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Writing on art & artists – archive – 2006–2016

Portrait of a Bird: The Work of Frances Stark

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, January, 2016 

LANGUAGE FLOWS through the work of artist Frances Stark in singular, unusual ways. In several works on paper in her current Hammer Museum retrospective she portrays herself as a bird — a peacock, a wren, a cockatoo ­— as in Portrait of the Artist as a Full-On Bird (2004), grasping a twig made of collaged letters; or a woodpecker, as in A Bomb (2002), about to nudge with its beak the penciled “A” in an Emily Dickinson fragment printed and repeated in the shape of a sphere. The bird analogy is fitting in many ways for an artist who flits between media, alights gently, sometimes tentatively, on ideas, and pecks through a library’s worth of books for bits of text. But the bird is also in her name: Frances Stark, starling, lark, perching on branches — and “stark” describes the spare, black-and-white aesthetic of many of her works; stark is the way she bares her person, and/or her persona. “But what of Frances Stark,” the title of a 2009 artist’s book asks, “standing by itself, a naked name, bare as a ghost to whom one would like to lend a sheet?” The perfect fit of this artist’s name is almost enough to convince you that people are language’s instruments, and not the reverse. To encounter Stark’s work is to become acquainted with her home, including her studio, furniture, books, friends, breakdowns and breakthroughs, and the movement of her thought. Her earlier output involves acts of reading and copying, as if she’s pushing to understand her relation to other artists — the relation between any receiver and an artist; the relation between word and image. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1993) blows up a used, found copy of the poem along with the notes someone scrawled in the margins: “Interior monologue/conversational tone,” the unknown reader writes in blue pen above Eliot’s “Let us go then, you and I,” coincidentally or clairvoyantly describing the very quality that will define Stark’s voice. Having an Experience (1995) is a drawing of someone’s excited underlining in John Dewey’s Art as Experience, with the original text removed, leaving only a pattern like ghostly birchbark — a print of a reader’s brain lighting up. In a series that runs from the mid-’90s to the early 2000s, she takes strings of text from her reading and repeats them across a page, as if dragging writing into a visual realm, smearing art with language. The writers she reveres and weaves into her thinking and art — Robert Musil, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Bernhard, Goethe, Henry Miller, and Oscar Wilde, to name several — are what Woolf calls in A Room of One’s Own the “contemplative” type as opposed to the “naturalist-novelist,” whom she deems the “less interesting branch of the species.” In other words, Romantics: the type prone to spending idle afternoons on the divan. In a 2000 catalog essay on the artist Bas Jan Ader, reprinted in her Collected Writing: 1993–2003, Stark quotes a snippet of a letter in which Musil "talks a great deal of idleness and how he writes down a quote and paces the room until the sun sets, or reads a line from a book and lies around smoking cigarettes, quietly forgetting his ideas because he didn’t write them down. Thus I often lay on my divan and slave away at this kind of self-annihilation." “I am like Musil,” she continues, “except I don’t smoke and I never wrote a 1,700 page book of scintillating genius, but I do lie around doing nothing, self-annihilating, for not turning all my nothing into something.” The above passage is typical of her writing, in that instead of discussing the essay’s ostensible subject, Bas Jan Ader, it circles around her process of assembling the text, and all the ways in which she becomes sidetracked from her goal. Though really, always viewing herself primarily as an artist-writer, not a critic, her true goal is to paint another’s portrait by way of painting her own, and/or vice-versa. Her texts — the catalog essays, the several artist’s books she published, her column that ran from 1999 to 2001 in the former publication art/text, and assorted contributions to other art publications and catalogs — are like pots of noodles: tangled, but often satisfying, intentionally quotidian, sometimes unfinished. They have loose structures, sculpted with a feather touch, with squiggly, unsquared edges. They snake between aimless interior monologue and precise scholarly criticism. They dance in the margins around their subject, as if too anxious or reverential to put an arrow in its heart. They are fascinated with their own collapse. They bat around ideas like cats playing for their own pleasure. “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter,” as Wilde writes in The Picture of Dorian Gray — a novel whose universe, with its long conversations in the artist’s studio, its divan-lounging characters, enchantment with a male muse, erotic charge, melancholy, and touch of madness, seems separated from Stark’s by a thin membrane. Along with mapping her mental landscape, Stark maps the physical rooms she paces, the roads she drives, the furniture on which she lies, the containers that hold her, and the paths that draw her along. In The Architect and the Housewife (1999) (a “book, albeit a rather petite one,” as she calls it in a 2002 essay partially titled A beholder of fragments and ruiner of plans), she describes the way her couch cuts diagonally through the room’s center, backing up against her writing desk, the walls left free for her drawings: “So you see this curious arrangement (of my couch and my desk, not my writing and my writing-drawing) is predicated on the fact that not only is my living room my living room but my living room also serves as my studio.” Uneasy about this conflation of her domestic and working life, and uneasy about her uneasiness, she proceeds to crack open a series of observations about architecture and housewifery, exterior and interior production sites, male and female artists, the studio’s boundaries. Was I not like a housewife, toiling within the confines of my home and serving as both hostess and docent of my tiny quarters? Were [certain male friends of hers involved in large-scale art projects] not unlike architects in that they were constantly carrying out plans — giving instructions, making constructions? In Behold Man! (2013), an expansive, prismatic self-portrait that, as Howard Singerman nicely puts it in the exhibition’s catalog, “layers looking and being looked at,” she lounges on the couch (in a different studio this time, having eventually rented a separate one in LA’s Chinatown) as she oversees her male assistant-friend-muse, Bobby Jesus, who’s reflected above her in a mirror. In Pull After “Push” (2010) she reclines before her studio windows as if comfortably absorbed in thought. In these and other images, she depicts herself and her world — almost always the inner world of her studio — as basic shapes, the couch and other furniture like coloring-book forms, a black-and-white checkerboard floor receding, outer reality entering through collage: color postcards of other artists’ paintings, junk mail, exhibition posters, fabric scraps, and bits of text in many forms. We can see her living inside her art the way we see a character inside a novel, thinking, working, sleeping, talking, and loving within the walls of a glass house. And her art, like a house, is an extension of her body even more so than for most artists. Her self seems determined to pour itself out, into the world, into others’ minds, whether through language or image. The stakes are high. Frances Stark is a flesh-and-blood person — but she’s also a being who has made herself, and who constantly shows herself making herself, out of art and language. If her work is on the verge of collapse, on the verge of dissolving, then so is she. Much of its pathos derives from this flattening, this interweaving of artist and her work, so that to knit a stitch in one is to knit a stitch in the other. It’s the art of someone, on the one hand, with great determination to figure herself out, and, on the other, who possesses the bottomless knowledge that the self can never be figured, and that she, especially, as an artist who floats between media, and as a woman, is one who exists in a permanent state of dissonance as hopeless as it is sometimes generative and fruitful. She’s also an artist who struggles with occasional creative blocks; sometime at the beginning of the 2000s, writing abandoned her. The poster image for the Hammer exhibition is a 2008 self-portrait in which she looks down on herself from above, reclining in white space on an invisible piece of furniture, perhaps the couch in her studio. She holds a paper on which is written the question: “Why should you not be able to assemble yourself and write?” Her head of dark hair is a solid shape, an ink pool, as if her words have melted or congealed, as if all thought has collapsed to image. The question originated in an email sent to her by an editor friend: “I have watched, and heard reports of your strategic maneuvers on slowly withdrawing from writing on focusing on making ‘work,’” he writes earlier in the message, whose entire text is collaged into another of her paintings, Music Stand (2008). In the self-portrait, she’s dressed in clothing made of collaged black-and-white patterns from her previous paintings — made of visual art, as if she’s assembled of that medium now, planted for good in that realm. But her posture, her solitude as she reads the words, betray her worry that writing, which has always flowed through her, has gone. And the answer to her friend’s question? One possibility: she was busy. Her schedule had mushroomed. She had a small child. Another: writing doesn’t pay as well, not her kind of writing as compared to her kind of art. Another: writing can be a harder thing to assemble. Visual art is better at accommodating incoherence and disorganization; it doesn’t necessarily require the artist to lead the viewer along an intelligible path through time, with each word, or step, a potential point for falling off. The open-ended, anti-narrative theories of postmodernism never stuck to literature for this reason, even though many important experiments enlarged and altered the shape of the stream. And writing must often be assembled in quiet and solitude. If a desk, a horizontal plane, is for the writer, and a wall, a vertical plane, is for the artist, Stark was simply spending too much time standing up, moving around. And maybe when she wasn’t moving she was exhausted on the couch, merely resting. Her friend might as well have flipped the question: “Why should you not be able to write, and assemble yourself?” The story of how she finally returned to writing — in a fashion, anyway — is the story of her flesh-and-blood body asserting itself, as if thrusting up through all the words her former writer-self had piled up. In one of the programs associated with the exhibition, Stark invited Alexyss K. Tylor, host of a talk show called Vagina Power, for an interview at the museum. (Interviews are another kind of portraiture/self-portraiture.) Tylor’s interpretation of Stark’s tale about overcoming her block — how she rediscovered writing unexpectedly, in the course of online sex chats — was that she had to access her lost energy from the root of herself. From there, she could rise back into her head. What emerged in the end from her seeming detour into the world of Chatroulette, where she spent hours in her studio not contemplating a painting or puzzling out a text but getting turned on by random men in far-flung cities, was, again, language — in the form of typed phrases on the screen that seemed throwaway, but wove themselves into narratives and unintentional scraps of poetry. This continued until her resonant, funny film, brilliantly titled My Best Thing after one of her remote paramours’ nicknames for his penis, and featuring animated characters made for free with online software called Xtranormal, appeared as an idea and grew into being. Since her breakthrough, the tone of Stark’s work has changed. Whereas in her early work she tends to examine the margins, in her later work she puts herself center stage. If before she tended to identify with the housewife side of her housewife/architect binary, she now seems more like the architect, “a figure who carries out big plans on a large scale, and in actual space,” as she has it in the 2002 A beholder of fragments essay. Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free (2013), a multichannel projection with music by DJ Quik, one of her objects of obsession, has her text flashing in giant bold letters above a floor made of black-and-white tile. “I’m a holy whore, players, hear me out,” a line pulses. “That gun in my mouth, I’m taking it out, dicks will come in, truth will come out.” It’s the voice not only of an artist who’s entered a new phase, but who’s frustrated with the sound of a woman’s work landing in the culture: something like a sheet of paper drifting to the ground rather than a satisfying thud. Dissonance exists between the categories of “artist” and “woman” — categories which the culture conceives as distinct — as it perceives “person” and “woman” to be distinct, so that to be completely, simultaneously successful at one and the other is not quite possible. The pinnacle of existence for an artist, and person, is to be a genius, but the pinnacle of existence for a woman is — to borrow the phrase from an early Frances Stark work with an unwieldy title (How does one sustain the belief in total babes, (power/recognition) which has been recognized for its debilitating effects on that person who lacks the total babe (embodiment of power/recognition) and access to the total babe by means of one’s own total foxiness/power) — to be a Total Babe. Assembling oneself, creating a self that is unified and that coheres, is difficult enough for anybody — perhaps more difficult for artists, and for female artists, maybe practically futile. Dissonance could even be a quality expressing itself in part through the experience of women, for all anyone knows. The painter Laura Owens, who appears as a character in The Architect and the Housewife and with whom Stark discussed ideas contained in the title (“[…] we began to consider whether ‘interiority’ and ‘exteriority’ were types of meaning-production as well, interiority evoking more of a Romantic tradition and exteriority being perhaps more in line with the avant-garde. Maybe, maybe not […]”), said the following in an interview in Artforum with Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, on the occasion of her 2013 inaugural exhibition at her 356 Mission gallery: “I had asked myself, in a depressed mood: Is it even possible for a woman artist to be the one who marks? […] Isn’t it interesting that a male orgasm has a DNA imprint that will replicate itself over and over again, reinforcing itself the way language or naming might, but the female orgasm has no use, no mark, no locatability? It can’t even be located in time. […] I want to think about how that can be the model for a new gesture. What is that gesture in art, or in painting?” Along with her career-spanning investigations into the nature of art and language and their interrelations, Stark is among the artists searching out this kind of new gesture, drilling straight down into the still largely unexamined, rarefied cultural zone where “woman” and “important artist” overlap, into the heart of dissonance, and finding its essential pulse.

