These Angels Are No Hit
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Features column: Maverick art critic and curator Mat Gleason loves the Angels. Unfortunately, he's talking about the baseball team, not what he believes is a lousy public sculpture project.
     Mat Gleason is heading downtown to look at some really banal public art, and the maverick art critic, author, publisher and gallery director wearing the craggy black leather jacket and the "Most Art Sucks" button is in one of his typically excitable moods.

     Gleason, founder of Coagula, the much-maligned, much-read, anti-establishment guilty-treat art tabloid, is listening to the radio broadcast of an Anaheim Angels baseball game. The Angels have just tied the score, and Gleason, a lifelong fanatic, is beside himself with fist-pumping joy.

     That good mood will change, and angels of an entirely different sort will be to blame. A few minutes later, Gleason arrives in Pershing Square and almost immediately starts shaking his head. During the next two hours he'll say "Oh God" more often than a George Burns filmographer, utter more curses than the witches in "Macbeth." All expletives have been excised from this story.

     "See now, trip out on this," Gleason says. He's staring at the first of a multitude of 6-foot-tall, 100-pound prefabricated sculptures that he'll see; angels personalized via paint or glue. "It's kind of a great theme. It's all the great places downtown. And then you look at it and it's painted so poorly. It's like, why bother? I mean it's great. It's got Phillippe's French Dip sandwich logo, the Tommy's building, Dodger Stadium, The Pantry. It's cool, but it's painted like it's amateur night, you know? It's like, are there no good artists in L.A.?"

     Of course, as Gleason knows better than anyone, there is a huge cadre of fantastically gifted visual artists in town. Downtown alone houses enough well-regarded artists in live-work lofts to have given this private-sector "Community of Angels" tourism and philanthropic effort at least a chance to succeed aesthetically. Not that many of them were involved in this sheepish, sheep-like attempt to emulate the fiberglass cows of cities such as Zurich, Chicago and New York.

     "Everything associated with the civic life of this city is amateur hour," Gleason says. "And these angels are just taking the 2000 New Year's Eve Hollywood sign debacle to the next level."

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     At last count, there were some 120 angels that have spread, as unwelcome as a biblical plague, throughout the city. More than half of them are downtown. Seventeen are in the 7+Fig outdoor mall; another seven are in Pershing Square. Gleason's been knocking them one by one, and now he arrives at an angel created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The figure's head has been replaced by the dome of Beeker, that plucky lab assistant from "The Muppet Show." Everybody loves the Muppets. This must be a sculpture Gleason supports, right?

     Mixin g in some theology and some infamous art funding controversy, Gleason digs in his claws like a cat on a plump guy's midriff.

     "You just made an angel, a representative of the spirituality of the divine creator. You just made him into a Muppet!" Gleason proclaims. "I mean, that's more blasphemous than anything Robert Mapplethrope could ever have come up with."
     Then Gleason taps on the sculpture, demonstrating that it is hollow. "They make it (appear) marble to sort of imply it has classical stature, (that) it is as worthy as a Boticelli or a Bernini sculpture," he says. "Semiotically, that's saying, `We are just as great as real artists.' That's typical Hollywood arrogance."

     During the rest of the walk, the things that arouse the urban-loving Gleason the most--he's lived or hung out downtown for 17 years--include an angel that has a crumbling plaque; an angel just off a busy bus thoroughfare that's got a thick layer of smog or exhaust particles built up on it; and an angel sponsored by an Internet dating service that has what appear to be high school yearbook or get-well-soon-style messages scrawled on them.

      "If some kid came and tagged it, he'd go to jail, and it would look better than any of this," Gleason says. He does mention that the backs of the wings often are the highlights of the sculptures, because they offer a larger and easier surface on which to paint. Still, that's about the limit of the critic's compliments. He's asked, just to be certain, if he's not being ornery for its own sake.

     If only, Gleason says. This time he's in the rare position of supporting the art-world majority. "People are just generally disgusted," he says. "In fact, I wish I liked them (the angels) because so many people hate them. It's the easiest bandwagon to be on."

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     In the aftermath of the 1992 riots, artist Jill D'Agnenica, who is not involved in the current project, placed 4,687 6-inch fluorescent magenta-orange plaster angels all around the city. When reminded of that, Gleason jokes that D'Agnenica ought to sue for copyright infringements. Then he gets serious.

     "It sounds the same, but the difference is that the Jill thing was actually successful. It made sense. It talked about unity. Each of those angels was the same. You saw one and then you saw one again. You felt like, `Oh just because I'm in a different part of town that has a higher predominance of one different ethnic group doesn't mean that I'm in a different kind of (place). It's like it really gave you a purpose of community, as opposed to these things, which just make you want to get in your car and drive home to suburbia faster."
v     And maybe, in the end, that's how all is meant to be, Gleason says.      "Seventeenth century Tuscany, Italy, got what it deserved. It had great intense questions about the nature of man versus the nature of spirituality, and it got this Renaissance art that is this great repository of what was going on there.v
     "We live in a superficial, narcissistic culture where everybody's an individual but everybody's the same, and it's reflected in these angels," he continues. "We're getting exactly what we deserve. These angels reflect this city and our time better than anything. I'd like to ask more of art, but if it's just going to reflect this culture, this is right on the mark."