American ideals in DIY form

"Post-American L.A.," a nine-artist exhibition at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, is definitely not baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.

But there's nothing un-American about the spunky constellation of accessible images and objects that Pilar Tompkins, curator of the Claremont Museum of Art, has brought together.

All embody an ethos of make-do adaptation of scrappy, make-ends-meet survivalism that is both dignified and generous. Most put a high priority on good old American ingenuity, embracing its clear-eyed pragmatism and defiant optimism. The stubborn insistence that every individual matters drives the show, which is fueled by the conviction that officialdom will not take care of you and kicked into high gear by the idea that you had better get used to doing so yourself, along with as many compatriots as you can muster.

Vincent Johnson's poster-size montages of typically Korean and Mexican foods, costumes and pastimes suggest that the U.S. is not a single melting pot but a big spread of pots people dip into and out of, slowly mixing the various stews.

A similar sense of touristic sampling takes shape in Chen Shaoxiong's slide-show-style video, its washy drawings of big-city life taking visitors on a perfectly pleasant trip that keeps things breezily impressionistic.

The problems that crop up when loads of folks rub shoulders and money runs short are hinted at by Glenn Ligon's mural-size silk screen of a mass of hands and arms, all raised to the sky. The black-and-white image was probably shot at a concert or sporting event, its passionate fans cheering wildly. But the absence of faces and background information hints at something more sinister, perhaps an angry mob, mass arrest or sea of people in the wake of a disaster, awaiting insufficient assistance.

The gap between the haves and have-nots takes poignant shape in Adrian Paci's video of a small crowd of people left stranded on a portable stairway on an airport's runway. As jumbo jets taxi past and take off, it becomes clear that these stoic folks are going nowhere, despite their desire to get away.

Carolina Caycedo pushes all sorts of buttons in "Mexicamericana," an 8-by-5-foot nylon flag that fuses the red and white stripes of the U.S. flag with the central emblem, a bird vanquishing a snake, of Mexico's flag.

Without taking sides, her hybrid flag fantasizes about a mongrel super-state that goes far beyond benign ideas about cultural blending.

Hugo Hopping's tasteful arrangement of wooden bookshelves, two photos and small painting is too concerned to look like serious art to make meaningful links to the world beyond the gallery.

The opposite problem undermines Sandra de la Loza's audio installation.

"The Revolution Will . . . " is so eager to break free of the gallery's confines that its cliched props and recorded statements leave viewers too little to chew on.

In contrast, Ashley Hunt's elaborate flow chart, drawn in chalk on a multi-part blackboard that measures more than 7-by-16 feet, invites viewers to connect the dots between economic crises and diminished liberties, raising questions about racism, justice and what it means to be human.

Likewise, Vincent Ramos' 3-D collage, made in collaboration with advanced-placement art students at Venice High, weaves together so many scenarios that it's impossible not to be drawn into its multilayered mysteries.

Both savvy pieces go a long way to map the charged links between individuals and groups. They also leave room for confusion while grappling with the promise of democracy and the down-to-earth difficulties of realizing ideals.

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18th Street Arts Center, 1639 18th St., Santa Monica, (310) 453-3711, through Sept. 26. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. www.18thstreet.org

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Coming in

for a landing

If the great German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher had grown up with Google Earth at their fingertips, they might have made images like those in the small exhibition, "Elevated Descent: The Helipads of Downtown Los Angeles." At the Center for Land Use Interpretation, the unsentimental show surveys a single, often overlooked feature of the urban landscape to tell us something significant about the world we live in.

The exhibition consists of two series of images, each presented in the manner of an old-fashioned slide show, and two straightforward captions, each printed on a letter-size piece of paper.

The written component provides basic background facts, informing visitors that L.A.'s downtown has far more helipads than any other city in the country, and that is because zoning laws require every building taller than 75 feet to have an Emergency Helicopter Landing Facility. (Fire truck ladders rarely reach higher than 80 feet.)

All of the images in the larger of the two presentations have been shot from above, giving visitors a bird's-eye view of the specially marked platforms. In the crisp, geometric pictures, space flattens dramatically.

It's difficult to distinguish skyscrapers from warehouses. The perceptual disorientation compels you to look closely to see things with fresh eyes and heightened attentiveness. It's invigorating.

The images on the small monitor show the same buildings shot from the street. Some tower overhead, like super-sized Minimalist sculptures striving skyward. Others look ordinary, their nondescript features clashing with the exoticism of rooftop landing pads. All are daunting.

Together, the two series demonstrate how different a single thing can look when it is seen from different perspective.

Looking down and gazing up come with distinct emotions and power-relationships, inviting visitors to think clearly and deeply about our surroundings and our complex place in them.

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The Center for Land Use Interpretation, 9331 Venice Blvd., (310) 839-5722, through September. Open Friday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m. www.clui.org

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Buildings that might have been

Edward Cella Art + Architecture recently moved from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and a pair of first-rate exhibitions fills its handsome mid-Wilshire galleries.

"Visualizing a New Los Angeles: Architectural Renderings of Carlos Diniz" introduces L.A. viewers to the stylish designs of the architect-turned-illustrator who was the go-to-guy for the most talented and ambitious architects working in Los Angeles in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Organized by guest curator Nicholas Olsberg, the fascinating survey features 16 large, ink on vellum or tissue paper drawings and a suite of four richly tinted silk screens.

Visual resplendence was the name of the game for Diniz (1928-2001), whose sharp drawings made streamlined efficiency look luxurious, a little racy but not so far out there that investors and committees would be scared off.

It isn't difficult to imagine the folks who bring us "Mad Men" poring over Diniz's drawings for inspiration.

Sensitively rendered images of L.A. landmarks are abundant, including Cesar Pelli's Pacific Design Center, Frank Gehry's Santa Monica Place and Minoru Yamasaki's Century Plaza Hotel. Some of Diniz's most exciting works depict buildings that were never constructed, including a blocky rocket of a skyscraper (designed by Welton Becket as part of Century City's master plan), a glass silo of a hotel that emerges from the middle of Santa Monica Bay (by Pelli and Tony Lumsden) and "The Hollywood," an airy hotel that seems to float (by Paul R. Williams and David Jacobson).

Think of Diniz as the Julius Shulman of buildings before they existed: a connoisseur of possibility and an aficionado of atmosphere who turned ideas into dreams.

In two back galleries, "Drawings and Objects by Architects" presents a discriminating selection of fantastic drawings alongside a small treasure trove of curiosities.

The tone sometimes turns toward the fetishistic, especially with Diniz's 1964 drawings of interior and exterior views of the World Trade Center and, to a lesser extent, with Frank Lloyd Wright's brittle, colored pencil drawing of Ayn Rand's cottage studio. Gehry's fish-shaped lamp, cardboard chair and internally lighted relief sculpture give one part of the show the feel of a high-end IKEA.

In contrast, three solid drawings of domestic residences by Richard Neutra stand out for the way they make bold color and rugged, unlovely messiness intrinsic to architecture. Similarly, a suite of 20 pastel and graphite drawings by Lebbeus Woods leaves the world of souvenir collecting behind to explore darker, more consequential fantasies. Woods' haunting dystopias make the future appear as if it has come and gone, leaving us to sift through the ruins of plans gone bad and dreams dashed, trying to make the best of the present mess.

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"Visualizing a New Los Angeles: Architectural Renderings of Carlos Diniz," through Sept. 5; "Drawings and Objects by Architects," through Oct. 10. Edward Cella Art + Architecture, 6018 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 525-0053. Closed Sundays and Mondays. edwardcella.com

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