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Santiago Cucullu: Wiyya to Hell Owwa That

at Julia Friedman, through June 21

Brandon LaBelle: Learning From Seedbed

at Standard, through June 14

The commonplace that artists are the last people one should consult about their work is largely untrue. Most artists have a pretty good idea of what they're doing--but artists' statements are often unilluminating, and sometimes hilariously pretentious. Two exhibits well worth seeing are accompanied by statements that diverge wildly from one's experience of the work.

A press release from the Julia Friedman Gallery offers a quote from Santiago Cucullu about how his work "revolves around a historically marginal event, sometimes real and often embellished to include my own personal history." He also writes that the imagery in his show--12 works, including wall drawings, watercolors, and installations--comes from "street barricades that spring up during moments of civil unrest," which "offer evidence of controls and resistance." And one watercolor, From Works to Dream Romance, clearly shows a man standing next to a low barrier apparently burning; we also see an upended tire in the foreground and a larger maze of color that might be another barricade. More impressive than any political reference, however, is the characteristic gentleness of the watercolors and the way three areas of color float in empty white space. The effect is less of a "blocking of flows," in Cucullu's words, than of a well-integrated design.

Indeed, what I liked about most of the pieces was Cucullu's appealing use of color. A large cluster of shapes fills about half the paper in the watercolor Wild Style Segment Uses Parts From the Commune Barricades. Stay Strong. The dominant hue is a reddish orange, which seems to underlie even the light greens. That might suggest flames to some, but overall the effect of the work is positively lyrical.

The show's centerpiece--the installation Am I Out--consists of boxes obtained from a spice store next door wrapped in plastic table skirting; combined with plastic buckets, these create a barrier the visitor has to circumvent in order to get to the gallery desk. The detour involves only a few extra steps, however, and the colors of the plastic are almost as gentle as those of Cucullu's watercolors. He often wraps the boxes in complementary or contrasting tones that are eye-ticklingly pretty: a light blue accompanied by a darker blue or a blue gray, or red juxtaposed with green or blue with yellow. Indeed, his colors and shapes flow together rather than confront one another, which might have evoked the conflict associated with barricades; the piece recalls a heap of gifts more than it does a revolution. Almost all the pieces here seem to be about visually pleasing accretions of shapes--metaphors for making art rather than attacks on the existing order.

Severino Di Giovanni, perhaps the finest work, covers two adjoining walls from top to bottom with black plastic table skirting hung in neat rows. The somber feel of a memorial is leavened by the ordinary materials, which imply that anyone can make a memorial--or artwork--out of anything. And the way the plastic reflects as well as absorbs light adds visual interest. But it's not clear what any of this has to do with the piece's namesake, an Italian anarchist executed in Argentina in 1931.

There's nothing wrong with an exhibit that leaves some loose ends--in fact part of what's interesting here is the disjunction between Cucullu's apparent intent and the works' effects. The exhibit feels somewhat improvisational--"drawings" made of thin strips of contact paper against the white gallery walls suggest a playful tentativeness rather than revealed truth. But it seems odd for Cucullu to link his modest suggestiveness with the certitude of those willing to use violence to overthrow governments.

Cucullu, who lives in Houston, received an MFA in 1999 from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. And whatever else art school may do, it does help artists learn to write statements. Most such institutions rely on critiques to evaluate students: you don't necessarily have to learn technique, but you do have to defend what you're doing before a faculty committee. Sometimes it seems that in the larger art world as well, accounting for your work is at least as important as the work itself.

Brandon LaBelle, who divides his time between London and Los Angeles, has a 1998 MFA in art and writing from the California Institute of the Arts and is now a PhD candidate in cultural studies in London. Visually commanding, his installation at Standard, Learning From Seedbed, is a sloping platform of unfinished wood 24 feet long and almost 11 feet wide. Set at floor level on one side and rising to a height of nearly four feet on the other, it creates a wedge.

In addition to making installations, LaBelle plays drums. And this is in actuality a sound piece: microphones on the underside of the platform broadcast any impact on the floor or platform through speakers. Because the work almost fills the room, the effect is to make the space into a sounding board, heightening awareness of one's own and others' presence. Photos from the opening show visitors making a number of playful uses of the piece. I found that rubbing the wood gently, pounding on its surface, lying on it, and stomping on it all produced different sounds--even the light treads of two gallery cats could be heard.

The title refers to a legendary 1972 Vito Acconci work, Seedbed, in which he lay hidden under a ramp he built in a New York gallery and masturbated while whispering his fantasies into a microphone. In his statement LaBelle suggests that his restaging of Acconci's work makes the ramp the "main character" and a "social space." He goes on to argue that his ramp constitutes "an idiosyncratic form" that "diagonally cuts across and splits space," opposing the "Modernist tendency of straight lines." But his ramp is itself made up of straight lines, and forming triangles and splitting space are not exactly foreign to modernism. More to the point, though his installation--which he calls "architecture's own moment of fantasy"--enlivens the space, ultimately it's more playful than weighty and theoretical.

I didn't see Seedbed, and neither did LaBelle. But I did see Acconci's 1976 installation Under-history Lessons, which paired boilers in the basement of a former school with a creepy sound track that suggested they were obnoxious teachers. That piece seemed to do everything that LaBelle's does--it was participatory, it was an architectural "fantasy," and it made the viewer, not the artist, its subject. But Acconci's piece was more evocative, both visually and emotionally.


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