"Portrait of the Artist as a Full-On Bird" (2004) by Frances Stark

Conditional Tense: Andrea Zittel's Protean Art of Possibility

Originally published in Makzine (#1, 2013) | view PDF

THE EXPANSIVE NATURE of Andrea Zittel’s work is hinted at in her name, from whose initials at opposite ends of the alphabet she takes the title of her one-woman operation, her A–Z enterprise, her “institute in investigative living.” Her home-studio compound is situated in an area of California's Mojave Desert where hippies, artists, and libertarians roost in scattered off-the-grid outposts on the outskirts of Twentynine Palms, the massive U.S. military base containing Combat Town, a replica of a Middle Eastern city. Given that it accommodates contradictory approaches to organizing one’s life—fugitives from society’s restrictions at one extreme, soldiers following intricate rules at the other—the Mojave suits Zittel's unconventional social laboratory. In keeping with her A–Z mentality, Zittel started her career on the opposite coast, in New York, customizing spaces and objects in a Brooklyn row house in the early 1990s before returning to her childhood home of California in 1999. A–Z West, so called to differentiate it from its forerunner, began as a 200-square-foot homestead on a parcel of rocky land and has since expanded like a steadily growing tentacular organism to include numerous other structures, projects, and bits of property. Scattered among the compound’s acres of boulders and shrubs are examples of Zittel’s Wagon Stations, transportable one-person living compartments that open and close like metal-and-glass clamshells. The idea of a shelter reduced to a human shell: Frederick Kiesler, the iconoclastic namesake of Austria’s Kiesler Prize for Architecture and the Arts, which Zittel received in 2012, might approve. “The house is the skin of the human body,”1 Kiesler declared in one of his manifestos advocating for more fluid intersections between humans and their natural and technological environments, a spirit shared by his peer R. Buckminster Fuller, another of Zittel’s precursors in freeform, Utopia-minded, category-defying thinking. As with Kiesler, Fuller, and other multi-hyphenate visionaries, even the catch-all terms “artist” and “designer” don’t quite seem to encapsulate Zittel. Her projects to date include experimental breeding units for quail, an ongoing series of handmade uniforms designed for her personal wear, a week spent without clocks in a windowless room in an effort to slip regimented time, a fabricated, habitable island off the coast of Denmark, functional furniture, tools, and living environments, and, most recently, textiles woven by expert artisans and large-scale paintings. With Zittel, a design isn’t merely, or isn’t quite, a design; with few exceptions, her prototypes—for travel trailers, chamber pots, eating utensils, living units—aren’t intended for production on any kind of mass scale. They are hypothetical prototypes, prototypes of prototypes. And a painting—or wall work—by Zittel tends to be not merely, or quite, a painting: her main series of paintings is produced under the collective title Prototypes for Billboards, lending them, as with a good deal of Zittel’s work, a ghost element, a conceptual parallel in which you imagine them functioning out in the world, the painting on the gallery wall giving way to a version of giant proportions along a highway meant to be viewed by drivers at far, middle, and close range. A second series of paintings consists of smaller gouaches in Zittel’s crisp style that borrows advertising’s easily digestible visual language, illustrating prototypes for hypothetical garments and structures, or showing realized versions of prototypes in use. The protean, boundary-testing quality of Zittel’s work isn’t merely formal; it’s central to her implied philosophy of living. “We are most happy when we are moving towards something that is not yet attained,” proclaims one of the “Billboards” paintings (Prototype for Billboard at A–Z West: “These Things I Know for Sure” #14, 2005), part of a sub-series that grew out of her curiosity over whether she had any solid, unchanging beliefs, even minor ones, in an era when belief is taken as a matter of perspective. The text continues, printed over an image of a desert road as viewed through a windshield: “This feeling also extends to physical motion in space... we are happier in a car because we are moving forward towards an identifiable and attainable goal.” The connection between happiness and mobility is a consistent theme with Zittel, and not coincidentally seems to extend to her method of working: a sense of movement, of forward momentum, pervades her work, which is full of ongoing series, the Prototypes for Billboards and well-known A–Z Personal Uniforms among them, while she sets a self-imposed two-year limit on any projects undertaken at A–Z West to avoid stagnation.2 She sees failure as a method of propulsion: “Every single piece is flawed in some way,” she has said, “and it’s that flaw that I work off of for the next piece… Only once did I make a piece that I felt pretty satisfied with, which was the A-Z Escape Vehicles, and everything stopped dead for about a year after that. I hope I never make a successful piece that I like again.”3 As in the analogy of the driver, satisfaction seems greatest in a transitional state, when the next thing is visible on the horizon. Maximized possibility, prime mobility, hovering in a conditional tense where options are open, yet somehow measured (after all, the car is traveling on a road)—this character manifests as well in Zittel’s recurring motifs and techniques. Weaving has long been a central element in her work, endlessly varied patterns created through simple, repeated manipulations of only a few strands. Since 1991, when she conceived her first set of uniforms as a means of evading the rule of daily outfit changes, she has produced over seventy versions, from fantastical felted dresses to basic Constructivist-style aprons; the cumulative effect is that fiber strands have been passing through her fingers for over 20 years. Crochet patterns resembling open-ended mazes show up in her paintings, while her recent Wall Sprawl works, a series in which aerial photographs of exurban development are tiled and flipped to form wallpaper-like designs, roadways resembling tangled thread—are in theory infinitely expandable. One thinks of webs, and a spider is a good metaphor for the type of artist Zittel is—spinning out an art practice through a steady stream of consistent acts, creating a physical site, a habitat of her own making for others to buzz around: art-making as a kind of high-order biological process, a system that gallery exhibitions tap into, rather than vice versa. Zittel’s most recent New York solo exhibition, at Andrea Rosen Gallery last fall, synthesized the major themes or tributaries that have flowed through her art since its earliest days. The sure sense of direction that has always been a feature of her work felt more pronounced—the A–Z Covers series that first appeared in 1993 melding with the Prototypes for Billboards series, for instance, to form a pair of large, striking paintings in which color-blocked textiles in hot desert tones appear to slide off the vertical plane. Meanwhile, the weaving component of her practice moved onto the wall in the form of A–Z Cover Series 1 and 2 (2012)—woven canvases, in effect, with colors embedded in the thread, a kind of reverse painting, created by teams of master weavers following Zittel’s instructions, but with room built in for subjective decisions. “My goal is to make a work that is simultaneously a highly rendered artisan object, conceptual art, and functional object,” she wrote in a statement accompanying the show, noting that Mies van der Rohe hung Rothko paintings alongside Navajo blankets, being obsessed with both. “Fluid Panel State” was the show’s cryptic title. A panel, according to Zittel, is a section of a two-dimensional plane in three-dimensional space, such as a “doormat, a tablecloth, a bath towel, a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood, or a piece of printer paper.” A fluid panel, she explains, is a flexible two-dimensional plane, such as a textile, that can describe three-dimensional shapes, transcending its reality, in a sense, by bending the rules that contain it. One such panel in the exhibition appeared in the form of carpet designed to fit the dimensions of a one-room cabin near Zittel’s desert compound, an extension of her A–Z Carpet Furniture series in which rugs are patterned with shapes designating furniture—here, a blue rectangle for a bed, a red square for a table, and a striped rug-within-a-rug. In the gallery, it rested on the floor—a photograph shows a woman lying on the “bed”—though it could equally hang on the wall, where it would resemble a color field painting. The carpet allows for the feel of structured space without actual obstacles, without furniture, without impediments to mobility, and it is a shifting concept itself, moving, as Zittel writes, “between abstract and literal potential—highlighting the slippage between formal art object and useful possession.” In one of his odd, prescient, and illuminating short essays on the nature of design, the midcentury media philosopher Vilém Flusser, in a moment of optimism, envisions a future culture “with less and less room for objects of use to act as obstacles and more and more room for them to serve as vehicles for interpersonal contact. A culture with a bit more freedom.”4 It’s a vision Zittel could be said to share. From carpets eliminating the need for furniture to trailers that consolidate living spaces to tables with depressions for food that do away with the need for plates, the alternate reality she has imagined into existence is one comprised of surroundings that facilitate the flow of life, sometimes melting the built environment into the background, sometimes melting it closer to the body. If, somewhat uniquely among contemporary artists, from the beginning of her career Zittel has persistently and explicitly addressed a central question, that of how to live, her implied answer might be in a world that allows not just for greater mobility, but more conscious mobility—literal mobility, as offered by her wheeled A–Z Travel Trailers, A–Z Mobile Compartment Units, and A–Z Yard Yachts, but more often a sort of psychic mobility. Human habitat echoes our essential psychological makeup: walls for security, doors for freedom, and windows for striking some sort of compromise between the two—seeing outside without actually leaving. Without walls, people die of exposure or attacks; without doors, they starve in more ways than one; without windows, they can live, but not happily or even sanely. The cliché equating art with a window is a truism: it’s windows that represent possibility—the promise of mobility without its dangers. Zittel’s work does not only operate in this zone of hypothetical escape, the happy gap between feeling trapped within one system and realizing we’re trapped in the next; it examines the quality of this experience and our desire for it, scrutinizing the meaning of progress and unpacking the paradox that in order to move forward, we have to close off possibilities. The act of shuttling between poles of freedom and limitation lies at the center of her work, and perhaps one reason her project feels relevant is that it keeps driving at the heart of what art’s role has been ever since the demise of religious faith removed many people’s sure sense of existential boundaries. “Everyone is born a genius,” Fuller famously said. “But the process of living de-geniuses them.” Modernity makes it easy to travel mindlessly on tracks. What Zittel suggests, in her way of observing the strands as they are knit, being ready to manipulate (or not) the possibilities of the next stitch, is that the process of living can be transformed into occasions for ingenuity. 1. Frederick Kiesler, “Manifeste du Correalisme,” L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (June 1949) 2. Zittel maintains a diary of her life and projects at A–Z West in the form of a blog at 3. Stefano Basilico, “Andrea Zittel,” Bomb, Spring 2001, No. 75, pp. 70-76 4. Vilém Flusser, “Design: Obstacle for/to the Removal of Obstacles,” in The Shape of Things, London 1999, p. 61


