Los Angeles

Tony Berlant

When artists choose to work in collage or assemblage. they open a door and let the world into their work. The problem then becomes one of keeping the world at bay, of sustaining the work of art so that real-life objects and references play their assigned roles and no others. Much of the interest in collage derives from this now-symbiotic, now-antagonistic pull between life and art.

Imagine, then, how complicated things become when art invades art, not just in the form of allusion or quotation but as a fusion of a preexistent work with a new one. This is one of the issues raised by the work of Tony Berlant, who has focused his attention on the setting and presentation of paintings and frames found and borrowed from anonymous painters, craftsmen, and Sunday portraitists whose work has turned up in antique shops, sidewalk art fairs, and other generally unsanctioned places. He sets the borrowed paintings in splendid frames more fascinating and precious by far than the paintings themselves, thus reversing the norm. Here, setting is the jewel—the container is vastly more important than its contents. Berlant’s own frames are elaborately crafted metal collage compositions commenting upon, quoting, or otherwise working in tandem with the paintings they surround.

Then, reversing this scheme, Berlant places his own collage compositions of colored tin and other materials into beautifully crafted found frames—for example, the well-known tramp art frames made of wooden sticks. Some of the found frames are also capable of upstaging and commenting upon Berlant’s collages, the commentary entirely due, of course, to Berlant’s impeccable knowledge of period styles, folk art, and contemporary issues in the realm of fine art.

This might work splendidly were it not for a general confusion in the viewer’s mind regarding the intent of Berlant’s entire enterprise. There is something here of the collector’s myopic fascination with beloved objects. Much in the work belongs to the realm of memory. autobiography, and coincidental events, and their exegesis. There is a great deal of style and good taste within this work, yet little that actually gets said plainly and clearly. It exists in an endless round of commentary and cross-reference, all revolving around itself, offering little to the audience except abundant good looks.

Berlant’s exhibition, beautifully installed and lit in the foyer of Los Angeles’ most prestigious museum, did not represent an invasion of hallowed precincts by the raw and the untested. Instead it had an air of baroque overcultivation, of a beautiful collection of treasures to be held at arm’s length and admired.

Susan C. Larsen