Leaving room for personality

Special to The Times

If you think that the American political system is churning out presidential candidates whose policies are remarkably alike, then you won't be surprised to learn that something similar is taking place in the art world.

At prestigious American museums and university-affiliated galleries, curators of contemporary art have been organizing increasingly homogenous exhibitions. These conceptually uniform shows tend to put handsomely packaged professionalism ahead of unruly passion, leaving little leeway for personal quirkiness or oddball eccentricity. No late-night Dean howls interrupt the stylistic conformity of such bland fare, which often has all the excitement of a risk-management seminar.

At UCLA's Hammer Museum, a mid-size group show that opened recently bucks this dispiriting trend. Organized by curator Russell Ferguson, "The Undiscovered Country" stands out from the crowded schedule of thematic international surveys because it makes room for a type of individualism that has not been popular since modern art made the idea of connoisseurship unfashionable.

The convivial, often gregarious display of 60 paintings made over the last five decades by an idiosyncratic mix of 23 artists from 10 countries and four generations gives visitors a clear sense of one person's vision: the curator's. What could be a recipe for egomania -- or 1980s curator-as-artist grandiosity -- turns out to be just the opposite: a sustained, entertaining and thought-provoking survey of Figurative painting that is honest about how selective and subjective it is.

Welcoming visitors with come-one, come-all accessibility, the show is unabashedly partisan: the work of an enthusiast whose love for his subject, a particular strand of Figurative painting that might best be described as damaged romanticism, spills over into the airy galleries, which have not been installed chronologically.

The absence of such New York staples of contemporary figuration as John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton and Lisa Yuskavage alerts viewers to Ferguson's willingness to do his own thing.

The installation is at its best when it mixes works by artists from different generations. The first of seven galleries is exemplary. Four new paintings by three L.A. artists born in 1970 -- Edgar Bryan's "The Ledge" and "Night in the Alte Pinakothek," Mari Eastman's "Porcelain Bowl With Dragon Design and Red Glaze" and Laura Owens' untitled picture of a stylized horse -- hang alongside four works from the 1960s by Vija Celmins (born in 1938), Gerhard Richter (1932-) and Fairfield Porter (1907-1975).

Ordinarily, such setups are meant to demonstrate that the young artists' works are valuable because their pedigree can be traced back to important historical precedents. Ferguson's installation doesn't fall for such lockstep, this-begat-that argumentation.

Instead, the deft arrangement allows the works to talk to one another poetically: commenting, challenging, inflecting and spinning more freely -- and with far more give and take -- than straightforward historical arguments. Together, the works draw viewers into spirited conversations about painting's relationship to masquerade, fantasy, self-portraiture, violence and the daily grind.

Stylistically, the pictures are flat-footed. Emotionally, they're cool and deadpan. Just a touch of loopy dreaminess (or trendy teenage tenderness) enters the discussion via Owens' picture of a white horse and Eastman's image of a red dragon spray-painted on a porcelain bowl.

The grouping is inspired because it's unexpected. Porter, whose reputation pales in comparison to Richter's, is the odd man who suddenly looks in. His seemingly simple "Self-Portrait" packs so much silent eloquence and coloristic subtlety into its tidy geometry that the seven other works seem to orbit around it.

The second gallery adds more surprises. It features works by artists of the intervening generations, including a pair of brushy image-and-text paintings by Neil Jenney (born in 1945), a haunting collage by Kerry James Marshall (1955-), a big picture of an oafish elf in a faded mountain landscape by Peter Doig (1959-) and a pair of casually elegant acrylics by Thomas Eggerer (1963-).

Taking the place of honor Porter occupies in the first gallery is an untitled meaty painting by Philip Guston (1913-1980). More famous than Porter, Guston is less a breath of fresh air than a predictable way for the exhibition to lay claim to painting's fleshy, existential side. The canvas' cartoony theatrics of despair articulate the show's bittersweet tang, touching on its fascination with suffering, self-pity and sorrow without being unduly melancholic. The younger artists' deliriously pretty pictures keep the gravitas of Guston from getting too heavy-handed.

The next two galleries lack the dynamic interactivity of the first two. Rather than dispersing each artist's pieces among others, these two rooms present uniform clusters, like small solo shows by John Baldessari (born in 1931), Luc Tuymans (1958-), Thomas Lawson (1951-), Richard Prince (1949-) and Lucy McKenzie (1977-). It's the most conservative part of the show, both in terms of the unimaginative way it has been installed and the role these Conceptual works play in its overall argument.

Ferguson has taken the exhibition's title from a line in "Hamlet" that refers to the afterlife. Playing off the idea that painting is dead and that photography has killed it, he proposes the show as an antidote to that shopworn idea, even though hardly anyone today takes it seriously.

The problem is not that photography has killed painting; it's that some artists treat painting as if it were no more complicated than a snapshot. Pictures by Tuymans, Lawson and Prince wear thin because they have the presence of photos that missed the moment. A similar tendency diminishes the effect of some of the young painters' pictures, but not fatally.

The next gallery returns to the freewheeling, mix-and-match strategy of the first two. It's the highlight of the show.

"Soft Pink Landscape" (1971-1972) by Richard Hamilton (born in 1922) anchors the mesmerizing room. An unlikely gem of a picture, the medium-size canvas combines soft-core porn, drippy Gesturalism, otherworldly sunlight, fairy princesses and a roll of toilet paper. At once graceful and reckless, whip-smart and gorgeous, it captures the show's equal and opposite impulses toward no-nonsense Realism and preposterous impossibility. Adding to its playful perversity are two wacky works by Lukas Duwenhogger (born in 1956), "Choreography for Three Men, Two Brooms, and Warning Tape" and "Perusal of Ill-Begotten Treasures," both of which riff on Armenian Social Realism. Three dreamy masterpieces of exquisite wistfulness by Jochen Klein (1967-1997) and further examples of Doig's and Eggerer's efficient artistry round out the room.

The last two galleries bring you back to Earth slowly. In them, such artists as Mamma Andersson (born in 1962), Kirsten Everberg (1965-), Silke Otto-Knapp (1970-) and Enoc Perez (1967-) struggle to transform postcard imagery into pictures more captivating than their one-dimensional sources. Interspersed with additional works by Eastman, Porter, Doig and Richter, they look better than they would individually.

Throughout "The Undiscovered Country," orderly historical progression gives way to do-it-yourself improvisation. Formal relationships between and among diverse works come to the forefront, inviting viewers to think nimbly. In this, Ferguson draws on "Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism," a watershed exhibition that cultural critic Dave Hickey organized for Site Santa Fe in 2001.

Whether you agree with the way Ferguson weaves intimacy and history to shed light on one strand of Figurative painting, it's far more fascinating than shows that safely sample a little of this and a little of that, or stick to a standard roster of institutionally approved superstars.


'The Undiscovered Country'

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: 11a.m. to 7pm Tuesdays Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 11a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 11a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; Closed Mondays

Ends: Jan. 16

Price: Adults $5, seniors $3; students and children free

Contact: (310) 443-7000

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