Scott Olson | review

Overduin and Kite | Los Angeles | 5.27–8.4, 2012 | Artillery

THE 10 MODESTLY SIZED PAINTINGS IN SCOTT OLSON'S SECOND solo exhibition in Los Angeles are widely spaced on the gallery walls—expansive white space pooling around works that are meditations on attention, balance, surface and framing. Each is further enclosed by borders left blank and/or by a tidy handmade frame of poplar, maple, or onyx- or mahogany-stained cherry, as if Olson means to center and carefully set his paintings (all untitled, 2012) in our field of vision. A basic aim of almost all painting is to gather shapes and colors into a bounded physical space as a means to collect, focus and manipulate attention. Olson's paintings do this pointedly, while also acting as open records of the attention that goes into their creation—the interplay on the artist's end between activity and passivity, improvisation and deliberation. Irregular shapes in a broad, even random palette of colors ranging from muted browns to aqueous blues to bright yellows and oranges sift across the paintings' surfaces in overlapping planes, creating an illusion of depth. There's an ephemeral character to the arrangement of Olson's forms, like leaves organized into patterns on a lake's surface, as if each painting is a snapshot of a composition on the verge of dissipating. It's a mesmerizing effect that seems to come from calibrating conscious and unconscious input, with an equal give-and-take between what nature allows to arise and what the educated, purposeful artist places. Olson's process pulls in elements from the natural world as well as from painting's history. His magenta derives from ground beetle extract, his orange from cosmos flowers' pollen. Various works incorporate wax, oil, egg tempera, and silverpoint, on supports that include linen and panels coated with ground marble dust—a suede-like, luxurious surface for a painting. Experimental homemade tools help create marks, further balancing intention and accident. Shapes may appear stenciled or printed; scraped lines reveal sub-layers. A kind of game ensues as we reverse-engineer the mechanisms that created the painting, our imagined versions of the artist's tools inevitably failing to align with reality. The paintings sit poised between an experience of process: painting as verb, and of product: painting as noun, and of painting as image and physical object. There may be something of a trend toward diffusion in current art, a reluctance to clearly define a plane or to direct experience, as if to give the impression that the art has wandered into frame, or that a frame has haphazardly sketched itself around the art; one finds evidence of this quality, for instance, in the Hammer Museum's present LA biennial exhibition. Though this can be an interesting concept, it's frustrating when taken too far, when the viewer feels charged with the bulk of the responsibility of organizing an artwork. Olson, showing intense interest for what finally emerges on the surface of an artwork's plane, with what ends up in its bounds, has made paintings that exemplify how deliberate, definite artworks can preserve a sense of possibility and openness.


Charles Ray | review

Matthew Marks Gallery | Los Angeles | 4.28 – 6.23, 2012 | Sculpture 

FIGURATIVE SCULPTURE HAS BEEN A MAINSTAY of Charles Ray’s since his early days as an artist when he pinned his elevated body against the wall with a board (“Plank Piece I” and “II”, 1973) and arranged himself naked on metal shelves, merging minimalism’s hard forms and surfaces with flesh. Since then, the figurative line of his work has shifted to lifelike fiberglass, as in 1992’s “Oh Charley, Charley, Charley,” the group orgy scene starring eight copies of himself, and to painted metal, as in 2009’s white steel “Boy With Frog,” a permanent installation on Venice’s Grand Canal. Ray’s first solo show in L.A. since the remarkable 2007 exhibition at Regen Projects of “Hinoki,” a reconstructed fallen tree, contains two figures: “Young Man” and “Sleeping Woman” (both 2012) in machined solid stainless steel, unpainted and polished to a soft sheen. From real flesh to flesh-like fiberglass to flat-painted metal to silvery stainless steel: Ray’s figures might be steadily backing away from anthropomorphism. Though the two sculptures are separate pieces, Ray situated them carefully for the exhibition, placing them a stone’s throw apart in the otherwise empty gallery of Matthew Marks’ newly opened West Hollywood location, at the exact distance at which their spheres of energy barely overlap; whether or not they share a plane is a compelling ambiguity. As with much of Ray’s work, their qualities extend into unexpected dimensions. Each is enormously heavy, with the larger sculpture, “Sleeping Woman,” weighing in at 6,000 pounds. Along with its weight, the mesmerizing, gelatinous way light slides over stainless steel, with no hard glare or glints, must have attracted Ray to the medium. It’s odd to see skin, hair, and clothing rendered in this material, which has the reflective properties of satin. More than Ray’s flat-painted aluminum figures, definitely more than the fiberglass mannequins, “Young Man” and “Sleeping Woman” wobble between identities as pure objects and human stand-ins. Yet there’s something peculiarly inert about these sculptures that inhibits their power, even if, given their poses, the woman dozing on a bench, the young man standing with a dumbfounded expression as if gravity has slowed him to stillness, this inertia is a quality Ray means to exploit. The movement, the ripple in reality that we’ve come to expect, perhaps too automatically, when encountering Ray’s work feels absent, maybe merely because the sculptures’ luxe silver color causes them to read before almost all else as collectors’ trophies. Of course they are, in part, and we should question whether it’s Ray’s job to shield this fact from the viewer. But whereas Ray’s strongest work causes us to navigate a jog in perception, we encounter these sculptures squarely, on an everyday, material plane. A shell-like art-object status encases “Young Man” and “Sleeping Woman,” canceling out their potential to feel uncanny. Meanwhile, light plays over their exteriors in shifting abstract shapes, creating another obscuring layer, if a lovely one. There is conceptual and physical beauty in these sculptures, but their surfaces have a curious way of muting their psychic impact.


Andrea Zittel | review

Regen Projects | Los Angeles | 9.16–10.29, 2011 | ArtUS                                                                                         

THE LATEST DISPATCH from Andrea Zittel’s A–Z West fills both galleries at Regen Projects with a phalanx of her famous handmade personal uniforms, two wallpaper designs from a recent series titled “Wallsprawl,” four paintings from a series of billboard prototypes, and a large model, “Lay of My Land,” of her Joshua Tree home-and-studio compound. The sculpture, an unpainted plaster landscape arranged over steel base sections, depicts the land parcels that make up A–Z West’s 35 acres—the “seemingly endless desert,” as Zittel puts it in an artist’s statement written for the show, carved into segments following the grid system conceived by Thomas Jefferson for efficient management of American Territory. “Lay of My Land” is born of her unease about the desert’s invasion by exurban sprawl, a sentiment stemming in part from childhood years spent in the region she returned to in 1999 after living in New York. But it follows as well in a long tradition of angst among American intellectuals and artists about the industrializing of the country’s wilderness lands. The “machine in the garden,” critic Leo Marx termed this theme in the 1960s, identifying its centrality to a host of American writers, from Thoreau—who, with his Walden outpost and ideas about nature, consumerism, and self-sufficiency, might be Zittel’s most obvious precursor—to Hawthorne, Twain, Frost, and, not least, to Jefferson himself, who fretted about the fate of his beloved pastoral Virginia. That Zittel’s work revolves around an explicit philosophy of life and art that, while not rigid, exerts a stable, coherent, central force on everything she makes, differentiates her from many of her contemporaries. A series of paintings from 2006, “These Things I Know for Sure,” articulates some of its principles: “What makes us feel liberated is not total freedom, but rather living in a set of limitations that we have created and prescribed for ourselves” (#10); and “What you own, owns you” (#15). The self-possessed, sensible tone of these statements characterizes her art in general; even her ongoing, 20-year-long uniform project, in which she crafts one custom outfit per season, wearing it day in and day out, is as much an exercise in surefootedness as in limiting options and reducing reliance on store-bought clothes. Though conceived, often, as solutions for problems, as social critiques, her creations don’t shout their messages, but seem to exist as patient examples. Circling “Lay of My Land” (all work 2011), for instance, you are struck not by the concept of segregated land parcels, but simply by its detailed, quite beautiful surface, covered with individually sculpted rocks. Its whiteness and the rawness of its metal supports give it more than anything a ghostly, floating presence. The wallpaper pieces, meanwhile, made from aerial photographs of a shopping center (“Wallsprawl #6”) and an airfield (“Wallsprawl #4”), tiled and rotated to look from afar like spidery filigree, are born from Zittel’s concerns about human encroachment into nature, a process she likens to a “parasitic or viral expansion.” Perhaps she means for them to feel more sinister than they do, but one experiences them primarily as fascinating patterns. While “Lay of My Land” and the wallpaper works are visually seductive, the show’s two other components—the four “Prototypes For Billboards A–Z West” paintings and the gallery of uniforms (including examples from the ongoing “A–Z Fiber Form Uniforms,” “A–Z Personal Smocks,” and “A–Z Single Strand Uniforms” series begun in 1994)—are its highlights. Displayed on a neat regiment of mannequins, the selection of 40-odd outfits—hand-felted tops, crocheted sweaters, dresses made from single fabric pieces—dazzle in their variety of form, texture, and technique. Knitting and crocheting, in which a limited number of strands, through a limited set of repeated gestures, can be made into infinitely varied garments, are, for Zittel, meaningful actions; even beyond her uniforms, stitch patterns show up in her work as frequent motifs. Their echo appears in the four billboard prototypes—collectively subtitled, for the show, “Bodies in Space with Objects”—that borrow imagery from Constructivist propaganda and depict maze-like designs superimposed over desert landscapes. The paintings are portraits of sorts: in three of them, a female figure, her face cropped out of frame, her skin and the desert floor both represented by areas of unpainted plywood, holds the maze form in her hands—the artist and her plans, or else a person introducing into the organic desert a structure born of her mind, a thing shaped by geometry, by equations, which is the distinguishing feature of human habitat. The paintings link the artist with the human march that she protests against. Touched with melancholy as well as hope, they designate ideas yet to be realized.


