'Love in a Cemetery' at the 18th Street Art Center

The title of 18th Street Art Center's ambitious group exhibition, "Love in a Cemetery," comes from artist Allan Kaprow, who said, "Life in the museum is like making love in a cemetery." Kaprow attempted to escape the museum's sepulchral air with "happenings," open-ended, participatory events that blurred the line between art and everyday life.

In this spirit, the exhibition presents works that take place within and outside the gallery, seeking to reevaluate the relationship between cultural institutions and the communities they serve. It succeeds, not so much in reinvigorating the gallery space, but in raising questions about how such works might best be presented within its walls.

Organized by curator Robert Sain and artist Andrea Bowers, the show is supposedly structured around a series of questions on the relationship between "cultural institutions" and "community," both of which are ill-defined. People have scrawled various answers, ranging from glib to smart-alecky, in chalk on the walls of the gallery. Although broadly participatory, it's the least compelling part of the show.

The rest of the pieces were created by Bowers and eight graduate students from the Public Practice Program at the Otis College of Art & Design. The students, in pairs or individually, teamed with five community organizations to create projects that would both have a positive impact on their respective communities and produce a work to be shown in the gallery.

Rodrigo Marti and Felicia Montes worked with gang intervention program Homies Unidos to develop art workshops, a panel discussion, and a poster and sticker campaign supporting the legal case of the program's director, Alex Sanchez, who was indicted in a gang-related case in 2009. In the gallery, posters, fliers and protest signs line one of the walls and visitors can contribute to the cause by purchasing T-shirts, stickers and jewelry at a makeshift self-serve kiosk. The work successfully turns the gallery into an information and fundraising center, even if its traditional activist aesthetic -- high contrast graphics, long columns of text and slapdash construction -- loses some of its urgency on the gallery walls.

Less effective are the results of Rachael Filsinger and Ella Tetrault's project with My Friend's Place, a drop-in center for homeless youth in Hollywood. Filsinger and Tetrault ran workshops with the center's young clients, encouraging them to record all the places they had lived or visited on conventional printed maps. Mounted on sheets of plywood, some of the maps are annotated with expressions of frustration or political conviction, but the scrawled lines and dots are often so cryptic that one can't help feeling that the real work lies elsewhere. The maps are the byproduct of a process that hopefully has had some positive influence on its participants; it's too bad we don't know more about it.

Projects like these point to some of the difficulties of representing community-based work within the walls of the gallery. Should artists behave more like documentarians? Or should activism and art remain separate? On the other hand, is it enough to simply move the signs, T-shirts and stickers indoors?

Jamie Crooke's partnership with the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic provides one possible answer. Crooke walked the streets around the clinic pushing a cart selling health-related items--bandages, apples, wheat grass seed, Emergen-C packets -- in exchange for a dollar or a bit of conversation. In addition to examining the cart itself, gallery visitors can watch a video and flip through a photo book documenting the project. The cart also features a price list including the above mentioned items as well as the cost of one year of employer-provided health insurance (about $13,000) and the annual compensation of United Health Group's CEO (more than $9 million). With this sly, humorous gesture, the piece makes its critical point about inequities in healthcare spending, whether one sees it on the street or in the gallery.

It's impossible to ascertain whether Crooke's project had a greater impact than the rest; she simply presented it more thoughtfully. It is more than enough to go out and help others or fight injustice, but communicating that accomplishment -- giving one's vision a life beyond the immediate moment -- is where the institution, whether a museum, an archive or, ahem, a newspaper, plays a role. Yes, the museum is often a mausoleum, housing the remnants of more vital activity, but how else will the rest of us know what happened?

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

Artist channels his dreams

Dreams become reality quite literally in Ilán Lieberman's beguiling work at Steve Turner Contemporary. The Mexico City artist has created sculptures and a video based on art works seen in his dreams -- gawky figures made of painted canvases, a portrait of William S. Burroughs composed in pebbles, a simple white pajama top in a cardboard box.

