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December 1 - 22, 2001 at Peter Blake Gallery, Orange County

by Mat Gleason

“Parrot", collaged
metal on wood with steel
brads, 40 x 36", 2000.

A Perfect Place", collaged
metal on wood with steel
brads, 11 1/2 x 17", 2000.

"Escondito", collaged
metal on wood with steel
brads, 84 x 72", 2000.

"Window Rock", collaged
metal on wood with steel
brads, 20 x 26", 1999.

The name Tony Berlant pops up on exhibition announcements so often that the art audience possibly overlooks his unique genius. If ubiquity breeds contempt, he is an antidote for a jaded art world.

If you're unfamiliar with Berlant, the begging question is whether you bumped into any terrorists in that cave you have been hiding in. Or perhaps you have just stumbled into the art game, in which case Berlant is an excellent place to start. His pictures are formed from metal sheets nailed to the surface. The metal appears to be found, previously discarded. Berlant nails this material down into some pretty glorious little riffs. It is a light and jazzy affair, but with a heavy, shall we say hardcore center.

There is no escaping the vital premise at the core of Berlant's signature style: to transform that which is cast off into such a high caliber act of quality that it transforms the viewer's consciousness. To re-use, to recycle is a political act, a pause if you will, in consumption. There is a strange notion that "Progress" is going to change us all for the better, make us rich and cure social ills. For the second time in forty years, this notion has just bit America in a very tender part of its anatomy.

And so the timing of this exhibit is quite fortuitous, for the citizenry and the artist. While comfortably perched on the top off his craft for easily two decades, he is not resting on said perch. Not hardly. The latest work is bold, colorful, fun, yet, as is inevitable with Berlant's oeuvre, pretty serious stuff. As painterly and vivid as the work is, it is not painting. The detritus of our economy has been formed into a parallel of painting.

It is a rare thing to have something so effortlessly pleasant simultaneously confront ingrained attitudes about art. While the Hans Haackes of the world are lauded for their critiques, the utter non-art quality of most conceptual and political art deflates its potential, and ultimately its reason for taking up our time. Given our newly altered consciousness, you are almost forced to ask if any of it really matters. For much of this stuff the answer is turning out to be a resounding "no."

If the same question is posed regarding Berlant's work, as it should be to all art, this artist need not worry. Berlant's signature style functions as aesthetically superior craftsmanship, but sacrifices nothing in its manifestation as bold statement. The self-evident political nature of using found objects allows this contemporary master the confident freedom to create some very pleasing objects that tickle the fancy while testing the mettle of every viewer's hopefully open mind.