Roberto Cuoghi | review

Hammer Museum | Los Angeles | 1.12–5.15, 2011 | ArtUS                                    

ROBERTO CUOGHI'S FIRST SOLO SHOW at a U.S. museum, in the Hammer’s vault gallery, consists of “Pazuzu,” a black marble sculpture inspired by a demon-god from pre-Christian Assyria, circled on three sides by twenty-odd mixed-media portraits (all untitled, all works 2010) of Cuoghi’s imagined alternative selves. Among others, the cast includes a handful of glaring goateed thugs, various iterations of the portly bearded man featured in the logo for Dannemann brand cigars, a jaded-looking intellectual whose speech bubble floats the title of a Joseph Beuys installation, “Zeige Deine Wunde,” an obese cartoon Hulk, a masterfully drawn chiaroscuro face resembling John the Baptist as envisioned by Caravaggio, and a ghoulish, mouthless visage hovering above sets of teeth painted in lifelike enamel. All share a family resemblance: similar noses, similar foreheads, similar dark eyes and brows. While some are purely drawings—Cuoghi inked one figure on a brown bag and tacked it directly to the wall—the materials list for others reads like a mad scientist’s shopping list: hydrochloric acid, shell dust, compressed air, shellac, sheepskin parchment, Flexoid, soap. Cuoghi’s methods of construction in these layered works are mysterious, and their effects are wonderful. A portrait overlaid with iridescent powder (the shell dust?) reveals a holographic skull when viewed at an oblique angle, while two oval portraits of the Dannemann cigar man are seamlessly inserted into metal surrounds, giving the impression of giant cigar box lids jutting from the wall. Given his interest in the outer bounds of identity, it makes sense that Cuoghi lavishes attention on framing, sinking some portraits into shadowy box frames, surrounding others in silken white hoops reminiscent of Matthew Barney’s beloved self-lubricating plastic, setting others in plain wood, and bestowing antiquey gold frames on still others, such as a small picture of a vulnerable-looking man turning his head, on which Cuoghi has painted each separate hair. The glass protecting the latter is dusted with fine particles, as if the artist discovered the portrait in a forgotten attic. Distending, or transcending, whatever sphere contains the self, as well as perhaps the larger one that defines mortal humanity, is clearly one of Cuoghi’s obsessions. You can hardly write about him without mentioning his first foray into unorthodox self-portraiture, the project in which, beginning in 1997, in his mid-twenties, he morphed himself into a man resembling his sixty-something father, gaining nearly 100 pounds, dying his beard and hair grey, wearing an older man’s clothes, adopting an older man’s mannerisms, and living as this aged version of himself for seven years, only reclaiming his more natural appearance, with some struggle, in 2005. In a slightly later project, he wore a pair of eyeglasses fitted with prisms, so that his view of the world was flipped upside down; the disorienting and sick-making five-day exercise produced a suite of poems, grotesque self-portraits, and a video (“Il Coccodeista,” 1997). Jumping through time from youth to old age, inhabiting another’s body, inverting reality, knowing the selves you could be in a different life—if Cuoghi’s ambitions felt less grand, one could read his enactments of these god-like feats as parodying the ancient conception of artist as a kind of shaman, one whose gifts inched him closer to another circle of reality. But his work, with its streak of megalomania, seems, if not literally to embrace the idea, at least to fantasize about it. His sculpture of Pazuzu, a demon cobbled from a dog’s torso, scorpion’s tail, snake-like phallus, and double bird’s wings, among other animal odds and ends, not only aligns with his omnivorous approach to materials, but pointedly represents a time when a statue of a demon-god wasn’t just an object, but a dwelling place for the deity, possessed of supernatural power. Cuoghi has painted himself as uneasy with today’s version of art and artists. “I’ve never been totally involved in contemporary art and I was irritated by the boring habits of young artists,” he told Art in America in an interview published on the eve of the Hammer show. Transforming himself into his father, though he was in art school at the time, was never intended as an artwork, he says, but only as an escape hatch from his all-too-successful line of work as a forger of medical prescriptions. It makes for a stark contrast, then, that the Cuoghi show is installed directly across from the Hammer’s invitational exhibition “All of This and Nothing,” with its ethereal chords of spare beauty, ephemerality, and clean academic thought. Moving from the deep charcoal grey walls and sheer gathered power of his gallery, capped off by an actual demon statue, to the cloud-like floor sculpture of white plaster powder that occupies the large, white, facing room feels a bit like transitioning from Inferno to Purgatory and Paradise, which, while beautiful in their way, can’t help lacking the Inferno’s fiendish intricacy and force. At half the size of the towering 2008 steel-and-fiberglass statue of Pazuzu that Cuoghi has shown at Turin’s Castello di Rivoli, London’s ICA, and The New Museum, the black Carrera marble version included in the Hammer show is made of Italian material. Where the larger work is a mathematical enlargement of a roughly 3,000-year-old Assyro-Babylonian talisman housed at the Louvre, the form of the smaller has been altered from the original. The new demon is doubled, with twin bodies fused at the spine, forming the shape of an X: an unpredictable being who faces both past and future, life and death, other and self, toward the world and away from it. Though it’s not explicitly claimed as one, we might see this modified Pazuzu as another self-portrait, or at least as a symbol of Cuoghi’s idea of an artist.


Tom Allen | review

Richard Telles Fine Art | Los Angeles | 10.30 – 11.27, 2010 | ArtUS

IN "SUMMERLANDS," TOM ALLEN'S FIFTH solo exhibition at Richard Telles, the bruised cherubs, lurid flowers and graveyards of his earlier paintings were supplanted by more subtle, but no less Romantic subjects: a gloomy landscape illuminated by candlelight, birds receding through stormy clouds, an ecstatically beautiful abalone shell against a red sky, and, in the title series, four small oils of isolated, gnarled trees that Allen brought to the exact brink of anthropomorphism, suggesting entrapped, petrified souls. Is anything less contemporary than the concept of souls? It’s hard to imagine an artist today referring to the old-fashioned soul without a thick gloss of irony. But Allen, on closer inspection, is not dealing in irony. His paintings are rendered with too much straightforward conviction and precision to be essentially ironic, and they project urgency—in part because the version of reality they reflect is pointed and intense. The tree roots in “Landscape with Two Candles” (2010), for example, are painted in such hyper-focused style that they resemble whips, in a painfully crisp image that recalls Rilke’s description, in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, of his “Fear that a small woolen thread sticking out of the seam of my blanket may be hard--hard and sharp like a needle.” Also, as in “Polished Shell” (2009), Allen’s paintings sometimes lunge at beauty the way their Romantic predecessors would, with abandon. The painted candlelight in “Two Candles,” licks of bright orange striping the tree stumps, is another example of this—a visual high point of the exhibition, an unassuming, surprising flourish that helps this painting outshine the twisted-tree portraits, for all their technical ability. What makes Allen’s paintings peculiar, even while boundary-hopping and cross-referencing characterize a fair amount of today’s art, is that they don’t just appropriate Romantic imagery; they cloak themselves in that era’s attitude. The paintings’ relationship to this attitude is interesting. You can imagine various stances for a present-day artist to take toward the Romantic mindset, from critical to reverent, offhandedly curious to intensely academic, and, perhaps most likely of all, clinical—but Allen’s approach doesn’t fit any of these. It’s not that his adoption of the Romantic mood is unselfconscious, but the paintings, rather freshly, do without an overt meta-layer that rushes to account for their anachronistic subject matter. Their yearning for a time when art reached unabashedly for sublime experience is only half in quotation marks. In a way, they mourn a defunct way of seeing as someone would mourn (to use a Romantic term) a departed soul. It’s fitting that “Summerlands” takes its title from a largely forgotten theory—a concept of afterlife invented by a nineteenth-century spiritualist, Andrew Jackson Davis, who imagined souls of the dead absorbed into a celestial band of “solid, spiritualized matter.” In an artist’s statement, Allen points out that this idea seemed both to suit his portraits of formerly living trees and to describe the simultaneously material and ethereal space of painting--but it’s also a functioning metaphor for the afterlife that ideas can find in art. Inescapably, the word “Summerlands” also conjures Southern California (Allen lives here), itself a kind of utopian—or dystopian, take your pick—afterlife in the popular mind. But in the end, Allen’s paintings may engage L.A.—and even Romanticism, their apparent central subject—only incidentally. The nature of the conceptual overlays through which different people at different times view the world, and the prospect of examining, perhaps reanimating, these overlays through art, seems at the real core of his project. “Landscape with Two Candles” could be Allen’s metaphor for the past: felled but not totally dark, twining its undead roots into the present.


John Baldessari | review

Los Angeles County Museum of Art | 6.27–9.12, 2010 | ArtUS | view PDF

"PURE BEAUTY," THE FIRST MAJOR RETROSPECTIVE of John Baldessari’s work in the U.S. in twenty years (it ran first at Tate Modern, and concludes early 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum), felt concise rather than sprawling, unfolding over a floor of the Broad building at a steady pace. Considering he has produced thousands of works over five decades, such an end result must have been a challenge. But volume aside, Baldessari’s career lends itself well to a retrospective. There’s a clear arc in his practice, from the earliest paintings to conceptual photography and video, to the film still compositions, to the latest sculptural pieces, and a compelling, built-in narrative that almost shades into myth: the story of how a young artist working in National City, California, far from the art world’s epicenter, helped bring about great shifts in the game of art by playing off the board, and went on to become a revered, influential, and ubiquitous artist and teacher. There’s youthful rebellion—the photo-emulsion paintings in which Baldessari systematically defies conventional aesthetic wisdom, including the famous Wrong (1966-68), and the cheeky text paintings. There’s death (symbolized by Baldessari’s 1970 cremation of his early, more conventional paintings, a few of which survived, and figure into the exhibition), and resurrection. There’s exhaustion and reinvention. There’s wit and charm, but beneath it all, a well of unease: even in Baldessari’s facile-seeming works, the unsettling idea hovers that order is only ever an illusion of perspective. Kissing Series: Simone Palm Trees (Near) (1975), for example, which served as the LACMA exhibition’s poster image, is a sunny picture of a pretty blond kissing a tall palm, reminiscent of snapshots in which someone pretends to hold up the leaning tower of Pisa. Apparently shot on the fly near Baldessari’s Santa Monica studio, it’s in line with his oft-repeated early intention to give people what they want. But the image hangs together thanks only to the perspective of the photographer, whose smallest move would expose the lack of any real correspondence between the subjects. These kinds of gaps between systems, these perceptual illusions, these contingencies of perspective, as those who follow his career know, are Baldessari’s overarching fascination, the foundation for much of his art. Often glossed over in the narrative of his freewheeling early years and belied by the casual affability of his work (and of the artist himself) is the cleverness with which he brought ideas first set out by theoretical trends in the 1960s and ’70s, which he followed closely, into the visual art sphere. Perhaps more than any other artist, he has made such abstract concepts vivid, concrete, and seductive. Arguably, he has helped prolong our romance with postmodernism by making its ideas so attractive as a basis for art, even as such ideas are now seen from the receding edge of history. When presenting a retrospective of a living artist, there’s always the question of momentum—of whether, after a burst of groundbreaking early work, the later work will seem to wilt. Here, the pieces chosen to represent Baldessari’s late work hold up. Arms & Legs (Specif. Elbows & Knees), Etc. (Part Two): Green Knee/Red Elbow (2008), one of the last works on display, is arrestingly strange: a bright red arm painted directly on the wall cuts a trough into a glossy, 3-D pine-green knee concocted of resin and PVC. That it looks like finish fetish sculpture is no doubt one of Baldessari’s jokes, since his early paintings, with their slapdash aesthetic, were opposed to exactly this strain of L.A. art. As evidenced by the retrospective, Baldessari’s habit of circling back on the past while pressing forward with a current obsession (here, the notion of body parts other than eyes as vehicles for expression, an offshoot of the idea of misdirection that has long permeated his art) runs throughout his career. It’s visible, for instance, in the way painting, which he once decisively rejected, creeps back into his collaged film stills of the 1980s and beyond, and in his late-1990s reprise of black-and-white photographs printed on canvas, paired with text (Goya Series). This kind of recycling without empty repetition, these cycles of self-reflection and re-invention, help account for Baldessari’s staying power. Recently Baldessari has ventured into installation. Along with the René Magritte exhibition he designed for LACMA in 2006, he has created room-based installations at the Mies van der Rohe-designed Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany (2009)—for which he made a wonderful couch in the shape of an ear (not in the retrospective)—and at Margo Leavin, his longtime L.A. gallery, earlier this year. Brain/Cloud (Two Views): With Palm Tree and Seascapes (2010), made especially for the LACMA edition of “Pure Beauty” and situated in the final gallery, was a cartoonish sculptural brain, almost equally resembling a cloud, flanked by walls covered with photo murals of the ocean. On the fourth wall, in a nod to his early video work (and the 1970s time-delay videos of Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham), a feed of the hanging white brain played on a slight delay, so that viewers found themselves watching the versions of themselves that had existed a short time earlier. In the way it boxed up virtually all of Baldessari’s preoccupations of the last few decades—the X-axis of palm trees and the Y-axis of horizons, the diverted gaze, video, sculpture, photography, a gap (represented by the time lag) between two systems, the mapping of human elements onto the physical world—it was impressive, but veered into self-parody, as Baldessari’s art sometimes does. Taken together with pieces like the ear sofa (which was accompanied by nose-shaped sconces) and other recent sculptural body parts, Brain/Cloud points to a fresh ballooning of dada-inspired absurdity in Baldessari’s work to come. The artist is now nearly 80. He has few serious detractors, since the taste his work helped create, and by definition epitomizes, remains a dominant force. As Baldessari might be first to say, the critical worth of art depends on perspective, whether skewed subtly or severely by evolving beliefs and passing time. As an artist who has built a practice around shifting vantage points, perhaps he appreciates the irony that, by so saturating the atmosphere, his work has become practically perspective-proof in today’s art climate—especially, and most significantly, in Los Angeles. It's difficult for anyone to discount the potent mixture of focused inquiry, humor, and restless innovation behind Baldessari’s continually surprising career.


