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Art

Pasadena's PST Shows Make Everyday Things Into Art, Like Porn and Furniture

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Fri, Jan 20, 2012 at 3:52 PM

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Wallace Berman's 1969 Untitled (Shuffle): Turning a transistor radio into a playing card with phantasmagoric imagery. (Credit: Private Collection).

It's high time to brave the Pasadena Freeway, thanks to four landmark Pacific Standard Time shows with ambitious curators, catalogues, and historical reach in Pasadena. Pasadena/San Marino has its PST "focus" weekend this Saturday and Sunday, which means lots of extra events.

Michael Duncan's "LA RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles, 1945-1980," opening Jan. 22 at Pasadena Museum of California Arts, boasts 40 artists, including biggies Edward Kienholz, Judy Chicago, Chris Burden, David Hammons, and Paul McCarthy. Leah Lehmbeck's "Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California" at the Norton Simon ranges from Ed Ruscha and Richard Diebenkorn to Robert Rauschenberg.

But the real reason to get your butt out there now is to see two exhilarating PST shows that are about to close: Hal Nelson's "The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945-1985" at the Huntington through Jan. 30 and Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon's "Speaking in Tongues: The Art of Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken" at the Armory Center for the Arts through Jan. 21. Both give you a sense of how these artists supported each other and collaborated, and the shows are of a scale where you can really take in the work.

The Huntington's show about furniture-making MacArthur genius Maloof and his crafty Modernist circle focuses on the beauty of everyday objects. The Heinecken/Berman show is more dry and difficult and conceptual. And also cooler than you might expect. After all, Berman was one of the Beatles' heroes on the Sgt. Pepper cover, among Jung, Tony Curtis and W.C. Fields, and he and Heinecken, who founded UCLA's photography program in 1963 though he seldom used a camera, ran in the rebel fast-lane art crowd of Dennis Hopper.

The exhibits emphasize that important work is often rooted in friendships, the dialogue and support of like-minded fellow artists. Given the sorting of ideas, the sense of play and immediate response that community and collaborations inspire, personal obsessions can develop into movements, conversations can become publications, and truly groundbreaking visual language can develop from an initial few.

"The House That Sam Built" had its foundation in the design, fine art and craft movement that grew around Scripps College under renowned painter Millard Sheets, head of the art department. Sheets attracted nationally known ceramists and textile artists, painters and sculptors. Many stayed in the valley, supporting each other as friends and colleagues, collecting and inspiring each other's work.

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Foremost is Sheets' onetime apprentice Sam Maloof, whose early furniture quickly captured attention for its innovative design and elegant one-of-a-kind craftsmanship. Maloof was such a purist that he turned down millions of dollars to license his furniture designs for reproduction at the height of the '50s craze for Danish Modern. He was influenced by the sleek Scandinavian furniture tradition, and knew the genius creators of the Eames chair, but he was fundamentally against the idea of mass-market art. His work is about the artist's hand, in response to the unique forms and patterns of the wood, and with one target audience in mind: the furniture's user, whether it would be Jimmy Carter (who phoned Maloof the week he died) or you.

Maloof believed the relationship formed in the process of making a work was as vitally important as the object itself. And this personal expression is paid tribute to with this lovely installation, whose intimate beauty makes you feel like you're walking into the Maloofs' home, with arrangements of exquisite walnut furniture set against the cerulean blue walls he favored, and 81 lovely fine art and crafts works by others in his circle. Full disclosure: I lead occasional tours of the Huntington (as a volunteer, for love of art, not for money), and on a tour of this show, I overheard someone say, "My parents had that one of those vases on their coffee table -- if only I'd known it would be so valuable!" It is valuable, and truly a gorgeous exhibition.

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"Speaking in Tongues: the Art of Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken," closing January 22, documents the exchange between two Beat/'60s era artists as they generated a unique graphic, conceptual, and pop-culture language. Inspired by a Kurt Schwitters collage whose glue inadvertently turned the work transparent as it aged, Heinecken manipulated magazine pages so that both sides showed through simultaneously to ironic effect. He superimposed transparencies of porn images of couples so that you can't tell where one body begins and another ends, making a new landscape of eroticism with undulant visual rhythms. You get the impression that he wants the experience of seeing the appropriated photos to be more than just looking at sex -- he wants you to feel in on the rough and tumble, to muss your hair and your head. Don't just stand back gazing at it through your lorgnette -- you have to grapple with it to see and comprehend. It's voyeuristic and sexist in a way, but sometimes beautiful, and about the intrinsic visual seductions that pop culture sells you with.

Berman collaged images from periodicals, often using Warhol-like serial repetitions of a 1964 Life Magazine ad for a hand-held transistor radio with striking images he inserted: an owl, a moon, a hurricane. His masterpiece may be Aleph, the eight-minute film he spent a decade collaging and hand-painting (Stan Brakhage restored it). Like a Maloof chair, it was meant for one art lover at a time. It was projected on Berman's refrigerator for guests to watch as images danced by: the Pope, Jackie Kennedy, Alice in Wonderland, marijuana, Dylan, Charlie McCarthy, porn, Mick Jagger, a rocket fuse, Berman's iconic hand-held transistor radio flashing Hebrew letters, textured and torn esoteric images across its face seemingly broadcast from a mysterious frequency.

Such AM/FM radios were ubiquitous in their time, the iPhone of the day, and represented democratic mass communication, but the shape of the radio seems also like a playing card, constantly being reshuffled and appearing in a new order, with a new secret language.

You won't necessarily understand precisely what it says, but you'll get the message.

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