A landscape that melds organic and synthetic

Special to The Times

Lothar Schmitz's "Survival Strategies," the piece from which his show at Cal State Long Beach takes its name, is an idyllic landscape in miniature: a room-sized installation depicting grassy hillsides, dotted with trees and ponds, undulating between majestic, moss-covered rock formations. It's almost entirely synthetic, made with resin, AstroTurf and the sort of artificial foliage one finds on model train sets, but the effect is pleasantly picturesque, evoking German Romantic paintings or 19th century poetry.

Survival is an issue on many people's minds -- the question of how to reverse the damage we've inflicted on the environment and protect life as we know it -- and if Schmitz's model does represent a plan, as its title implies, then it would seem to be a promising one, resulting in a verdant, lush, tranquil world.

Look closer, however, and this tranquillity becomes distinctly unsettling. There is no sign of animal life, for one thing -- human or otherwise.

The only architectural feature is a scattering of clear acrylic glass domes, arranged in a seemingly arbitrary manner over certain clusters of boulders or trees. Their unexplained presence suggests an element of invisible toxicity -- perhaps in the air we ourselves are breathing, standing over the piece, or else trapped inside each dome, where it's seeped up from the ground.

The artificiality of the landscape is also discomfiting. The trees, for instance, don't match: Each of the several varieties seems to have been pulled from a different climate. The terrain is strangely fragmented as well. Some portions sprawl across the floor; others, anchored to a wall, appear suspended in midair. One related piece involves a long ribbon of tree-dotted turf, twisted into a 2-foot Mobius strip and hung from the ceiling like flypaper.

The notion of nature as something to be haphazardly assembled and cut into convenient pieces raises questions applicable to all eco-utopian projects. What is it we are looking to nature for? How well do we actually know what we're dealing with? And whose aesthetics determine what we create? Is German Romanticism really the world we want to live in, and why?

All the works in this thoughtful, if somewhat cool exhibition -- four site-specific installations and a handful of smaller pieces -- play with this line between the organic and the synthetic, nature and man's simulation of nature.

The cleverest in this regard is an installation called "Biomorph," a darkened room filled with the sort of artificial houseplants one finds in airports and office buildings, along with a two-channel video projection and several monitors displaying microscopic footage of actual plant life.

The space feels like a modishly appointed cocktail lounge -- interior decoration, perhaps, in the sort of postapocalyptic future that "Survival Strategies" prophesies -- but it encompasses an intriguing contrast: between synthetic objects that look organic and organic imagery that looks computer-generated. The organic, of course, wins out: The video footage is especially beautiful, filled with exquisite colors and mesmerizing in its myriad fluctuations.

The most elegant piece in the show is "Permeation," which consists of a broad square mat of hardened salt, spread across the floor of the museum's main space. Nodding to Minimalism and land art -- Carl Andre and Robert Smithson come particularly to mind -- Schmitz encapsulates in the piece another intriguing paradox: As barren and inhospitable as this landscape appears, it is the only thing in the show to be actually growing, slowly generating additional crystals.

All of these works date from the last few years, suggesting a fruitful confluence of energy and ideas. The one early piece, from 1998, is far less compelling. Titled "Large Organism," it incorporates a variety of clear Plexiglas containers and long, snaking tubes filled with either red liquid, yellow liquid or a pale yellow powder. The piece clearly refers to the mechanisms of the body -- namely the circulatory system -- but in a way that feels tentative and lackluster. The colors aren't dark, rich or thick enough to have much resonance -- they're more akin to Kool-Aid than bodily fluids -- nor are they plentiful enough to be jarring or menacing. Moving through, I found myself wishing I could multiply the installation by about a hundred: turn it into a jungle, with tubes draping everywhere, churning mysterious liquids between countless reservoirs.

A similar reserve characterizes the other works as well. Schmitz is a physicist as well as an artist, employed by day as a senior researcher at UCLA's Plasma Science and Technology Institute, and one senses a certain tension between these two facets of identity -- a determination, perhaps, to keep from presenting too much information or drawing too many conclusions in the artwork, to keep too much science from spilling in.

I for one would have loved to see more -- either more evidence of Schmitz's knowledge or a more complicated treatment of its relationship to the work. The intersection of art and science (and physics in particular) is fascinating territory, and ever more relevant to society as a whole. With access to both realms, this artist is in an auspicious position to go deeper than he does here.

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'Lothar Schmitz: Survival Strategies'

Where: University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays

Ends: April 13

Price: $4

Contact: (562) 985-5761 or www.csulb.edu

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