Aaron Curry | review

David Kordansky Gallery | Los Angeles | 6.5–8.7, 2010 | ArtUS | view PDF

"TWO SHEETS THICK," THE TITLE OF AARON CURRY'S second solo show at David Kordansky, contains the idea of strata, taking its name from a torn paper collage in which he has peeled back sections of foreground to reveal underlayers. Dimensionality and obfuscation, two more of Curry’s preoccupations, also coil within this three-word phrase. Such tight packaging is typical of an artist who, rather than setting out on meandering investigations, seems to work by letting ideas ricochet in a compact space between fixed parameters. As in previous exhibitions, Curry’s troupe of collages, screen prints, and large, part-playful, part-menacing powder-coated aluminum sculptures are closely interconnected. For one thing, they all adhere to a restricted palette of DayGlo rainbow colors plus black, white, and mud brown, a jumpy mix encapsulated in the found images appearing in Curry’s collages, including an ad for Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (Vision Revision (Donkey Lady) [all works 2010]) and a flattened Cocoa Rice Krispies box overlaid with Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s lurid seventeenth-century Festoon of Fruit and Flowers (Two Doors Make a Face). Heightening the show’s feel of cohesion and enclosure, the entire gallery is papered with cardboard panels screen-printed with a pattern of moisture beads, as if the walls are sweating or slick with condensation. Beaded liquid—a recurring motif in Curry’s work, along with faces and figures that slither into abstraction—is a good metaphor for the way artworks coalesce, with rivulets of influences, fascinations, and accidents converging into organized forms. The discrete final works, spaced out in the gallery, echo the arrangement of the scattered droplets. With Curry, the essential solution generating his artwork, too, has remained notably consistent. Girding his practice are affinities with, among others, Picasso, Isamu Noguchi (particularly his biomorphic sculptures from the 1940s, which Curry’s sculptures made of flat, interlocking parts closely resemble), the Chicago Imagists—an influence visible in Curry’s offbeat, vibrant colors and allusions to grotesque portraiture—and camouflage. In previous work Curry borrowed the WWI-era technique of painting battleships in garish patterns designed to confuse enemy eyes rather than blend into the sea—here he reprises the theme by covering several sculptures with the same droplet screen prints that paper the gallery walls. While Mammut, a vivid pink sculpture that from one vantage point describes a mastodon, perhaps one resurrected from L.A.’s tar pits, and Bcklmnmppe, a lemon yellow giant that flickeringly resembles a horned emperor (its title has something to do with the experience of circling the sculpture, with spaces collapsing like dropped vowels) shout their presence, Curry’s camouflaged pieces disappear into the background, save for their candy-colored wheeled pedestals. The wheels, unexpectedly painted, lend levity and a flourish of showmanship, as if the sculptures were shy circus animals parading through on carts—they tap into the work’s undercurrent of absurdity. They’re also a particularly successful patterning device, echoing the exhibition’s many other circular forms, such as rivets, egg shapes, eyeholes, facial outlines, and of course the droplets’ dollops of white highlight circled in black, of which the googly-eye cyclops in Monsters, Inc. is a perfect example. Takashi Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes wallpaper of 2002, in which hundreds of disembodied eyeballs stare out at the viewer, also comes to mind. Figuration is another of Curry’s obsessions: look at just about any work, and some relationship to the body, however distorted, begins to emerge. There’s an ease and familiarity to this kind of verging anthropomorphism. And yet the border zone between abstraction and representation is a fitting place for Curry to camp, given that slippage, including free slides through cultural and historical strata, is integral to his art. In the midst of Curry’s brilliantly mapped, all-cohering environment, you wish sometimes for a breeze, some whiff of randomness. Maybe it’s that the few reckless moments—the smeared areas of paint in the collages, streaked ink on the cardboard screen prints, the macho signatures on the sculptures, lettered in liquid metal—seem contained, like counterweights that only further balance the system. You want to see what happens when the beaded liquid runs down the wall, in unpredictable patterns that crack the door wider to chaos. There’s nothing wrong with a taut system, but sooner or later, you hope to see it enlarge and relax.


Rachel Whiteread | review

Hammer Museum | Los Angeles | 1.31–4.25, 2010 | ArtUS                                                            

UNLIKE THE OTHER famous British artists of her generation—Damien Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracy Emin et al.—Rachel Whiteread can’t be called nimble. In 1989, shortly after graduating from art school, Whiteread made her first cast-plaster sculpture, Flap, a whitish block representing the negative space surrounding a hinged wooden table (an echo of Bruce Nauman’s 1965 Cast of the Space Beneath My Chair), and ever since her work has tended to cleave to that initial sculpture’s methods, themes, and materials. Ghostly, somber, often monumental, emotionally immediate, legible across languages and cultures, her best-known sculptures communicate a kind of mute sadness regarding the passage of time, mortality, and carved-up space—qualities that have made Whiteread a natural choice for public projects like Vienna’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, completed in 2000. But her tight focus captions a limited correspondence with the world. By 2001, when, invited by the Royal Society of Arts to create a sculpture for an empty plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, she cast the plinth in resin and inverted the duplicate atop the plinth to make a transparent echo of the original form, one sensed that the realm of possible choices in her art had come full circle. “Rachel Whiteread Drawings,” at the Hammer Museum (through April 25), organized by Allegra Pesenti, doesn’t cause a major shift in our understanding of the past trajectory and shape of Whiteread’s practice, but it softens the edges and admits a great deal of light and air. The show fades Whiteread’s sculpture into the background, bringing over 120 of her works on paper—not preparatory or technical drawings, but works created in parallel to the sculptures, and mostly, until now, filed away in Whiteread’s studio—to center stage. Often fluid and lively, they indeed reveal another side to a familiar artist, striking different, more delicate notes while still ruminating on themes of absence, time, and the structure of human habitats. Their materials correspond closely to her three-dimensional work: yellow-white correction fluid assumes the blanked-out quality of plaster; ruddy varnish echoes the feel of resin; graph paper refers to sculptural space. Other media include ink, watercolor, gouache, silver leaf, and collaged photos, all laid down, for the most part, in a palette mirroring the muted tones of her sculpture. The best drawings in the show are highly elegant and playful. A 1993 study shows a herringbone floor spilling out irreverently from its pattern, loosening into a wavering grid of diamonds at the bottom of the page. In two 1995 drawings done in white correction fluid on black paper, long lines flow down from every right angle on a pair of staircases, creating a screen of layered vertical threads, as if the architecture were unraveling. Untitled (Torso) (1990), a simple pencil drawing of a water bottle, its contours traced several times, evokes a chest expanding with breath, beautifully distilling a relationship between body and built environment in a few economical strokes. A cabinet displaying a cross-section of the numerous collected objects Whiteread keeps in her studio, including such colorful curios as a group of shoe lathes, miniature furniture, and a bronze cast of her ear, provides another playful and revealing moment, while a series of drawings on postcards contains some gems. An untitled 2005 work consisting of differently sized holes punched through a postcard of a Gothic cathedral, the whole picture Swiss-cheesed except for the ceiling and pillars, makes an inspired poster image for this exhibition, since it literally ventilates a stuffy image and is also delightful. Pesenti devotes the final galleries to Whiteread’s later work, from a 2005 installation of cast cardboard boxes at the Tate’s Turbine Hall (which seems to mark a turn to intimate scale in her art) to more recent projects like studies of villages and streets that incorporate brighter and more varied colors—evidence that Whiteread has emerged from the funnel neck and found directions in which to expand.


Doug Aitken | review

Regen Projects | Los Angeles | 9.12–10.17, 2009 | ArtUS 

DOUG AITKEN'S FIRST MAJOR HOMETOWN exhibition since 2005 consists of four interlocking parts, filling Regen Projects’ two galleries and weaving between interior and exterior space. Migration (2008), the latest in Aitken’s series of ambitious video installations (it previously screened at the 55th Carnegie International and New York’s 303 Gallery), is presented in two forms, running during business hours on a specially fabricated, scaled-down digital billboard inside Regen Projects II and playing continuously from dusk to dawn on two adjacent walls of the main gallery’s exterior. The double projection can be seen by cars driving either direction on Santa Monica Boulevard, as suits a work partly about isolation and repetitive travel. Meanwhile, a collection of recent light box pieces occupies the main gallery’s interior—seven illuminated photographs manipulated into words and geometric shapes. The glowing image of a livestock auction building fills letters that spell out “FATE” (the handle comes up, the hammer comes down, 2009); a triptych of human silhouettes have hearts represented by pictures of a cave opening filled with sunlight (Heatwave, 2009). Finally, a few miles away, in the sky above LAXART, an actual billboard, albeit one too diminutive to deliver the proper impact, displays the “FATE” photograph, bringing the exhibition full circle. But migration is the obvious centerpiece—a mesmerizing, melancholic 24-minute epic in which a procession of animals and birds mostly common to North America inhabits a sequence of banal rooms in the kinds of motels that populate lonely stretches of the American highway. They carry out instinctual acts, engaging with the strange surroundings as they would their normal habitats: a cougar gnaws the bed pillows and wrestles the sheets to the floor; a buffalo butts heads with the standard-issue lamps; a beaver paddles in the bathtub. Aitken’s camera follows with a reverent gaze, lingering on bristly fur, velvety antlers, dusty hoofs and glassy eyes, closing in on each protagonist’s legendary attributes—the owl’s stare, the horse’s musculature—playing up the disconnect between this cast of intricately made living creatures and their manufactured surrounds. People have grown accustomed to understanding themselves as the foreground against nature’s backdrop. Migration inverts this convention. Interspersed shots of American landscape (the video roughly describes an east-west cross-country journey) show evidence of human activity: trains and barges advance; oil derricks peck the ground; electricity hums. But like the presence of animals concealed behind rocks and vegetation, human existence in these scenes is ghostly. Lonesome, spectral beauty has long characterized Aitken’s work. The famous still from electric earth (2000) of a solitary red shopping cart in an empty parking lot beneath a brooding sky stands to become an iconic turn-of-the-millennium image, reflecting apocalyptic hysteria and twilight. His methods of transmission maximize the numinous tone. A film or video is already spectral, but, like Bill Viola, Aitken doesn’t just make videos; he makes immersive, monumental viewing experiences that approximate communications from the beyond. Like sleepwalkers, projected in giant scale on the outer walls of MoMA in 2007, flickering over the upturned faces of passersby like a divine vision, migration aims to hold viewers in thrall. But with Aitken, the portentous tone is cut with absurdity, irony, and self-aware wit: migration, for instance, has a horse watching grainy footage of running wild horses on the motel TV. No sooner do we pity him than we remember it’s all just a setup; we’re caught red-handed, projecting human anxieties onto another creature’s mind. In another scene, a full moon dissolves with comic conspicuity into a globe light bulb. Aitken isn’t taking an easy jab at the failure of human design to live up to nature—for all the comparisons between manmade and natural realms in his work, aesthetic judgment is never the issue. On the contrary, he elevates everything in frame to the same plane of mirage-like beauty, from the texture of fox fur to a low-lit parking lot to the acid aqua surface of a swimming pool. Human consciousness, and its intersection with the exterior world, is Aitken’s great obsession. The pathos that seeps from his work comes less from despair over what we have wrought on ourselves and on our planet than from a kind of dissonance between how we are compelled to view the physical world, as a place that reflects and somehow listens to us, and probable reality. In the final scene of migration, owl feathers and feathers from a torn-open pillow mingle in black space—a reminder that the dichotomy between the natural and manmade, on which so much art of recent decades relies, is a made-up distinction, since from an ecological perspective there is no difference, no actual separation between foreground and background, no “environment.” “The ‘environment’ is nothing but the phenotypical expression of DNA code,” as ecological theorist Timothy Morton has put it: "A beaver's DNA doesn't stop at the end of its whiskers, but at the end of its dam." Which is also to say that, though we like to believe that we have conquered wild frontiers, we have only been building habitat, carrying out our program like beavers and foxes. In this light, the frontier mentality on which the West was built seems rather ironic. Migration touches subtly and intelligently on such ironies, and its very title contains another: there’s no clear direction to migrate anymore now that the east and west have both been colonized; there is only repetition, back and forth—a restless situation that echoes the state of affairs in contemporary art.


