Extraterrestrial Earthlings find 'Life'

Times Art Critic

PITTSBURGH -- Have we lost our humanity?

The sober question animates the selection of 40 artists, six from Los Angeles, in "Life on Mars," the 55th installment of the venerable Carnegie International. Every three years or so since 1896, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art has brought an extravagant contemporary art exhibition to town. Usually a survey, it this time takes the form of a theme show.

As the exhibition's website asks: "Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?"

The loose connective tissue among 186 disparate works in "Life on Mars" is the dignity of human beings. Curator Douglas Fogle uses the red planet metaphorically, giving a Space Age twist to general feelings of social estrangement that used to go by the term "alienation."

Emblematic are nine classic Vija Celmins oil paintings of the night sky made between 1988 and 2001, the year of Stanley Kubrick's celebrated Hollywood space odyssey. Mostly black, white and shades of gray, they are modest in size (the largest is 31 by 38 inches), with thousands of tiny clustered spots of soft white glimmering from dark, velvety surfaces. Celmins works from photographs, the basic modern intermediary of human experience, and her exquisitely refined paintings carefully restore a critical element that the camera effaces -- the sense of touch.

That her intergalactic night sky subject matter is also untouchable adds a profound element of wistful loss and yearning to her images of space. Extraordinarily ambitious, the paintings embrace no less a vaunted ancestry than Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night."

Very different is Cao Fei's sentimental 20-minute video projection, "Whose Utopia," set in a Chinese lightbulb factory. The young Beijing-based artist focuses on the soulless drudgery of repetitive labor, injecting social and political reality into the thematic mix. Monotonous work is periodically interrupted by dreamy sequences of a young woman dressed in an angel costume, an older man dancing and a boy playing an electric guitar. At this industrial manufacturer of illumination, the imaginative play of art and music is omnipresent, but only as fantasy.

Different too is the show's incomparable tour de force, a large new installation by Mike Kelley that spectacularly fills the museum's classical Hall of Sculpture. Kelley's trademark -- a wickedly funny, perversely clear-eyed take on adolescent anguish -- here assumes the form of a junior high science fair, perhaps as mentored by Flash Gordon's nemesis, Ming the Merciless, ruler of planet Mongo. Six sleek stage sets paired with video projections hold gigantic glass bell jars on pedestals erected from multicolored plexiglass, Formica and extruded aluminum, aglow in fluorescent light.

The pedestals' designs suggest domestic furniture, putting science in the living room. A galvanized metal washtub, a hand-woven wicker basket, a throw pillow and a crumpled blanket are placed here and there, humble household objects sanctified by art. Machinery, gas tanks and pumps painted cartoon colors, like hot pink, lime green and lemon yellow, are linked by tubing and monitored by gauges. A loud metallic hum rumbles on a soundtrack.

In the videos projected onto surrounding walls, the bell jars are filled with a whirling vortex of colored fluids -- a witty image of youthful raging hormones. The sculptures' glass jars house crystalline models of fantastic cityscapes, phallic eruptions of a man-made world.

Kelley's brilliant "Kandor" sculptures -- a science-fiction name entangled with the truth-telling probity implied by candor -- draw on sources in Minimalism and Pop art, moving his work's earlier forays into Abstract Expressionist tropes forward in time. Demonic machines for modern living, they are worth the trip to Pittsburgh by themselves.

The works by Kelley and Celmins don't fret about humanity's condition, probing instead the amorphous contours of actual human experience. Cao's work does -- perhaps because of her youth (she's 30) and perhaps because of China's Social Realist tradition, which prescribes a more literary depiction of daily life. Together their sculpture, painting and video suggest the broad scope of "Life on Mars."

Of course, any art worth looking at is already an assertion of the cultural values of being human. Doug Aitken's strange and exquisite projected video of migratory wild animals in anonymous motel rooms reawakens our animal intelligence. Mark Bradford's abraded collages of found street-signs beautifully metamorphose into aerial maps of typical urban landscapes.

Matthew Monahan's painted Styrofoam monoliths of fractured body parts strapped together every-which-way are monuments to brutality and endurance. Thomas Hirschhorn's "Cavemanman" -- a vast, walk-in bunker of linked tunnels made from cardboard, masking tape and aluminum foil, littered with empty cans, wallpapered with philosophy texts and lighted with fluorescent tubes -- slams together Lascaux and a survivalist hide-out.

Richard Hughes' big, lovely walls of torn paper in secondary and tertiary hues perform a gentle rebuke of an art museum's conventional white rooms, creating the illusion that they can be peeled away to reveal a hidden rainbow within. Paul Sietsema's poetic black-and-white film "Figure 3" is composed of imitation antiquities fabricated by the artist -- obsolete bits of a lost world, italicized by the whirring of the old-fashioned 16-millimeter movie projector that gives the ensemble rickety sculptural life.

Speaking of black and white, the show has a lot of it. Color's scarcity is a characteristic of the work of nine of 11 artists in the first suite of galleries -- a quarter of the show. (Kelley's intense chromatic infusion is one reason his installation stands out.) Its preeminence implies a certain puritan streak that is itself archaic. Black and white -- the colors of text printed on paper -- signify the earnest territory of Conceptual art, partly birthed in opposition to the decadence of Color Field painting 40 years ago. It's time to get over it.

The 1970s is where "Life on Mars" begins. In 1972, NASA launched Pioneer 10, the first man-made artifact to leave our solar system, carrying a line drawing engraved on a metal plaque to show potential extraterrestrials what human beings looked like. The launch roughly coincided with David "Ziggy Stardust" Bowie's inscrutable pop anthem, "Life on Mars," a parody of the strident, self-indulgent Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra hit "My Way."

Works from the 1970s by three artists -- full-length photograms of ghostly figures by San Francisco's Bruce Conner, humble sculptures incorporating Italian newspapers and neon by Mario Merz (1925-2003) and painted doodles on sheets of the International Herald Tribune by American expatriate in Paris Paul Thek (1933-1988) -- are dispersed through the exhibition. This abundance of earlier art is unusual, since the Carnegie International focuses on art today.

But it erects a clear historical bracket around the neo-conservative era, begun with Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential election and just now coming to a close with the Bush administration, whose public approval rating is in a ditch. As a curator, Fogle -- whose undergraduate degree is in political science -- deftly enlists art and its humanist inquiries to make an inescapable point.

Here's the peculiar part: It's tough to make extraterrestrial metaphors about human estrangement and exclusion with thoroughly establishment art. Half the chosen artists live and work in Germany and the U.S., the largest contingents in Berlin and Los Angeles (six each), currently the dominant centers of Western art production.

Just two artists are based in New York. But virtually all of them have influential gallery representation there, smack in the epicenter of the roaring private market. Berlin-based art historian Isabelle Graw recently described today's art universe as a mass corporate industry embracing the logic of celebrity culture. That's an aspect of "Life on Mars" the show doesn't consider, but tacitly affirms.

Take the eight California-based artists. California is a minority-majority state, with 57% of its population Latino, Asian and African American, but only two of its Carnegie International artists fit that profile. Neither is Latino, the largest minority. Only one is a woman.

Welcome to Mars, where former liberals turned ideologically conservative -- the neocons -- found a hero in California's celebrity governor, Reagan, and spent the next quarter-century profitably privatizing the public sector. "Life on Mars" is perceptive and slyly challenging in analyzing cultural politics, but it doesn't quite seem to recognize art's full-throated complicity in humanity's current discontents.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com

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