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California Dreaming 

An exhibit featuring 10 contemporary “Golden State” artists invades MOCA

A man dressed in a

magician's hat and cape—and scruffy jeans—pushes a wheeled sculpture down a city street.

A plaster magician's assistant is on board the contraption, entombed inside a big blue box. In the familiar magic trick, she's cut in half, her feet hanging limply out one end of the box, and her platinum-curly head out the other. As the magician propels her inert form along the sidewalk, he's trailed by a woman filming the whole thing.

Some people ignore the odd cavalcade; others excitedly snap photos with their phones. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, this stunt is part of a big-time movie.

Welcome to LA.

The movie, "My Lovely Assistant," is real but it's not destined for the big screen. It's part of an art piece by Liz Craft, and right now it's running in an endless loop on the walls of MOCA-Tucson downtown. Nearby, the fully dimensional lovely assistant lies in her wheeled box, permanently cut in two.

The double work introduces the viewer not only to the streets of LA, but to the exhibition "Golden State." Guest-curated by Venice, CA, artist Drew Heitzler, it features the work of 10 contemporary California artists.

At least one other artist besides Craft alludes to Hollywood and show-biz traditions. Lucy Raven, who trained at the UA, has a couple of color screenprints celebrating old-timey film. Remember the optical effects that used to explode on the screen when a film began? Raven captures them in "PR2." A glowing bull's eye hovers in the middle of vertical and horizontal lines; numbers shoot out diagonally into all four corners.

All these artists use the cutting-edge materials we expect of young Angelenos. Lucy Dodd, a rising star who will show in Art Basel Miami next month, made a wall sculpture of nothing but ropes.The thick bundle of strings in her "Beyond Blues, Seas, Skies, Eyes, Butterflies and Daisies" cascades like a waterfall down the museum wall.

Kaari Upson, who will likewise appear at Art Basel Miami, got beautiful effects from taking a welding torch to two 10-foot-tall panels of thin aluminum. Inspired—or haunted—by a fire that consumed the house across the street when she was a child, Upson has embarked on a 15-year odyssey through multiple media to explore the impact of fire.

Ghostly shapes, some resembling human figures, hover darkly on her scorched metal; in between passages of undamaged aluminum glisten in the light.

Samara Golden's "Mask" series similarly evokes shadowy humans, in vague faces painted in blurry black onto thick white panels. The faces appear to be fading into eternity, just as the hard panels seem to be melting.

There's a surprising nostalgia for the past among these up-to-the-minute contemporary artists, and it's not just reflected in a preoccupation with Hollywood. Mungo Thomson looks at old-fashioned ideas of science from the 1950s and 60s, when the Age of Tomorrow was just around the corner. He's rephotographed pages from old Life magazines and embedded them into Lucite; they stand on a slab, monuments to the past.

Likewise, Scott Benzel, another UA grad, is fascinated by books banned in the early to middle years of the 20th century. Two large glass cases display original editions of the classics once decried as pornography: Joyce's "Ulysses," Nabokov's "Lolita."

The youngest artist, Theodora Allen, born in 1985, crafted exquisite pedestal sculptures out of clear glass and copper foil, all of them influenced by old-style Art Deco design.

Pentti Monkkonen's elaborate model of an old-fashioned steamboat is lined with low-relief sculptures of dancing mythical figures. But he connects this Renaissance riverboat to the avant-garde present: he named it "The Merce Cunningham," after the genius choreographer of abstract modern dance.

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