Larry Johnson | review

Hammer Museum | Los Angeles | 6.21–9.6, 2009 | ArtUS | view PDF

THE HAMMER MUSEUM'S COMPREHENSIVE survey of Larry Johnson’s career to date, curated by Russell Ferguson, makes a strong argument for Johnson’s inclusion in the pantheon of iconic L.A. artists. It begins with the 1984 work that brought Johnson to prominence—a series of small photographs depicting celebrities’ names floating in a fake sky (Movie Stars on Clouds)—and proceeds via casual chronology, ending more or less with a 2009 photo depicting a hasty sketch of an Emmy award in an anonymous window (Achievement: SW Corner, Glendale + Silverlake Blvds). The 50-odd works in between are tightly related in theme and identical in medium: color photographs Johnson made using techniques he gleaned from a day job producing television graphics and later crafted through digital manipulation, for an appearance as utterly handless as advertisements. All are untitled, identified by brief parenthetical descriptions. Central to many works is the concept of packaging—at times literally, as in The Perfect Mensa Man and Why Say High School? (both 1994), which borrow the multicolor stripe motif designer Paul Rand (1914-96) created for the boxes housing IBM’s first personal computers—but more often figuratively, drawing on the slick, cunning packages of language and design engineered, in the era of mass communications, to slide straight into a consumer’s unconscious. Invoking the names of famous people, who function as universal shorthand for various character traits and fragments of cultural narrative, provides a similarly direct route to mass numbers of minds. Johnson’s images constantly exhort us to focus not just on content but on its wrappings: the lettering in many works changes colors randomly, at times nearly blending into the background. Even as we read, our attention gets forced back continually to the surface of the words. Johnson was born in the postwar “instant city” of Lakewood and has lived in L.A.’s Koreatown for over two decades. In his images, the city—particularly gay Hollywood of the 1980s and ’90s and specifically the hustler turf of Santa Monica Boulevard—is omnipresent. Hustler figures, with their seductive, solicitous, insinuating language, are objects of fascination for Johnson: “I honestly believe my work is different for gay men of my generation than it is for other people,” he has said. Indeed, camp figures like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, the Kennedys, certain restaurants, bars and intersections, and gay porn stars Leo Ford and John Sex all make appearances in his photographs. Many of his appropriated and invented narratives dating from the last two decades have an undercurrent of death. The show’s centerpiece is a large gallery hung with ten of Johnson’s “winter landscape” works (1990-92). Whereas earlier photographs displayed text on solid backgrounds, here panels are stuck into desolate snow scenes as if waiting for wanderers to stumble across them. In contrast to previous blurbs lifted out of media sources like TV Guide and celebrity bios, these texts—snippets of confessions, testimonials and rants—are largely Johnson’s fictions. The surrounding cartoon winters seem colored by pathetic fallacies: double mountain peaks rise behind a story about twins; spiky branches converge around musings on the Manson Family killings—the world as viewed through warped first-person lenses. Behind the photographs, the gallery wall acts like a field of snow, ringing the viewer into this echo chamber of needy, disembodied voices. Despite the affected coziness of their phrasing, greased with easy-to-swallow clichés, and the warm colors of the placards bearing their messages, the texts often betray a vacuity that matches the barren scenery. At once tragic and affectless, these thorny images might also be read as metaphors for Los Angeles and its culture of fame, which tends toward a strange mixture of exhibitionism and isolation. Given his habit of “exposing” the machinery of language and aesthetics, it may seem that Johnson has cast himself in the role of benevolent unmasker of truth, but the reality is more complicated. Johnson uses the devices he critiques to his own benefit: we’re drawn to his candy-colored images as surely as we’re reeled in by advertisements and are easily hooked by his fast-talking, hedging, wheedling narrators. Most of his designs, which, like advertising, liberally co-opt ideas from past art, are crafted to captivate our eyes. Land w/o Bread (1999-2000), which borrows the characters of a donkey and goat from the Luis Buñuel film of the same title, is a four-part work in which two panels are partially obscured by the artist’s fingers interfering with the camera lens. What seems like a revelatory gesture—the hand behind these handless photographs brought into plain sight—is also a demonstration of the artist’s power to meddle and hide things from view. Similarly, in a series of photos from 2007 in which Johnson’s pencil penetrates various orifices of pencil-drawn cartoon creatures—a kangaroo, an ass, a giraffe—an outward display of puncturing illusion serves also to heighten it, by endowing the cartoons with an even more illusory interior dimension. And far from vilifying the master genius behind some of the most powerful commercial design of the twentieth century, Johnson reveres Paul Rand; the exhibition even opens, fittingly, with a short video piece paying homage to Rand’s typographical work, Paul Rand’s Women, 1948 (1984). The dynamic between hustler and john, like that between advertiser and consumer, salesman and sap, even artist and viewer, in Johnson’s work is nothing if not mutually parasitic. The donkey in Ass (2007) grins helplessly, lifting his tail for the eraser that threatens to undo him: obviously, despite the prospect of negation, the creature likes it.


Jedediah Caesar, "Holding Pattern" | review

Susanne Vielmetter Projects | Los Angeles | 4.11–5.23, 2009 | Artweek 

ON ITS FACE, JEDEDIAH CAESAR'S WORK seems engaged in revelation—cutting up objects to show us the parts we never see, gathering forgotten junk and rearranging it as sculpture, impelling us to re-examine cast-off matter. Following in the tradition of Process Art, in which the story of the work's creation theoretically can be reconstructed by a thoughtful viewer, Caesar presents as artwork not only the end results of his by-now trademark procedure (pouring resin into a cardboard box or other container filled with various objects, then slicing the resin form with a band saw into different shapes), but also the intermediary steps. Two works in "Holding Station," Caesar's second solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Projects, consist of the resin-filled cardboard boxes themselves (2009, all works untitled). Then there are the sculptures of collected materials, everything from trellis pieces to piping, window frames to twigs, jutting up from their rectangular bases in rowdy spikes and angles. An unprocessed version of the embedded resin sculptures, these Constructivist-style structures have been spared a trip through the feed-tube of Minimalism, showing off their unruly uniqueness in the face of so many compressed, rearrangeable units. But while Caesar's practice borrows heavily from Process Art, attempt to fully reconstitute the origins behind Caesar's resin sculptures and you will soon hit a wall. Sliced into cross-sections, the objects trapped in resin are rendered unrecognizable: In obsessively revealing their interiors, Caesar obscures their former identities to the point where they become abstractions. Indeed, cut into thin tiles and arrayed on the wall in diamond formations, in vertical towers, in checkerboard rectangles, the sculptures impersonate abstract paintings, and often lovely ones at that. One untitled 2008 work consisting of 30 roughly 1-foot square tiles seduces with shards of bright yellow, coral, and royal blue material punctuating marbled areas of black and grey, the yellow form existing at various points as a full circle and half circle, like a moon progressing through phases. And yet even at a time when painting encompasses so many diverse methods, these wall pieces are emphatically not paintings, not images, but things—conglomerations of matter. The push-pull between showing and hiding in Caesar's work sheds light on a gesture made by the artist in one of the gallery's back spaces. Coming to the end of the exhibition, you encounter two plywood-backed resin panels, one propped against the wall, facing forward, the other lying facedown on the floor at an angle, as if it's just fallen over. It seems like an accident, since it's an anomaly in the show—but the arrangement is Caesar's intention; the facedown work is actually face-up. On one hand it's an act of exposure, granting the plain wooden support the same status as the material comprising the more detailed flip-side—and why not, since it's all material. On the other hand, the effect on the viewer is that the "real" surface is being concealed. That both circumstances are true make this simple gambit unexpectedly odd and clever. In fact, a similar shifty, unpindownable quality suffuses the entire exhibition, which seems at first glance like a mere straightforward progression of Caesar's practice, offering up further iterations of resin and found-object sculptures. On one level it is that, but as the title, "Holding Station," hints, it is also more, or maybe less. One wouldn't know it without being tipped off or reading the press release, but it turns out that Caesar, who was included in the 2008 California Biennial and the 2008 Whitney Biennial, conceived the show as a sort of connector node branching out to his other works, with some of the sculptures in the exhibition created from "shells" of previous works or made of "remnants" of other sculptures also contained in "Holding Station." Even with this knowledge, though, it's difficult to deduce specific connections; the extent of the links, the big picture, must be known only to the artist. As with the obscured objects embedded in resin, here again Caesar provides all the pieces, but the prospect of reconstitution lies just beyond reach.


