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Magic Mirror 

Art historians have often noted visual art's ability to simultaneously reflect and transform the world around us, a phenomenon that becomes fairly obvious when you visit this selection of works from the Frederick R. Weisman Collection at the Contemporary Arts Center. Here we see works that often mirror the bright colors and shiny surfaces of modern American popular culture, a realm of X-Boxes, SUVs and digital TVs. It was Andy Warhol who first perfected the technique of mirroring the all-pervasive world of mass-media imagery with his silkscreen Campbell Soup cans and super-saturated movie star portraits, and Weisman, who died in 1994, amassed not only Warhols but also many other works that reflected his personal flair for an especially lively sort of art.

His tastes were indeed personal. They had to be -- of the more than 1,500 works in his collection, he managed to cram more than 500 of them onto the walls and floors of his Mediterranean villa in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles, where colorful abstract, Surrealist and Pop art masterpieces turn up just about everywhere. Weisman believed the whole point of collecting art was to enjoy it, live with it and share it. In his will, he made clear his intention that his art-filled property be kept intact and maintained as a museum, free and open to the public, a project for which his estate recently won approval. If the collection overall is well balanced with numerous examples of austere and august high-modern masterworks, the 125 pieces in this Contemporary Arts Center expo may be more expressive of his personal predilection for the more vivid side of modern life.

After all, what could be more colorful than Charles Bell's large oil painting, Marbles XI, a canvas that reflects both the pop artist's interest in mass-produced objects and the photo-realist's concern for precision technique. Perhaps more famous for his gum ball machine paintings, Bell specialized in toys and penny arcade devices, and here his view of marbles captures something of their luminous magic as seen through the eyes of a child. Even more dreamlike is Marijke van Warmerdam's You Are There, a very large photographic montage of a calm, blue sea with a puff of white cumulus clouds hovering above. It's a view that might be simply meditative were it not for the flock of very large swans that appear to be swooping through and lounging around the clouds, as if on an island of not quite solid atmosphere.

More appear in New Orleans-Croatian artist Srdjan Loncar's Clouds sculpture made up of cloud photos covering cumulus-shaped Styrofoam forms. A more ominous fireball by the same artist appears in Abstraction I, a sculpture of a passenger jet exploding in midair. Inspired by the Hollywood film, Independence Day, its appearance is somehow cartoonish, like a comic-strip panel in three dimensions. In an odd but interesting juxtaposition, Loncar's Clouds piece hangs just above and behind New Orleans artist Willie Birch's Song For Mother Earth, a large papier-mache and mixed-media sculpture of an African tribal figure, a mystical musician whose clothes are covered with painted messages and appliquŽd stars, bells and fetish objects. One of the really wonderful things about Weisman's approach to collecting was his support of local artists and institutions, including the New Orleans Museum of Art's contemporary Louisiana Artists wing. And while he was supportive of artists in many places, only California, where he lived, and Minnesota, where he was born, have benefited from his largesse more than New Orleans. Other works by local artists in this show include Blake Boyd's distinctly Warholesque paintings based on Disney characters and comic strip figures. Interspersed among them are actual Warhols and other Warhol knock-offs, as well as a variety of works by other like-minded artists that comprise a kind of pop-art subculture within the show itself. Throw in Luis Quinones' big photo-realist canvas of a flattened Orange Crush can and John Matos' graffiti painting of action figures from a comic strip and, while it may not be for everyone, it's hard not to come away with the feeling that that Fred Weisman must have had a terrific time assembling this truly lively and vivacious collection.

click to enlarge This detailed view of Charles Bell's large painting of marbles - conveys something of the luminous quality of wonder as - seen through the eyes of a child.
  • This detailed view of Charles Bell's large painting of marbles conveys something of the luminous quality of wonder as seen through the eyes of a child.
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