Los Angeles

Tony Berlant

Mizuno Gallery

Literature, if it was ever away, is back. My impression of this, however, may be complicated by a misreading of things: I never saw work like Tony Berlant’s as that Surrealistic, or even Surrealistic at all. When he was doing the laminated clothes things, I took it as a delayed-beat Pop, with undertones of the kind of modern academic pictorial structure one seemed to pick up while getting degrees at UCLA (they still do). When he started the houses—the larger, plain, glossy metal ones—I thought he was simply going with the tide, Pop-into-Minimal, with a marketable bow in the right direction to Ed Ruscha’s deadpan, plastic-tacky humor. Now, in this show of smaller houses at Mizuno, the whole gescheft seems anchored on an opposite premise—that is, storybooking, instead of formalism. And, since Berlant’s work has appeared to me in the past as rather heavy-handed design, the new stuff is really inventive, pleasant, clever, etc. Either Berlant has just now hit his stride (i.e., he’s found out what sort of images he can do best), or I’ve finally caught on to what he’s saying, or both. By literature being “back,” I mean that I have a hunch there is a mild reaction brewing, away from the Bengston-Bell-Irwin-Kauffman Alexander McCracken Valentine-Wheeler preciously tooled, scientifically perceptual object or demiobject, and away, too, from the softer, less-structured, less well-made Romantic floppy-this and floppy-that stuff, which was supposed to have succeeded it and, I’m guessing, will never quite get off the ground. The literature consists of personal inventories of dream-images (bucolic, sexual, symbolic, narcotic, protest, or what have you), pictures of things, at times quite “realistic” (but having little to do with that photo-blowup school of Dr. Pepper monastics).

Berlant’s houses consist of a box-form with a pointed roof, the kindof building Ernie Bushmiller draws in Nancy; the house gets its character from its exterior veneer, or “facing,” as you’d call it were these things habitable and coated with flagstone, its “windows,” open or glassed, its contents, and its color scheme. For instance, a small house on which are nailed (the nails serving as much as pattern as fastener) cut-out circles of flowers printed on metal (I would guess scavenged from things like fruitcake tins), whose three windows are open, whose contents are: hanging from the ceiling, most of a doll’s head, and sinking into the floor, a small conch shell whose color scheme is mostly white and pink, with some Aunt Matilda flower colors and accents of black, effects a nice transition from component visual characteristics to “whole” psychological interpretation. I get, from the white and pink, a sense of distance, like remembering taking a nap as a toddler; from the head and the shell, some vague, pregenital feelings of sexual excitement (with, of course, a little fear: the conch is a vagina is a wound), and from the whole thing (including the fact of “house”), a sense of being relieved of my burdens for a moment, of being cared for. In the others, noticeably, the effects are in the same general vein, with more emphasis here on sex, there on danger, and there on Thanksgiving at Granny’s or something. Strangely, I also feel these connections are fairly objective, that they were put there by the artist, that they would be picked up by most people (well, by most bourgeois people with two years of college and/or trade school and a driver’s license). Then again, I used to get rhapsodic over Baziotes’ Toy in the Sun at the old County Museum because it used to regurgitate my whole pre-school Gardena (Calif.) childhood; nobody else saw anything like that. The quality of Berlant’s sculpture is that, using ordinary things in ordinary ways (not “process” ordinary, which celebrates the exoticism of raw states), he evokes rather powerful backstage rumblings.

Peter Plagens