerges as the anti-Terminator.

His contribution to the 2001 Venice Biennale helps explain the perplexing position. Cattelan constructed a mock version of the famous Hollywood sign, which he erected on a rolling hillside outside Palermo -- hundreds of miles away from Venice, on an island at the other end of the Italian boot. Few saw it. As with the actual sign in L.A.'s backyard, Cattelan’s was mostly experienced in the art world through photographs, reproductions and press accounts.

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Today, a pop culture pilgrim to Los Angeles can see the actual Hollywood sign previously experienced only in pictures, but an art lover traveling to Palermo will encounter just an empty, sun-baked hillside. Between lived experience and media experience, a slippage occurs. Mass culture fictions achieved with dazzling special effects offer one pleasing kind of modern amusement, but artists are not in competition with them.

Besides, the little robot at MOCA is only half the sculpture. The other half is the museum employee standing a dozen feet away, remote control in hand. A MOCA staff member follows “Charlie” around the exhibition galleries, directing the sculpture’s every move.

No attempt is made to hide his or her presence. At any museum, public interaction with works of art always is shaped and molded by museum staff, though rarely does that staff have a public face. Not here. For this show, Cattelan plays Artist Toto in Art World Oz, playfully pulling back the curtain to expose the great and powerful wizard at the controls -- who turns out to be a mere mortal, just like you.

This is not, rest assured, some arrogant, simple-minded critique of institutional hegemony or social manipulation. Just the opposite: It’s an appeal to the supremacy of playfulness. The art museum, especially the contemporary art museum, is asserted as a welcome arena for serious fun.

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Maurizio Cattelan

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: Tuesdays-Wednesdays and Fridays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

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Ends: Oct. 27

Price: Adults, $8. Students/seniors, $5. Free on Thursday

Contact: (213) 621-2766


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