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About three years ago, the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood's then-new curator, Samantha Salzinger, organized an exhilarating exhibition called "Fat Painting," focusing on four contemporary heirs of abstract expressionism. The paintings, as the inspired title suggests, were big and bold, bursting with imagery.
Now, Salzinger has put together a very different but equally exciting sequel of sorts called "Reduced." It too includes four contemporary artists, although this time, they're the heirs of minimalism, which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, in part as a response to the perceived excesses of 1950s abstract expressionism. Maybe it's better to think of the new show as an "anti-sequel," a sleek, slimmed-down variation on its predecessor.
It's tempting to declare that everything there is to say about minimalism has already been said. Minimalists have always had the last laugh on those who would analyze their work to death. (Salzinger's introduction to the exhibition refers approvingly to Frank Stella's credo of "What you see is what you see.") But based on the works included here, it would clearly be a mistake to dismiss minimalism entirely. Just as "Fat Painting" reasserted the vitality of the ideas underlying abstract expressionism, "Reduced" demonstrates that some of the basics of minimalism are surprisingly enduring and versatile.
The show is about as Spartan as they come. It focuses primarily on a trio of South Florida-based artists, although it also includes a seminal 1971 video by John Baldessari (who is subjected to the careless indignity of having his name spelled three ways in the otherwise handsome exhibition brochure). And there are fewer than a dozen works by the three local artists -- five by Frances Trombly, four by Frank Wick, and two by Tom Scicluna -- all of which were created in the past three years.
While the art in "Reduced" is minimalist in spirit, it's probably more accurate to characterize it as post-minimalist in execution. Both terms derive from the writings of critics in reference to artists preoccupied with some of the problems posed by modernism. As Salzinger sums up in the brochure, "Modernism's main goal was to explore the purity of a medium, whether painting, sculpture, poetry, or music."
Minimalist masters as diverse as Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, and Richard Serra emphasize material over content. Their work often seems as if it might have been manufactured by machine -- and indeed, sometimes it has been. It's cool and impersonal, clean and austere.
With post-minimalism, the idea of the thing, rather than just the thing itself, begins to creep back in. "Conceptual art," a term coined by LeWitt, joins forces with minimalism, although not without a power struggle. That dynamic is crystallized in the work of Trombly, which depends upon the discrepancy between what it says it is and what it really is for its impact.
Trombly's five contributions to "Reduced" dot the museum's main gallery, and none of them is what it seems. Sitting on the floor, propped against the left wall after you enter, is what appears to be a small panel of plywood, labeled, of course, Plywood. Also perched precariously on the floor, at opposite ends of the gallery, are two untitled works helpfully subtitled paper boat and paper airplane, based on the forms familiar to many of us from our school days. On the curved wall at the far end of the gallery hangs a diptych called Paintings, which appears to be simply two monochromatic canvases. And in a corner nearby is Paper Corner, a heap of what look like crumpled pieces of notebook paper, complete with red and blue lines.
A close inspection of these objects, however, reveals that they are made not of wood or paper or canvas at all but of fabric, meticulously woven and stitched to create the uncanny illusion that the items are actually fabricated from the materials they mimic. Despite (or maybe because of) their devastating simplicity, Trombly's deceptive objects generate a wealth of allusions. We are at once reminded not only of Marcel Duchamp's Readymades -- a urinal labeled Fountain or, better yet, a bottle rack titled Bottle Rack -- but also of the work of René Magritte, who painted a pipe and then called the painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe ("This Is Not a Pipe").
Trombly's work is the show's strongest statement of minimalism's continuing influence, but it's not enough to carry the exhibition by itself. That's why the work of Wick is such a reassuring presence in the main gallery -- it fleshes out the space without overwhelming it and both complements and contrasts with Trombly's pieces.
Wick, like Trombly, is a sly, even grim, jokester. One wall bears his Winner, which consists of a large white panel with the title word stenciled in the center in a ghostly off-white, then painted over with bacon grease, which dribbles down from the letters and spatters the floor. The oblique joke is explained in the brochure by the curator, who says the piece "uses language to illustrate humans' ability to produce text as an advantage over animals and thus the right to eat them, rendering humans as the 'winner. '"
On the wall opposite is Wick's Nobody Said Life Was Fair, which consists of dozens of large, white, plaster hemispheres affixed directly to the museum wall. Their arrangement suggests the dot-based letters of the Braille alphabet, so I dutifully copied them down in hopes of translating them. But when I looked them up, only some of the dots appeared to correspond to the appropriate letters. I could make out nobody, life, and is, but then the correspondence seemed to break down, leading me to wonder if this is yet another example of Wick's warped sense of humor or if I'm just not very good at Braille translations. Either way, the joke works.
The third Wick work in the main gallery certainly confirms the artist's wicked wit. It's a mixed-media piece labeled W.W.J.D. and features a wooden sawhorse wrapped with a tangle of Christmas-tree lights of various sizes and colors, some flashing, others not lit, all connected to a timer that turns them on at 9 a.m. and off at 5 p.m. I later figured out that the letters in the title stand for "What Would Jesus Do?" The open-ended question, in this context, might apply to how Jesus might untangle the knotted strands of lights or how he might restore power to the burned-out bulbs... or any number of other possibilities.
Wick's final contribution to the show, Spirit of 2001, occupies the tiny first-floor elevator foyer. It's an endless video loop that pairs a blank, rolling, blue screen with an audio track of someone whistling the theme from Star Trek -- over and over and over. Heard from a distance, before I could figure out the tune, it was intriguing. Ultimately, however, it becomes irritating.
After the mordant whimsy of Trombly and Wick, the momentum of "Reduced" wanes slightly in the long, narrow center gallery, in which only one work is displayed. It's called Shroud, by Scicluna, and is composed of a wall's worth of big pieces of translucent paper, covered with wax rubbings from bricks on the Art and Culture center's walkway. The bricks are etched with the names of people living and dead, as well as some arts organizations, so the shroud becomes a weird sort of memorial.
It helps to know that long before it became a museum, the Art and Culture Center was a funeral home. That bit of knowledge also informs Scicluna's other work here, a mixed-media wall sculpture called limbolimbo, which combines a coat hook from an embalming room, a cabinet door, and a Native American dreamcatcher.
The exhibition finale is Baldessari's black-and-white 1971 video I Am Making Art, in which the artist spends nearly 19 minutes making meaningless movements and gestures while endlessly, rapidly repeating the title words in a solemn monotone. Like the rest of "Reduced," this work transcends its potential pretentiousness by virtue of its deadpan attitude. Don't take this exhibition too seriously and maybe you'll have as much fun with it as I did.