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Peripheral Visions

My car is due to be smogged soon and probably won‘t make it, and so, figuring I should get all my major urban driving in while I can, I set out to visit a few of the most far-flung destinations in the L.A. art universe, to see some of the odder things that pass for sculpture these days. My tour took me east to the edge of L.A. County, south into Irvine and Laguna Beach, and west to Venice (not so far off the beaten track, but you can’t go much farther without getting wet) for five shows that cajole traditional notions of sculpture as a pure and entirely separate medium.

The Montgomery Gallery at Pomona College, out the 10 in Claremont, is hosting a mini-retrospective by a vastly underrated sculptor whose influence as a teacher on such local heroes as Charlie Ray and Chris Burden has had a profound impact on Los Angeles‘ signature approach to three-dimensional work. Mowry Baden, a Los Angeles native, attended Pomona in the late ’50s, moved north to British Columbia shortly thereafter, and has made his home in Canada since. His ”task-oriented“ sculptures exemplify the quixotic playfulness of the first wave of conceptual art; sometimes puzzling or frustrating, but often laugh-out-loud funny. One 1982 work included in ”Freckled Gyres“ consists of a strap-on bit of hardware resembling a metal detector -- except for the plastic pork chop in place of the sensor disc at the far end. Entitled Spent Staples, Meat, and Electricity, the work is ostensibly designed as a tool for collecting small metal objects, by means of the electromagnet underneath the pork chop. What may at first seem a predecessor of Chindogu (Japanese journalist Kenji Kawakami‘s giddy ”unuseless“ inventions) is actually a subtly disarming invention for the sculpting of the social space surrounding it, drawing audiences used to ”Do Not Touch the Art“ into a kinesthetic re-evaluation of their relationship to art objects, and to their understanding of where exactly the art lies.

This holds true for all the work in ”Freckled Gyres,“ from the dowdy but seminal Seat Belt (1970) and the ear-cartilage-rattling Instrument (1969), to the low-tech 1999 simulator-ride title piece. As well as being a (relatively) discrete object, this latest example of Baden’s cognitive playground equipment (along with companion sculpture Prone Gyres) serves as the setprop for the performance, by Baden‘s sometime collaborator (and Pomona English professor) Steven Young, of two short plays by Sam Shepard, thus blurring the accepted categories even further. Had Baden stayed in the U.S., his work might have attained the status accorded Bruce Nauman’s. Instead he has been essentially a sculptor‘s sculptor -- although this survey and recent exhibitions at POST may well represent the beginnings of a monumental shift in public awareness. (Were it not a conflict of interest for my having written the catalog essay, I’d also recommend Ashley Thorner‘s concurrent solo show, ”Dots Blobs and Chandeliers,“ in the project room of Montgomery. If you nevertheless should happen upon the show, please Do Not Touch the Art -- Ms. Thorner had to spend the weekend after the opening re-sewing several soft sculptures that had been mistaken for ”task-oriented“ by Baden-addled gallery-goers.)

South on the 5 and off at the Culver Drive exit, curator Carl Berg (late of LASCA and Remba) has been creating an exhibition oasis for SoCal artists at the Irvine Fine Arts Center (IFAC), in the Heritage Park complex. The IFAC’s large, sprawling space accommodates expansive group shows, or, as in the current case, multiple solo exhibits. Joyce Lightbody‘s work has been a constant on the L.A. scene for some time now, its obsessive, delicate surfaces of collaged stamps and intricate, idiosyncratic penmanship staking out a territory nobody else seems to notice is even there. ”Selected Works 1994--1999“ is no disappointment, offering an abundance of the artist’s beautiful and peculiar hybrids of sculpture and surface decoration. Like mutant folk art dipped in an oily pool of roiling information, Lightbody‘s humble forms are coated in a dazzling, iridescent film of quasi-narrative, often music-related minutiae. Abject, unopenable mystery parcels wrapped in illuminated manuscripts, Lightbody’s works possess a fevered and slightly sinister beauty, due in no small part to the tension between the baroquely eloquent surfaces and the mute shapes they crisply contain.

Keith Sklar is known locally for his lumpy, complex, almost unintelligible large-scale portrait paintings of heroes such as Patti Smith and Muhammad Ali. While ”Recent Work,“ his first solo show since parting ways with Rosamund Felsen Gallery last year, contains two such pieces (of John & Yoko and Jackson & Lee), the majority of product consists of small, hollow forms made entirely of paint, stuffed with newspaper. Those familiar with Sklar‘s oeuvre will recognize these as isolated elements from his paintings -- wonky acrylic castings of ceramic tchotchkes, ice-cube trays, toys, sports equipment et cetera. Taken one at a time, the modest plastic shells daubed with paint seem the work of an entirely different artist. Simultaneously riffing on the recent Angeleno obsession with the materiality of paint and on a scabby, post-apocalyptic Pop akin to Kelley, Shaw and McCarthy, works such as Beethoven and Buddha Peel distill one of the elements that make up the fractured surfaces of Sklar’s paintings into an almost-serene simplicity.

A little to the south and west, at the end of the 133, the Laguna Art Museum is featuring the first solo museum installation by Irvine-born foam-core and tape maven Stephen Hendee. Expatriate (Jersey) member of the L.A. Extruded Polystyrene installation school that includes Jason Rogenes, Gordon Haines and Shirley Tse, Hendee has been a busy bee in the last year or two, erecting complex Styrofoam hives within the existing architecture of innumerable gallery spaces. Hendee‘s ephemeral, theatrical displays consist of backlit, taped-together shards of dissected foam sheets that transform any given white cube into a lo-fi Star Trek grotto. In the lower level at Laguna, Hendee has enclosed the annoying central ceiling hole with a glowing crystalline matrix of geodesic fragments. The chilly, amniotic vibe of the spatial modifications is overlaid with a graphic network of linear mark-making that is as formally indebted to Zen sumi drawings and Dada mechanical diagrams as it is to computer draftsmanship. The result is curiously human, like a future inversion of the Lascaux cave, or a set from Dr. Who. After visiting Laguna, you may also want to view Hendee’s concurrent drawing show at Mark Moore Gallery at Bergamot.

North on the 405 to Venice . . . Ken Price is certainly the most reliable aesthete from the Ferus Gallery days, regularly producing bodies of sumptuous, globular ceramic sculptures, thick with sensual immediacy and Finish-Fetish cachet. Long bookmarked as a signal figure in the disruption of craftart prejudices, Price‘s once-revolutionary use of acrylic paints on fired ceramic-art surfaces has since become standard potter vocabulary, with significantly lesser results. This show of relatively large works, apparently based on longtime surfer Price’s observations of ocean waves, weds simple, self-contained tongues of clay to psychedelically mottled surfaces like the bitchenest $45,000 bongs in creation. The lichenlike indeterminacy and fractal depth of the surfaces of works such as The Hunchback of Venice and the totally Rastafarian Pacific are a tribute to Price‘s gift as a master contemporary colorist, as functional as anyone dirtying a canvas these days. But the sizzling ultrasmooth surfaces of his lava-lamp dollops also envelop a dark existential vacuum, resulting in an unusually tactile take on sunshinenoir California dialectics.”