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GETTING CLOSE TO `SCENE OF THE CRIME'; UCLA'S ARMAND HAMMER MUSEUM HOSTS COMPELLINGLY CREEPY EXHIBITION.

Byline: Reed Johnson Daily News Staff Writer

Round up the usual suspects. Alert the conspiracy theorists. And whatever you do, don't let Mark Fuhrman touch any evidence.

Precautions like these may cross your mind after viewing ``Scene of the Crime,'' the compellingly creepy new exhibition ensconced at UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum through Oct. 5.

Vandalism, self-mutilation and sexual sadomasochism are among the lesser violations depicted in the 70 works here. Murder, genocide, environmental destruction and various forms of political chicanery and economic violence also receive their due.

But you don't have to be Joe Friday to deduce that ``Scene of the Crime'' isn't really about bad deeds and just deserts. After strolling through this multimedia house of horrors, and flipping through the companion catalog, it becomes clear that guest curator Ralph Rugoff intends his show's title not as a literal description, but as a reference to a certain breed of contemporary art.

Laid out as coolly and clinically as a morgue, ``Scene of the Crime'' is fundamentally concerned with how art has become less about tangible objects than about scattered clues and missing pieces. Beginning with surrealism, then continuing through Abstract Expressionism, performance art and installation, modern art has taken a sharp inward turn, leading us down endless mazes of private obsessions and through receding black holes of perception.

Seen in this context, the works in ``Scene of the Crime'' are like bread crumbs scattered in a forest: This is art that asks us to consider how we stumbled into this postmodern mess in the first place and, possibly, how we can backtrack our way out. It's about weighing evidence, not rendering a verdict.

Pieces of paranoia

Gleaned from 39 contemporary West Coast artists, the exhibition fits nicely with the current paranoid style in American culture. From the Oklahoma City bombing and the crash of TWA Flight 800 to Internet cults and UFO cover-ups, Americans have learned to be leery of just the facts, ma'am. Whether it's the Zapruder film or O.J.'s DNA tests, we're increasingly likely to say, ``Forget the expert witnesses: Just hand us the Weekly World News.''

Of course, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. ``Scene of the Crime'' underscores that idea by constructing a mood of humorous unease, abetted by several key works.

As we enter the gallery, we're greeted by Edward Ruscha's large oil painting ``L.A. County Museum on Fire'' (1965-68). Shooting off flames and smoke, this image of a doomed cultural landmark presumably should summon our deepest distress. But Ruscha paints the museum as a toylike structure, an abstract architectural model devoid of any human figures and smothered by a neutral, slime-green sky. Instead of arousing alarm, the painting induces bland acceptance, making us silent co-conspirators in the act of destruction.

Ed Kienholz's ``Sawdy'' (1971) also turns viewers into accomplices. This eerie assemblage consists of a Datsun pickup door, on the window of which Kienholz silk-screened a grisly lynching scene. Like drive-in movie customers, we're reduced to passively watching a neatly framed spectacle.

Yet these works inspire more than mere guilt-tripping. As Rugoff suggests in his catalog essay, assemblage art frequently functions as a stage set, a place where action is about to happen or already has. Implicitly, the missing actors in ``Sawdy'' are ourselves, and we're forced to carefully consider the role we've chosen to play - or not play.

This sense of incipient drama hangs heavily over Lewis Baltz's cibachrome print, ``11777 Foothill Boulevard, Los Angeles'' (1991). Some viewers will instantly recognize the address as the site of the Rodney King beating, a touchstone of modern urban anxiety. Yet Baltz's deliberately nondescript image of a desolate city street echoes not with meaning but with banality - or, as Rugoff writes, with ``concealed significance.''

Elementary, my dear Sigmund

Rather than acting as mere voyeurs, ``Scene of the Crime'' wants us to act as detectives or forensic scientists, reconstructing artistic motives and scanning objects for whatever nasty little secrets they may be hiding. The exhibition's true patron saint isn't Agatha Christie but Sigmund Freud, who insisted there are no accidents, only causes and (sometimes harmful) effects. Several works turn the viewer into an amateur archeologist, reconstructing the past from piles of debris. In Barry Le Va's assemblage ``Shatterscatter,'' a stack of eight glass panels has been perfectly pierced by a single bull's-eye impact. The cracks radiating from the epicenter pull us into a vortex of speculation. Who did this, why and with what? It's like mentally restaging a fatal SigAlert as we cruise past the twisted freeway wreckage.

Question marks also surround Richard Misrach's photograph ``Office, Hangar of the Enola Gay,'' which depicts a derelict room in the complex where the world's first A-bomb was built. Boarded-up windows and fallen plaster chunks lend this image a strangely timeless quality. Instead of a shrine to a superpower's coming of age, we seem to be looking at the tomb of an already half-forgotten past, distant as a Pharaoh's grave.

``Scene of the Crime'' immerses us in a world of smoking guns and overturned furniture, a pulp fiction universe where staged events may be more truthful than real ones. John Divola makes this argument with his amusing arrangement of black-and-white movie stills from such classic Hollywood gangster pics as ``Central Park'' and ``Public Enemy.''

But the exhibition also forces us to recognize the sinister props and costumes that outfit our everyday lives. For example, Nayland Blake's ``Equipment for a Shameful Epic'' (1993) presents us with a kind of do-it-yourself theater of Republican-era cruelty. This Halloween grab bag of gory rubberized heads, plastic weapons and masks of Nixon, Reagan and Jason (of ``Friday the 13th'' infamy) hints at some real-life slasher film enacted on the American body politic, circa 1970-90.

``Scene of the Crime'' reaches its queasy apex with George Stone's 1993 kinetic sculpture called ``Unknown, Unwanted, Unconscious, Untitled.''

Five black body bags lie at our feet, brutally invading our psychological space. As we tiptoe around them, the bags - apparently rigged to motion sensors - start to writhe and twitch, with an anguished individuality that rebukes our hurried disinterest.

Confronted with Stone's faceless, animatronic bag people, we don't need to bother calling 911. The telltale footprints we've been seeing all along are, in fact, our own.

THE FACTS

What: ``Scene of the Crime.''

Where: UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 5.

Admission: $4.50 adults; $3 seniors, non-UCLA students, UCLA faculty, staff and Alumni Association members; $1 UCLA students with ID: free for museum members and children 17 and under; free to all 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays. For information, call (310) 443-7000.

CAPTION(S):

3 Photos

Photo: (1) Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz's ``Sawdy'' (1971) consists of a Datsun pickup door with a grisly lynching scene in the window.

(2) ``Equipment for a Shameful Epic'' (1993) by Nayland Blake puts politicized crime on a coat rack.

(3) Lewis Baltz's ``11777 Foothill Boulevard, Los Angeles'' (1991) offers a different view of the scene of the Rodney King beating.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 23, 1997
Words:1208
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