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PST, A to Z: ‘Craft Revolution’ at Mingei and ‘Phenomenal’ at MCASD

December 2, 2011 |  3:45 pm

Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

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It’s hard to find two Pacific Standard Time shows more different than “San Diego’s Craft Revolution: From Post-War Modern to California Design” and “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface.” The former, at San Diego’s Mingei International Museum, traces the evolution of craft practices from classic midcentury modernism to something stranger and homegrown; the latter, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, looks at 1960s and '70s sculpture and installations that probe the mechanics and mysteries of perception.

One is overflowing with wooly, knobby, handcrafted objects; the other features the sparest interventions in space via plastics, lighting and architectural alterations. But in their distinct ways, each is emblematic of a questioning, exploratory spirit that characterized much California art of the period.

In “Phenomenal,” Larry Bell’s early glass cube sculptures from the late 1960s are decorated with solid and mirrored shapes that create layers of reflections that echo and fragment from front to back. Oddly, a similar effect is also found in “Craft Revolution,” in a 1970s stained glass window by James Hubbell. It’s 180 degrees from Bell’s sharp edges and tight geometries, but nevertheless creates a similar effect (at least as it’s lighted and installed on the museum wall). Sharp pyramidal shapes point to the center of the window, but the rest is organic and rather lumpy. Truth be told, it’s a bit over the top, like something you might find on the set of “The Lord of the Rings” movies, only more so.

Media_beer_canThis is the “revolution” that the Mingei’s exhibition touts. If “California Design” at LACMA celebrates the triumph of a more humane, more textured California modernism, then “Craft Revolution” is about how what started out as modernist craft, became something totally different, and well, especially strange.

The show focuses on the Allied Craftsmen, a loose-knit group of San Diego artists that formed in the late 1940s and still exists today. Its members work in enamel, body ornament, furniture design, ceramics, and textiles, as well as painting, photography, sculpture, and architecture. Early on, the group championed modern design, as exemplified in the austere wood furniture and carved animals of John Dirks, or the ceramic pots of Malcolm McClain, which evoke bold yet elegant rock formations. But the delicate, late-1950s textiles of Evelyn Gulick and the simple shapes of Robert Matheny’s geometric pendants soon gave way to Douglas Deed’s chairs made out of beer cans, Wendy Murayama’s carved wooden book stand in the shape of a giant, curling flower bud, and Svetozar Radakovich’s creepy silver ladle with a glass eye staring up from the bottom of its bowl.

What are we to make of this stuff? Is it postmodern, just trippy, or both? However you choose to explain it, it’s clear that craft in San Diego went off the Modernist rails at some point, diverging from the track traced in CAFAM’s “Golden State of Craft,” which hewed more closely to movements in modern and contemporary art.

HopkinsOn a recent Saturday at the Mingei, I overheard a man admiring the swirling shapes of a Jack Rogers Hopkins chair (less flamboyant than the one pictured at right, which is not in the show) made from stacked and laminated wood: “It’s so cool. What are they doing today, painting soup cans?” Well actually, Andy Warhol was painting soup cans almost a decade before Hopkins made these chairs in 1971, but no matter. The comment speaks to the age-old divide between art and craft that was exacerbated by the rise of conceptual art, when art became more about ideas than materials, skill, or aesthetic experience.

Strangely enough, this divide came up in the MCASD symposium on “Phenomenal”  last month. Getty curator Andrew Perchuk noted that Light & Space artist Robert Irwin preferred the work of Donald Judd to that of Robert Morris (both men were associated with Minimalist sculpture), because Judd’s work is meant to be looked at, whereas Morris’ is meant to be thought about. Many of the Light & Space artists were interested in laying bare the mechanisms of perception. Their work was all about experiencing rather than thinking about seeing.

This endeavor is borne out in the exhibition by a number of physically disorienting installations. Entering Eric Orr’s darkened room is like waking up in the morning: a gradual lifting of darkness reveals the shadowy shapes of other viewers. Navigating the darkened passageway in James Turrell’s “Wedgework V” is truly terrifying, and the operatic red geometric space at the end of the tunnel evokes a floating feeling. And Doug Wheeler’s white room, while not as scary, definitely gives one the sensation of standing on a precipice where the floor borders an abyss of light.

Turrell_4087_Photo_RittermannI hadn’t before realized the level of peril and control involved in L&S art. Another symposium panelist, Michael Auping, spoke about a 1975 visit to Maria Nordman’s studio, which was basically empty except for a small, low opening in the wall. She greeted him, told him to crawl inside, and shut the door behind him — for 20 minutes. He recalled that light entered the space so slowly that the effect was like grisaille: a gradual grayness. The artistic act, then, might consist of simply controlling light, or controlling the viewer’s access to it. (It’s too bad Nordman declined to participate in “Phenomenal,” but you can still see her installation at LACMA.)

The perceptual revolution of L&S might have been intended for your eyes alone, possibly in a dark room, but its implications — that what we know of the world may be only a trick of the light — are far greater. If the edges of a room or a glass box can seemingly dissolve into space, why can’t other kinds of divisions?

-- Sharon Mizota

Mingei International Museum, 1439 El Prado, San Diego, (619) 239-0003, through April 15. Closed Mondays. www.mingei.org

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla, and 1100 & 1001 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, (858) 454-3541, through Jan. 22. Closed Wednesdays. www.mcasd.org

Photos, from top: Installation view of Larry Bell works in "Phenomenal: California Light,
Space, Surface." Photo by Pablo Mason.

Douglas Deeds, chair made with recycled beer cans, first made in Syracuse, N.Y., ca. 1960. Courtesy of Douglas Deeds.

Jack R. Hopkins with "Womb Room" sculptural seating environment, ca. 1970. Courtesy of Hopkins Family.

James Turrell, Wedgework V, 1975, Flourescent Light. Courtesy Abstract Select Ltd, UK. © James Turrell. Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann.

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