The curatorial team at Hellada Gallery is scrubbing glue from the floor and filling in the pitted surface with muddy concrete. It is noon, it's thirsty work, and they are drinking Heinekens. Only Dr. Froke van der Horst sits still and quiet as the others patch and scrub. Her eyes are a dreamy cornflower blue, and when she does finally speak, a light pleasantry, her words are haunted by a Kissingerian accent. As the workers hand me a beer and mass around the indoor/outdoor patio table, they look almost beadily at me, as if I'm about to be slaughtered and eaten in an unholy rite.

There's an intensity to this cabal that is weird and hushed—and also confusing. It's a big team to be putting together a one-man show in a Long Beach hole. So scrubbing floors is hard work; there's plenty of poor folks who do it without the benefit of pricey imported beer. There just doesn't seem to be a reason to be so agitated. But intense/agitated/fucking moody they are. They seem to think they can (and must!) stage manage the entire future of Long Beach's "East Village" arts district (a moniker the invaluable LBC jester Pepe LaRue notes is both inane and pretentious) to their specifications. They can rail against Art that does not meet their highfalutin standards—sobriety, earnestness and, above all, heady Conceptualism—by showcasing, for one night only, an Artist who does.

That they hold him in such esteem, that the gallery must be museum-quality pristine before his vaunted installations arrive, is a bit of a shock. Do they know something I don't know? (Please, no nasty letters about how little I know. I know.) That artist is Doug Hart. One recognizes his glowing, clean skull before he ever turns around. And for a guy one usually sees amiably soused at parties or wandering around the farmers market with a dopey, harmless smile on his round face—Long Beach is wealthy in aimless flaneurs—he has a surprisingly deep well of existential angst. At least when there's an exhibit on the line.

But where I smell a charlatan, Shelley RuggThorpe, Dr. van der Horst and Kamran Assadi sent a savior.

Perhaps that's a bit cynical. Surely most people have hidden depths to them, and if they all started whipping them out every time they were buying tomatoes, it would take up a lot of everyone's time. One would have to speak intensely to the mail man of Nietzsche and Kant. Every walk down the street would be filled with Felliniesque portent and bizarrities. All that energy, just to restock on fresh daisies or to go get a beer. So maybe I've been underestimating Hart all this time.

Let's go to the tape. Yes. Once again, I was dead wrong. "Reception Perception Deception" is a clarion call of alienation inverting the Light & Space schema. While the Hellada is filled with Hart's light, it's the light of a gray, funereal day. One doesn't see sunshine, but ghosts. The seven works in the small gallery—Disappearance, Vanishing, Vanishing II, Absence, Abyss, Schismand Untitled—at least show that Hart's thesaurus is in working order. But while one could mock Hart's repetitiveness, his installations are in fact astounding. They're indefinable and near indescribable, disappearing soft as gossamer just when one has reached out to touch them. They need to be seen to be understood—although they'd probably question whether there's truly any seeing in the world. The soul of the work bears a heaviness and a potent Traurigkeit, one enmeshed (as it should be) with Duchampian clat and Brechtian absurdity. But Man's Inhumanity to Man doesn't come to play in Hart's world. Hart's point is not political: it's not an antiwar screed or an art-world indictment. It is purely self-searching and, like some readings of Taoism, seems to insist that whatever occurs outside the self/vessel is a transient, unimportant dream. What Hart wants to know is: "Who is Doug Hart?" And yet, while any question beyond identity and eau de Hart seems unimportant to him, his most effective work takes the extreme opposite approach: How is Hart defined by the molecules bestirred around him?

Disappearance, his self-portrait, is like those coffee-table toys with the needles that take ghostly impressions of one's face. There's almost a feel of a Hiroshima shadow; his absence is not air, but a concrete void. Sure, it's pretty egotistical, but whenever you start delving into Cartesian mysteries, an exaggerated sense of yourself is bound to follow.

The audio tour explains this and more at academic length; read by Dr. van der Horst's serious Teutonic voice, the words bear a weight like stones. A professor of art history at Otis, she is ready to entwine her reputation with Hart's. Long Beach's art scene, propelled by developers who just want to build lofts, should step up to the plate and join her embrace.

"Reception Perception Deception" shows at Hellada Gallery, 144 Linden Ave., Long Beach, (562) 438-1402. Sat., 6-10 p.m.


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