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Art review: ‘Fallen Star’ knocks notions of home off-kilter

SAN DIEGO — Do Ho Suh’s “Fallen Star” is the newest sculpture commissioned by UC San Diego’s Stuart Collection, now numbering 18 permanent works, and it makes me physically ill.

During a recent encounter my head was spinning, my stomach felt queasy, my focus blurred. The experience wasn’t stark or dramatic but instead came in gentle waves. “Fallen Star” is frankly nauseating.

I hasten to add that the nausea is a good thing — an unexpected disorientation that is indicative of the way art can move the body as a way to move the heart and mind.

PHOTOS: Do Ho Suh’s “Fallen Star” up close

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Some art gets denigrated for being eye candy, visually attractive but emotionally and intellectually flat. Being inside Suh’s superficially cheery sculpture is more like eating a 1-pound bag of M&M;'s: Tastes great on the way down, but the pleasure comes and goes. The push-pull between amused delight and gnawing unpleasantness swells.

“Fallen Star” is a small one-room house, designed in the style of a traditional Cape Cod bungalow, that cantilevers off the edge of the seventh floor of Jacobs Hall at the UCSD School of Engineering. Take the elevator up to the seventh floor — the sculpture is open for viewing on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. — and step outside; in front of you the cheery little clapboard house appears to float off the edge of a terrace.

A brick path winds to the home’s front door through a lovely patio garden, filled with indigenous plants, flowers and fresh herbs, and past a beckoning pair of Adirondack chairs. Lazy weekends are promised by a little barbecue grill off to one side, right by a coiled hose for watering the small patches of lush green lawn.

Open the bungalow’s crisp, white front door and things begin to change. An odd floral chandelier suspended from the pitched ceiling in the center of the room hangs straight, acting as a vertical plumb line. Mostly it serves to amplify the 17-degree angle on which the entire house is pitched.

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Everything inside the room is immaculate (if slightly worn), but maintaining your footing on the sloped floor takes some doing. Moving around the off-kilter space leads to curious absorption into the homey furnishings and knickknacks — books on a shelf, family photos by the brick fireplace, reproductions of paintings by Vermeer (glowing domestic harmony) and Goya (grim childhood). A Hitchcock coffee table, virtually identical to one in my New England childhood living room, is decorated with a floral pattern stenciled in gold.

High above the campus, a spit of California real estate in the tony seaside town of La Jolla gets an atmospheric glimpse of the Pacific Ocean in the bright blue beyond. It’s a room with a view. And the immediate neighborhood is also artistically impressive: Suh’s sculpture has good company.

From the house’s tilting windows a visitor can look to the left to a stolidly built engineering lab across the way, where Bruce Nauman’s big neon words enliven the architectural cornice. Under darkness of night in sudden bursts of flashing, multicolored lights, the neon texts overlap seven virtues and seven vices — faith/lust, hope/envy, charity/sloth, etc. Classically inspired moralizing merges with tacky strip-mall signage.

Over to the right, Alexis Smith’s gently serpentine “Snake Path” — a long walkway covered in flagstone scales — slithers up a man-made hill toward the nearby university library. The hill is planted with flowering shrubs and fruit trees, and an intimate dell is equipped with a bench for two.

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Along the garden trail a big, polished-granite book is carved with a quote from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “And wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a Paradise within thee, happier far.” Addressing backpack-bedecked passersby as if they were pastoral shepherds who had wandered out of a Poussin painting, Smith’s meditative marker evokes a tombstone memorializing Eden’s promise.

Inside Suh’s cozy-creepy house, a pastoral picture over the sofa shows an Italianate landscape, its little Greek temples nestled beneath sheltering trees. The painting weirdly echoes the philosophical torque of the Nauman neon and the Smith snake-path. Nauman and Smith collide nature and culture, innocence and knowledge. Their distinctive works neatly frame Suh’s precarious monument to no-place-like-home. Only slowly does it dawn that the color scheme of the room’s upholstered furniture is red, white and blue.

One of “Fallen Star’s” most haunting aspects is simply that it can be seen from afar — a disconcerting artifact of domestic comfort that seems to have dropped from the sky and crashed into the institutional blandness of the concrete building. Ancient Greeks used to decorate temple roof-lines with sculptures representing figures from myth, but at UCSD an academic sanctuary is turned into a pedestal for a more equivocal story of physical and emotional displacement. An image of yearned-for stability teeters atop the scientific certainties that underpin engineering.

Suh was born in Seoul in 1962 and divides his time between Asia and New York. His work was a standout in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2009 exhibition, “Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists From Korea.”

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“Home Within a Home,” his big dollhouse in the show, featured a traditional Korean house embedded inside a translucent resin model of an American apartment building where the artist once lived. The sculpture was cut open, each of its four sections placed on a separate wheeled pedestal, like a dissected frog prepared for laboratory analysis. Suh’s recurring theme of physical and emotional displacement fits today’s globally nomadic society, and it literally takes off in “Fallen Star.”

Other artists have built topsy-turvy rooms meant to disorient. In 1997, Glen Seator (1956-2002) erected a full-scale replica of the director’s office at New York’s Whitney Museum, tipping it to stand on end at a 45-degree angle as if to expose the parlous whimsy lurking inside institutional logic. Two years ago, Julian Hoeber constructed a canted plywood shack on the terrace at the UCLA Hammer Museum; it mimicked a “mystery spot,” those quirky roadside attractions where nature’s immutable laws of gravity seem to have been inexplicably suspended.

All these fun-house sculptures possess a seriousness of purpose, pulling the rug from beneath conventional expectations. At the same time, as critic Luc Sante noted about Hoeber’s “mystery spot” sculpture, they value humility by refusing to be any more earnest than a sideshow carnival trick.

For his first permanent installation, Suh has crafted a precise theatrical illusion. How precise? No one’s home really matches the comforting, golden memory that typically envelopes it. The gentle swell of nausea in “Fallen Star” shows that keeping your balance requires attentive care.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com


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