Martin Kippenberger: "The Problem Perspective" | review

MOCA | Los Angeles | 9.21.2008–1.5.2009 | ArtUS | view PDF

IN 1997, SHORTLY AFTER MARTIN KIPPENBERGER'S early death at age 44, Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times: “Kippenberger’s refusal to settle, his determination to keep on moving regardless of the odds, may cost him a permanent place in history, and I say this thinking that he is one of the three or four best German artists of the postwar period.” While his historical importance has since seemed to solidify, it has taken more than a decade for Kippenberger to get a large-scale U.S. retrospective. Organized by MOCA’s Ann Goldstein, “Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective” comprises 250 works covering the entire 20-year span of his practice, which ranged from painting, sculpture, performance art, installation, and photography, to music, curatorial work, books, and even a stake in an L.A. restaurant. For Kippenberger, self is art and art is self, so the idea of editing down one’s work, of showing the world only one’s most successful efforts, was as wrongheaded as refusing to go outside unless one was in the best possible mood. In principle, he believed in acting on every idea and leaving it to others to sort out the value of the results, keenly aware that the worth of art, in a critical sense as well as a monetary one, is always relative. The amount of work in the MOCA exhibition is sufficiently overwhelming, representing lesser-known works as well as all of Kippenberger’s major series, from the 1980s Peter sculptures to the Die I.N.P. Bilder (The Is-Not-Embarrassing Paintings, 1984); to the Lieber Maler, male mir (Dear Painter, Paint for Me, 1981) series in which Kippenberger commissioned a commercial sign painter to render images in a slick, realistic style; to dozens of drawings made on the hotel stationery Kippenberger collected during his frequent, extensive travels; to the renowned self-portraits depicting the artist in hiked-up underwear resembling those worn by Picasso in a studio photograph; to the late series Das Floss der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa, 1996), which riffs on the well-known 1819 Géricault painting; to the sprawling, hyper-detailed installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” (1994). Housed at the Geffen Contemporary, the latter is a veritable masterpiece comprising dozens of “interview” stations, inspired by a scene in Kafka’s unfinished 1927 novel. Laid out on a floor painted like a soccer field, it includes repurposed Peter sculptures among its bizarrely mismatched examples of furniture—a big plastic egg yolk on a pedestal, a high chair, a wicker swing, industrial desks, café chairs. It exudes a haunted, sinisterly playful, and somehow tragic aura that exactly captures Kafka’s dark, absurd scenarios and fascination with labyrinthine rules. Kippenberger was almost pathologically social as an artist, a quality that is responsible for much of his work’s intrigue, even if it has a downside. Predictably, works that consist mainly of a web of references, many of them obscure or based on anecdotes known chiefly to Kippenberger and his inner circle of assistants, friends, and colleagues, are difficult to parse and don’t make much impact beyond their aesthetic strangeness—though that strangeness can sometimes be delightful. A number of the Peter sculptures, for example, fall into this category. From a contemporary standpoint, they seem less like realized artworks and more like artifacts of Kippenberger’s collaborative, spontaneous, discursive method of working. By contrast, pieces that incorporate some universal element, notably pathos—the hotel stationary drawings, The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” the painted and sculptural self-portraits, the Dear Painter, Paint for Me and 1980s No Problem series, among others—provide an opening and are more readable, and thus usually more likable, though it should be noted that with Kippenberger, pathos is often at least part phony, or, more accurately, simultaneously insincere and sincere. Lying at the opposite end of the spectrum from the more abstruse "Peter" sculptures and conceptual paintings are his Raft of the Medusa series and the unappealing, pointed Zuerst die Füsse (First the Feet, 1990) sculpture, depicting the artist as a frog on a cross—which are steeped in pathos in whatever dubious form. Kippenberger’s range of tone is striking. Few artists can be said to swing between conceptual and expressionist, even Romantic poles to such a degree. Of the many boundary crossings Kippenberger made in his life, this is among the most peculiar and daring. It makes more sense, however, when you consider that at his core, Kippenberger was concerned with what it meant to be an artist in the real world, with reconciling to the fact that art making is, on the one hand, an embarrassing, humiliating enterprise demanding self-exposure, and on the other, a lofty, honorable one concerned with exposing large-scale truths. It’s a question that has always plagued artists: Are you being serious, or not? The answer, Kippenberger knew, changes constantly, and depends almost entirely on one’s perspective.


Allan Kaprow | review

MOCA | Los Angeles | 3.23–6.30, 2008 | ArtUS | view PDF                                                       

"ART AS LIFE," A RETROSPECTIVE of Allan Kaprow’s work, which debuted in a different iteration at Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, originated in 2004, two years before Kaprow’s death, when curators Stephanie Rosenthal (Munich) and Eva Meyer-Hermann (Eindhoven) visited the artist in hopes of collaborating with him on the project. As Rosenthal relates in her catalogue essay, “His eyes gleaming like diamonds, Kaprow [said]: ‘Here’s the problem: I don’t want a show!’ This statement was wholly at odds with the fact that he had invited us to visit him and had already expressed his interest, in principle, in an exhibition of his work. […] At one point he said, ‘I don’t know what I want.’ And when we asked, ‘Do you want the public to understand?’ he responded, flatly, ‘No.’” The next day, Kaprow let on that he had confused them on purpose: “[He] wanted to sustain a state of confusion—a situation in which everything is still completely open—for as long as possible.” The resulting retrospective, on which Kaprow did collaborate, has two faces: “Museum as Mediation” and “Agency for Action.” MOCA installed the museum leg in the Geffen Contemporary’s side gallery, in which the absence of white walls and open plan nicely suits the exhibition—or “presentation,” as Kaprow insisted it be called. Kaprow’s early assemblage paintings hang on the back wall, firmly in the traditional art camp: precursors to the 3-D environments that begat happenings (and later, “activities”), their value is mostly historical. Running down the installation’s center aisle are a series of environments reinterpreted by other artists, including "Apple Shrine" (1960) via John Baldessari and Skylar Haskard; "Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hoffmann" (1963) via Barbara T. Smith; and "Words" (1962) via Allen Ruppersberg. While these homages don’t do much to illuminate the original Kaprow works, they serve other important functions, lending the installation a needed playful streak, engaging visitors’ senses, and riding the line between non-art and art—that borderland central to Kaprow’s practice. Video footage of original happenings and activities plays along the opposite wall while, in another interactive gesture, a row of overhead projectors can be loaded with documentary photo transparencies chosen by visitors. Finally, a long row of glass-topped tables containing Kaprow’s notes, diagrams, letters, sketches, scores for happenings, and other ephemera runs down the gallery. It forms the installation’s real artery. Kaprow was a gifted writer, and writing played a crucial role in his practice even beyond his influential theoretical essays. Many of his scores—particularly those for more elaborate happenings of the 1960s and early ’70s such as "Sweeping" (1962), "Service for the Dead II" (1962), "Orange" (1964), and "Calling" (1965)—have a literary quality. However, the scores cannot be understood as literature, or even as conceptual artworks. While Kaprow’s lucid descriptions allow a partial realization of his happenings in a reader’s imagination, their critical element is time, coupled with participants’ actions, reactions, and reflections. Reading the scores alone, it’s difficult to appreciate the tonal shifts of Kaprow’s work, from moments of exuberance, to plateaus of boredom, to episodes approaching torture. Melting an ice cube between your forehead and another person’s forehead--to take an example from "Warm-Ups" (1975), an activity from Kaprow’s later, more intimate period--sounds romantic on the page, but in life (I tried it) it’s excruciating and leaves a welt. The happenings also have a musical quality reflecting the influence of John Cage, with whom Kaprow had studied, and which only reveals itself through performance. Hence the need for the other exhibition leg, “Agency for Action,” in which reinventions (not “reenactments,” as Kaprow was careful to stipulate), occur around the city, organized by MOCA and a range of participating institutions. As Rosenthal tells it, Kaprow struggled with the prospect of relinquishing control over his work in this way because it forced him to confront his mortality. Along with this, he must have wrestled with the idea that reinvented happenings might only be watered-down versions of artworks, if they would be artworks in their own right at all, and—since this type of slippage was central to his work—whether that possibility didn’t represent a desirable outcome. “Art as Life” doesn’t resolve any of this. As was Kaprow’s wish, the confusion whipped up by his “art which can’t be art” (as he titled a 1986 essay) remains intact, which if nothing else should ensure its survival. After all, Kaprow’s strongest legacy is found not in an art world that rejects objecthood and its trappings—today’s doesn’t—but in the revision and expansion of the curatorial discipline, which relies on rising to the challenges posed by exhibition-resistant work just as Kaprow’s work depended largely on a resistance to institutionalized art. If the very act of presenting his art as he wished means the museum has been defanged, which in turn has something of the same effect on his work, then that illustrates another of the many paradoxes that were vital to his practice.


