Art review: 'It Happened at Pomona' shows a brief, enduring period

The last of an absorbing trio of small Pacific Standard Time shows charting an especially rambunctious moment at Pomona College between 1969 and 1973 looks at the work of nine artists who were either students or on the school's faculty. Ranging from accomplished to unresolved, the paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations often ricochet off one another in form and content, underscoring an era of ferment.

At the Pomona College Museum of Art, senior curator Rebecca McGrew and Getty Research Institute specialist Glenn Phillips have chosen 53 works for Part 3 of "It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles, 1969-1973." (Twenty-five black-and-white photographs from Lewis Baltz's "Tract House" suite and 13 from Judy Fiskin's "Stucco" series account for two-thirds of that.)

The centerpiece is a room with five eccentric sculptures by Mowry Baden. The L.A. native has lived in Canada for 40 years, but he deserves credit as the match that lighted the Pomona fuse.

Baden's sculptures might leave you nonplused. A tangle of automobile seat belts bolted to the floor? A rickety, upright "double fence" of short aluminum rods? A 16-foot metal channel suspended from the ceiling, roughly at the height of a person's head?

These and other sculptures are designed to cross wires. All are participatory. Focus shifts away from the purely visual, engaging — and sometimes confounding — the body's other senses.

Strap yourself into the tethered seat belts, and your restrained sphere of movement — which could also be called the sculpture's shape — is determined by your height, weight and kinesthetic experience. (It also anticipates Matthew Barney's celebrated "Drawing Restraint" series by nearly 20 years.) Meander between the two rows of rickety aluminum rods and the sculpture's odd-looking form turns out to have been determined by the rolling gait of a person walking a line. Slip inside the suspended channel, and your eyes must carefully negotiate with your body's movements — lest you bang your head into some unexpected curves along the path.

The oddest sculpture is the vividly colored "Delivery Suite," a sort of abstract Surrealist painting in the manner of Miró mated with a playground jungle gym. Constructed of steel and resin, it has a definite front and back.

From one side it suggests a free-standing canvas with a chair jammed into it. The cliché of a seated painter absorbed in deep concentration across from his evolving abstract creation gets smashed up.

From the other side a big, phallic form drops down to the floor from a sheltering canopy above, then curves up to probe a vaginal indentation in the wall. (The tumescent shape is also like some gargantuan tongue exploring the space left by a cartoon giant's missing tooth.) Sit in the seat on the other side, and you can peer through a slit in the wall in an effort to make out just what shenanigans are going on beyond the picture plane.

Baden's sense of humor is wry. That rickety "fence," for example, looks like a pristine Minimalist sculpture all bent out of shape — a demolition Baden's art slyly encourages. "Delivery Suite" transforms abstract painting into an outright burlesque. The theatricality inherent in any art encounter is put front and center, thanks to the requirement for audience participation.

A cheeky assault on formal purity unfolds. Undermining visual purity, often with strategies from idea-oriented Conceptual art, is a leitmotif of the show.

Peter Shelton made stain paintings, then being touted in New York as art's next-big-thing, but rather than using pure pigments on raw canvas he mixed coffee or tea with lab chemicals for decidedly unnatural results. Michael Brewster hid small, clicking noisemakers inside a gallery's walls and dimmed the lights, allowing ephemeral, chirping cricket sounds to "draw" a space the eyes couldn't see.

Chris Burden made a golden bronze form that looks like a big egg morphing into a smooth clam shell, a hand-size sculpture with a sharp edge that arose from an attempt to make a functional knife. (Imagine Brancusi designing a pastry blender.) David Gray made a chrome-plated cylinder cradled in the top of a white-lacquered cube, like some Space Age talisman; the primordial pessimism of a New York School totem is exchanged for the mystic optimism of an oracular Minimalist object.

Hap Tivey, who collaborated on light installations with James Turrell, made a long, curved cylinder of stretched fabric inside an open-frame box that opens on a veiled plastic disk lighted from behind. It's hard to miss the glowing ensemble's corny abstraction of a birth canal.

Conceptual art's devaluation of the eye's dominion was compatible with the institution of the university, where art education was a mushrooming field circa 1970. Ideas can be tested; visual art's irrational verve — not so much.

To be taken seriously in an academic context, art's element of craft — with all its homespun associations — also had to be suppressed. Except for Brewster's eloquent sound installation, shown here for the first time since his 1970 master's exhibition, all of these works appear transitional — exploratory experiments, none fully formed, on the way to something else.

The other fully formed exceptions are Baltz's and Fiskin's black-and-white photographs and an exquisite pair of crisp, hard-edge paintings by Guy Williams (1932-2004). The technical demands of photographic printing and hard-edge painting's strict geometry keep their level of finish high.

Baltz's rigorously Minimalist pictures show banal tract houses under construction. Architectural fragments — windows, brick chimneys, plastered walls, etc. — nearly fill each frame. A romantic, Ansel Adams-style tradition of California wilderness photography is transformed into a record of newly mushrooming suburbia. The fragments look oddly like abstract Modern paintings and sculptures.

Fiskin looks back to an earlier residential boom — namely, L.A.'s humble stucco bungalows of a pre-World War II era, shot head-on, parallel to the picture plane. The photographs are printed small, the dimensions of the image conforming to what the artist would have seen in the camera's viewfinder. That means you see what she saw. Being made aware of the camera's mediation of ordinary experience subtly abstracts these conventional bungalows, exposing a strangeness obscured by familiarity.

Williams' big, beautiful, 12-foot-wide painting "Slamfoot Brown" is a coppery chocolate plane of flat color interrupted by 94 vertical rows of small, angled color-bars painted in irregular patterns of periwinkle, fuchsia and green. The strict logic of the composition oscillates with the wholly irrational color, while the elements shift between positive and negative space, depending on how you look at them.

Sense colliding with senselessness looks lovely. Williams' hard-edge paintings stand midway between John McLaughlin's geometric abstractions from the 1950s and John M. Miller's from the 1980s, filtered through Larry Poons' 1960s color-optics.

That's the way it goes throughout this show (which closes Sunday), as interactions pile up and connections reverberate. Pomona's moment, circa 1970, didn't last long; but this trio of exhibitions demonstrates that it went deep.

It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles, 1969-1973; Part III," Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Way, Claremont, (909) 621-8283, through May 13. http://www.pomona.edu/museum

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Art review: "It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles, 1969-1973; Part I"

Art review: "It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles, 1969-1973; Part II"

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