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Art review: Martin Durazo @ 18th Street Arts Center

August 19, 2010 |  6:00 pm
GetprevCADWKF66 Like an unruly genie let out of a bottle, one unexpected downside of decisive American triumph in World War II has been a heightened appetite for war, actual and metaphorical. The next 50 years saw vigorous U.S. commitments to the hair-raising Cold War; "hot" wars in Korea, Vietnam, Granada, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq; and the framing of serious social problems as essential wars on poverty, culture, terror, drugs and more.

Unlike the Axis outcome, results have been uneven. Take the latter: The war on drugs has contributed to the federal, state and local expenditure of annual funds in excess of $30 billion; the bloody carnage by vicious cartels operating in Mexican border regions; a huge increase in the U.S. prison population for nonviolent crime; and the qualifying of the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 (Prop. 19) for the November California ballot.

At the 18th Street Arts Center, Martin Durazo's evolving installation conjures all these drug-related developments and more. Durazo has turned the gallery space into a funky fusion of an artist's studio (he's on a fellowship at the center), a pharmaceutical laboratory where legal medications are developed and a rave party-site where illicit substances might be consumed.

All three are venues that don't usually get public exposure. The salutary effect of being let in on something that hums along just below the radar is to pique curiosity about vaguely illicit goings-on. And when was the last time art felt quite like that?

It's not illicit, of course. But the show subtly makes the point that altered consciousness, for good or ill, is an aim shared by Prozac, pot and Picasso.

Durazo NIAP An unassuming but richly allusive assemblage set up inside a small stage juxtaposes a rubber clown mask with a yellow bong that has a handle shaped like a pistol (it's stamped "USA"). Titled "Mi Pagliachi," it evokes Ruggero Leoncavallo's century-old opera about a commedia dell'arte troupe engulfed by intrigues involving sleeping potions, drunken carousing and deadly violence. Nearby, clusters of magnifying glasses, cut-out skulls and strip-club advertising cards are attached around found chunks of etched crystal in a group of small pedestal-bound sculptures embedded with twinkly lights, as if voyeuristic scientists are scrutinizing them for magical properties.

Black lights illuminate several abstract graffiti paintings, which glow obligingly like acid rock posters. So does a fountain made from a pebble-filled plastic crate suspended inside a bright yellow metal framework; water flows gaily from the mouths of big ceramic frogs, a witty allusion to claims about "hallucinogenic toads" central to various aboriginal rituals.

The installation's title, "Pain Management 100," implies that we have entered an introductory educational class on how to deal with the inescapable, eternal plague of human suffering. Since July 6, Durazo has been making a changing array of sculptures, videos and installations; hosting miniature group shows of work by other artists and students; and inviting musicians, friends and the public to come by and socialize. Integral to the installation is a lounge area with cushy sofas at one end, plus a small performing stage at the other.

Happily, "Pain Management 100" is a seminar, not a lecture. Conversation, examination and give-and-take are its method. Don't go expecting a highly finished, neatly appointed exhibition. Do go expecting to be engaged.

-- Christopher Knight

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18th Street Arts Center, 1639 18th St., Santa Monica, (310) 453-3711, through Sept. 24. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.

Photo: Martin Durazo,"Harmony and Longlife," 2010 ,mixed media; credit: 18th Street Arts Center; "NIAP," 2010, neon and Plexiglas: Credit: Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times