The conceit is a bit cute, but the idiosyncratic items are enlivened by brief wall texts recounting the accompanying dreams. We learn that the canvases are Lieberman's own paintings (mostly bad, surrealistic landscapes) from the '90s, and that the figures were shown to him in his dream by gallerist Monica Manzutto. Lieberman writes, "I told Monica that my work had improved since then, but she seemed to like the work." This gentle affirmation of the artist's older pieces recasts the otherwise mystifying sculptures as cumulative self-portraits, a playful reckoning with the past.

Yet why make the objects at all? It's tempting to dismiss the show as little more than a dream diary in three dimensions. But Lieberman's careful attention to detail communicates an earnest desire to make the dream objects as real and concrete as possible. The flesh-colored stones in Burrough's visage are pains- takingly arranged; the pajama is enshrined in a Plexiglas case with a golden plaque. And a giant pair of oatmeal-colored woolen pants slung over a rope in the back of the gallery is so perfectly lighted that it appears to glow in the darkness. This last piece comes closest to re-creating the sensation of dreaming, where intense, often nonsensical images emerge out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. Lieberman's work expresses a palpable longing to bring that mysterious inner world to light.

Steve Turner Contemporary, 6026 Wilshire Blvd., L.A, (323) 931-3721, through March 13. Closed Sunday-Tuesday. www.steveturner contemporary.com

Breathtaking assemblage

The press release for Robert Mallary's show at the Box states that his work has not been shown in L.A. since 1954, which is hard to believe, because it is breathtaking.

The artist, who died in 1997 at age 79, participated in the assemblage movement that followed on the heels of Abstract Expressionism, and most of the works in the show date from the '50s and '60s.

Yet unlike Rauschenberg's more playful "Combines," Mallary's assemblages are dark, dramatic sculptures that nod to classical themes. "Harpy," from 1962, is a tattered, winged figure constructed out of resin-soaked tuxedos that have been ripped, weathered and stretched over thin steel rods. The dusty black fabric makes the figure look charred, an effect rendered more gruesome by the still-recognizable seams and buttons, which suggest a battered bodily presence.

In five large wall pieces, Mallary used resin to shape sand, gravel, wood and cardboard into monochromatic abstractions that hover somewhere between painting and sculpture. With their distressed and scumbled surfaces, they seem like more muscular cousins to the work of Spanish abstract Expressionist Antoni Tàpies, who textured his paintings with sand. They also seem to prefigure, aesthetically at least, the grimy layers of history revealed in the house fragments of Gordon Matta-Clark.

Mallary's extensive use of resin eventually made him ill -- he was one of the first artists to sound the alarm about the dangers of toxic art materials. A selection of works from the '80s reveals how he continued to explore the same themes and motifs in less heroic fashion. Using only torn and folded scrap paper and envelopes, his modest collages are the inverse of his sculptures: the same textures, shapes and visual complexity, only intimate and white instead of looming and dark.

The Box, 977 Chung King Road, L.A., (213) 625-1747, through April 3. Closed Sunday-Tuesday. www.thebox la.com

Glass House, over time

In his latest exhibition at Regen Projects, James Welling continues to explore the line between representation and abstraction by photographing the Glass House, the iconic mid-century home of architect Philip Johnson. The house, whose walls are made entirely of glass, sits on a wooded estate that served as a kind of laboratory for the architect, who built a series of pavilions and outbuildings around it.

Welling photographed structures on the site over a period of three years using a variety of brightly colored filters.

The images are saturated with boldly unnatural colors that in some instances resemble the dramatic, high-keyed glow of a Maxfield Parrish painting.

Parrish, an early 20th century American painter known for intensely colored neoclassical scenes, is an odd touchstone for work so steeped in modernism. Not only is Welling's subject a modern architectural icon, but the photographs also evoke abstract painting. Rothko's stacked rectangles often referred to landscapes; Welling's images use horizon lines to turn landscapes into distinct fields of color.

Yet some of the images, especially pictures of the Lake Pavilion -- an open-air structure of columns and arches -- strike a histrionic note. The searing blocks of color also carry an emotional charge, rendering the images moody and a bit romantic, not unlike Parrish's patently artificial idylls.

Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive, L.A., (310) 276-5424, through March 6. Closed Sundays, Mondays. www.regenprojects.com

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