Oranges and Sardines: Conversations on Abstract Painting

Hammer Museum | Los Angeles | 11.9.2008–2.8.2009 | ArtUS                                                      

THE IDIOSYNCRATIC TITLE of "Oranges and Sardines," one of Gary Garrels's parting exhibitions as Hammer chief curator, is derived from Frank O'Hara's 1956 poem "Why I Am Not a Painter," in which O'Hara, who counted numerous abstract painters among his friends and was a curator at MoMA from 1960-66, muses on the mysterious black-box nature of the creative process. Inspiration goes in; work comes out; but the result often bears little resemblance to the initial idea. The similarly opaque relationship that can exist between artists and their influences provides "Oranges and Sardines" with its structure. Garrels offered individual galleries to six contemporary abstract painters—Mark Grotjahn, Wade Guyton, Mary Heilmann, Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl, and Christopher Wool—inviting each to install, alongside one or two of their own recent paintings, a handful of works by other artists having some formative influence on their practice. But the O'Hara poem provides a still more appropriate point of entry when you consider its context, the fact that it was penned at a time and place when abstract painting ruled the entire conversation. Where that conversation now stands, having been shushed to a near-whisper in the late 60s and early 70s and later crescendoing back to join the present cacophony, is the subject of Garrels's intelligently unorthodox exhibition. Most museum shows avoid the personal like quicksand. Curatorial predilection can never help entering the picture, but it's played down to the public in favor of arguments for objective worth and academic importance. "Oranges and Sardines" embraces the personal, nodding back to an era when supporting an exhibition with a lot of theoretical scaffolding was largely unnecessary, before the curatorial studies discipline sprouted up in response to unruly, hard-to-categorize art, and when a poet with no official art historical training could rise to the upper ranks of MoMA. It's impossible now to return to that climate, and there are many reasons why we wouldn't want to, but its echo of reprise here makes for a refreshing departure. Garrels chooses his six artists as if engineering a high-stakes dinner party—others could have been invited, but, aside from his partiality to these artists' work and thought processes, he aims for meaningful conversation at the table by stretching the range of generations and approaches. Half, notably, are women. Five live in New York, but three of those spent formative time elsewhere that's strongly reflected in their practice (Heilmann, California; von Heyl, Germany; Sillman, Chicago)—and New York, while not the only hub for abstract painting, remains the largest. At one end of the spectrum you have Sillman, a mid-career die-hard painter who harbors no apparent anxiety about the status or importance of her medium, who exhibits total commitment to color, gesture, and the physical properties of paint, who works with what one imagines as tempestuous intensity, swirling fragments of narrative and crooked body parts into her canvases. At the other you have Wade Guyton, the youngest artist at 36, who's only marginally a painter and then almost by accident; he just happens to work on panels of linen run through an ink-jet printer, and the printouts happen to hang on the wall. Guyton's work is important for the purposes of this exhibition because, rather than deconstruct painting as at first glance it appears to do (and would be doing, if this were the 70s or even the 90s), it moves, if anything, in the opposite direction, as if attempting to reassemble painting from the scrapheap of conceptual art. Educated on a steady diet of post-studio conceptualism, Guyton arrives at painting via a back route, like a thief or just a wanderer. In between, you have Heilmann, a painter who started out as a West Coast ceramicist and sculptor and still dabbles in craft, and who, as a young artist in the late 60s, gleefully put herself through the wringer in New York, provoking anti-painters like Robert Smithson into arguments. Wool, who's migrated from his conceptual, text-based paintings of the 1980s and 90s toward something approaching gestural abstraction; Grotjahn, an LA artist whose images of shifting, wheeling vanishing points shows there's still new ground to be broken in abstraction; and von Heyl, who works in the bold, heated, intellectually rigorous tradition of German abstraction—her "Big Nobodaddy" 2008, wants to grip you with tentacles, and does—round out the list. Governed as they are by personal taste and life events, the contents of the self-curated galleries are eclectic, though Garrels worked with each artist to refine and narrow selections. Painting and drawing dominate, followed by sculpture; there is no purely conceptual work, no film or video, and only one photograph—a quirky, funny Warhol in Guyton's room, "Hammer and Sickle" (c. 1976-77), a still life with hammer, sickle and slice of pizza. In fact, the only painting Guyton includes is a minimal, airy work by Martin Barré, "67-Z-16-86 X 70" (1977), consisting of a few stripes of black spraypaint on white canvas. Sillman's gallery focuses, characteristically, on more painterly affinities: paintings by Howard Hodgkin, Lee Krasner, and Forrest Bess key in to her palette, which tends toward offbeat fleshtones and phosphorescent oranges, pinks, and greens. As in her painting "U.S. of Alice the Goon" (2008), crumpled, broken forms proliferate and shapes seem to tussle—an irregularly cut painting by Juan Mele, "Irregular Frame No. 2" (1946), kicks at its contours like a feisty animal. Her room also contains the most examples of figurative painting, including "Sleeping" (1977), a late work by Philip Guston, the only artist to show up in two different galleries. An earlier painting, "North" (1961-62), occupying a shadow realm between figuration and abstraction, its black forms largely ghosted out with white paint but still projecting a vague anthropomorphism, is chosen by Wool. This double-bill could hardly be more apt, not only because Guston spanned the divide between representation and abstraction, but because he did so when moving from abstract to figurative work was backward, significant and dangerous—whereas now the perceived chasm between the two is all but closed up, and artists routinely shuttle back and forth across it. In overall effect, Grotjahn's gallery is probably the least appealing; with eleven works, it feels crowded, and might have breathed better and felt more cohesive had he cut one of the two Paul Klee paintings and the Clyfford Still. But then, as the only example of hardcore New York school abstraction in the show other than Ad Reinhardt, maybe Still's clunky, crotchety presence is necessary. On the other hand, Grotjahn's room houses some of the exhibition's most sublime individual works: a Josef Albers, "Homage to the Square: Confident" (1954), in puckering hues of orange, blue, and yellow; the Reinhardt, "Red Painting" (1953), a patchwork of silky apple reds; and, pièce de resistance, a Yayoi Kusama net painting, "No. T.W.3." (1961), a dense web of white lines painted over a dark background, giving the appearance of thousands of overlapping snow owl feathers—three paintings that illuminate something about Grotjahn's sensibility for color and texture. Meanwhile, the rooms curated by von Heyl and Heilmann yield a few surprises: we learn that the only work by another artist von Heyl keeps in her studio is a tiny, weird Paul Thek, an anti-monumental painting in shaggy turquoise acrylic containing the grandiose but numbing statement "God Is" (1998). Heilmann serves up a Francis Bacon, "Figure with Two Owls, Study for Velazquez" (1963), a seemingly left-field choice that makes some sense when she reveals that the influence lies in the structure rather than the content of Bacon's images. There's also a Joseph Beuys suit, "Filzanzug (Felt Suit)" (1970), which nobody ever would have associated with her, but which seems meant to point at some darkness in her work that her audience tends to overlook. If "Oranges and Sardines" sets out to explore the question of where abstract painting stands today, it doesn't arrive at a pat answer. With its cyclorama of diverse, viable approaches, it essentially reaffirms what we knew already: abstract painting, like other modes, stands in many places simultaneously, and the distinction between abstract and figurative painting matters far less than it did historically. Wade Guyton may come at abstract painting obliquely, but many other young artists engage it straightforwardly. Painting—representational, abstract, and hybrid—continues to flow from artists right out of school. Still, as a well-worn field, abstract painting benefits from occasional exhibitions like this one that insist on its relevancy. "Oranges and Sardines" is also significant for its curatorial model: such out-of-the-box exhibitions often put art in the service of illustrating a theme, in a manner that rarely enlightens either the theme or the art. As an innovative curatorial endeavor that doesn't compromise the integrity of artworks, delves into the personal without indulging in cheap psychology, treats autobiographies as winding narratives rather than as stories to be neatly packaged, provides rich context around the exhibition in the form of actual conversations (a roundtable and printed interviews), and encourages viewers to look closely in ways that may be unfamiliar, it echoes the aim of good art: to challenge its audience as a matter of mutual respect.


Ryan Gander | Review

Marc Foxx | Los Angeles | 11.18–12.23, 2006 | ArtUS

THERE WAS NO CLEAR POINT OF ENTRY into British artist Ryan Gander’s “Enough to Start Over,” his second solo show in the U.S. and his first in Los Angeles. Encountering it was like coming upon an inscrutable, impassive building whose interior emitted a seductive, maddening hum. Among the objects in the gallery were corkboards pinned with various papers; photographs of same; a passport photograph of Gander’s mother wearing earrings created by artist Jonathon Monk as part of Monk’s 2006 edition "To Tears"; colored tape affixed to the floor in a 1:1 scale rendering of Sherlock Holmes’s fictional living room; and an engraved Tiffany necklace placed in the corner as though discarded. Finally, there was "Cork room for the realization of a twelve-part TV series entitled 'Appendix Appendix' (A work in Progress) (2006)"—a small cork-paneled room in which Gander (who, at age 29, was included in this year’s Tate Triennial) sat busily collaborating with designer/writer Stuart Bailey on a script “firmly intended to be made and screened.” Perhaps 100 sheets of letter-size paper, each filled with text and/or small grayscale images, were tacked to the wall. One showed an imagined dialogue between Milan Kundera, Jane Austen, Günter Grass, Kazuo Ishiguro, and about twenty other writers, each of whom got exactly one line. Another featured a cameo by Nabokov scholar Alfred Appel, Jr. Still others had Gander and Bailey hashing out the production process itself. The “appendix” belonging to the television project is Gander’s book of that title (Artimo, 2003), a work that seems central to his practice and on which he also collaborated with Bailey. A good part of the book is concerned with establishing unexpected links between real-life occurrences, people, and objects—a concept Gander also developed into an ongoing series of performative lectures titled “(Loose) Associations.” The version he performed at Culver City’s Mandrake Bar on November 21 was witty and engaging: in digressive, anti-Sherlockian fashion, he guided his audience on a meandering journey from point A—a discussion of “desire paths” in urban planning—to point B—“trauma lines” meant to direct traffic flow in hospitals—to point Z, a scene from Danny Boyle’s "28 Days Later" (2003) in which Cillian Murphy wanders a deserted London (while just off-screen, Gander pointed out, thousands of real-life drivers are furiously honking). Along the way he connected to everything from invented languages (Elvish and Klingon), the British TV show "Inspector Morse" and its star John Thaw, a historical tidbit concerning British longbows, and a lawsuit artist Gillian Wearing brought against Volkswagen. If there was a central theme to this presentation, it had to do with the question of the separation between performance and reality, an idea that in Gander’s work has broad implications and applications. The distinction between the un-staged and staged can be extrapolated to include the distinction (or lack thereof) between the unconscious and conscious, and also between life and art. The passport photograph of Gander’s mother wearing Monk’s earrings ("Enough to start over," 2006), for instance, can be seen as an effort to toe this line. In Monk’s original work the silver earrings—on their own, just jewelry—are attached to a small black-and-white photo of a boy, piercing his eyes so they read as tears. Gander acquired the piece and then had his mother wear the earrings as earrings while sitting for a pedestrian passport photo, later pinning it to the gallery wall. By snaking back and forth between what’s not considered art and what is, Gander also probes what it means to be an artist: Is it all a matter of knowing if and when to forge connections? Is the ideal artist essentially passive or active? If the secret to making good art lies in calibrating unconscious and conscious minds, what is the optimal balance? Only one thing seems clear: the mystery rests in how, and to what degree, relationships between ideas are constructed. Gander’s work may appear removed, but it’s really driving at the heart of the matter. Only this heart, unlike that of a Sherlock Holmes case, remains elusive.


Gert & Uwe Tobias | Review

Lightbox Gallery | Culver City | 9.9–10.14, 2006 | ArtUS                             

GERT AND UWE TOBIAS'S INSTALLATION at Lightbox, a group of 29 drawings made with a typewriter and collectively titled “C” (a homonym for “sea” and “see,” a cracked oval, part three, the shape of the gallery where it was installed, Culver City, a random letter…), is actually one prong of a larger exhibition that includes the twins’ concurrent installations at UCLA Hammer Museum, where they’re showing woodcuts and sculptures, and Chinatown’s Happy Lion Gallery, where it’s mostly paintings. Sorting their diverse output into three distinct groups separated by hard miles may be a clever approach to exhibiting in Los Angeles, but it also emphasizes the considerable sprawl of their practice. The Tobias brothers, who spent their childhood in Transylvania but now live in Cologne, shuttle as easily between media as they do between whimsy and the morbid. Their constant is a vocabulary of florid patterns and symbols culled from Romanian folklore (vampires, bats, ghouls) combined with a purely geometric language influenced, perhaps, by a more recent bank of Eastern European and Russian imagery: the works of Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, and others. The Tobiases’ typewriter drawings preserve a handmade quality despite the intervention of a machine. Lines of black or red type, blocked into areas outlined by half-erased pencil marks or casually cut and pasted into new configurations, overlap, grow uneven, and fade. Subverting the typewriter’s purpose of creating coherent, legible texts, the brothers use its letters and symbols like halftone dots, building human figures, grinning wraiths, ships, and abstract forms out of 0’s, %’s, Z’s, @’s, X’s, W’s, and parentheses. The drawings suggest a space beyond the grasp of language where symbols are closed unto themselves, where comprehension ends and art and myth take over. Being twins, the Tobiases are presumably well-acquainted with the outer bounds of communication—they create work as if they’re two parts of the same person, co-signing everything they produce, blurring the line between one self and the other, until only they can recognize their individual contributions. In Angela Carter’s short story “The Lady of the House of Love” (1979), a “beautiful queen of the vampires (…) sits all alone in her dark, high house under the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors” as a strapping blond British officer on vacation in the Romanian uplands unwittingly approaches: “When he quixotically decided to travel the rutted cart-tracks by bicycle, he saw all the humor of it: ‘on two wheels in the land of the vampires.’ So laughing, he sets out on his adventure.” The Tobias brothers, too, describe a world in which the mystical and rational undermine one another, where nightmarish visions are swirled with the bright light of midday. Even the most menacing figures in “C,” their bodies made of type, their eyes perfect 0’s, manage to look goofy as well as haunting. These kinds of bizarre juxtaposition—the deadly and silly, the ghostly and geometric, the folksy and modern—make the brothers’ practice seem expansive, fresh, and totally peculiar, even at a time when the macabre has become trendy and T-shirts emblazoned with winged skulls are selling for $11.87 at Wal-Mart. In fashion, lurid imagery may function as an ironic, largely empty anachronism, but for the Tobias brothers it’s part of an intensely personal, cryptic vocabulary firmly tethered to identity and history. Still, having relocated to Germany at the age of twelve, their claim to Transylvanian culture is intriguingly vague. On one hand they’re legitimate heirs to the fascinating lore of their homeland; on the other, separated from it by chronological and physical distance, they’re like tourists themselves, come like many before to mine or mime its mysteries.

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