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September, 2006

Winds of Change: Progressive Artists, 1915-1935 presents a selection of artists who slowly began to incorporate the new ideas of abstraction, cubism and symbolism from Europe and New York into their work.  Favorites such as Jesse Arms Botke, whose stylized gold leaf paintings of birds have a classic richness and depth, and Emil Kosa Jr., who is a true American Regionalist painter with his vibrant, rhythmic landscapes are on display.  Henrietta Shore’s glowing dreamscape is a pleasure to view as is Frank Meyers’ jazzy painting, “The Charleston;” he is a master at crowding together all the hues of the rainbow as the couples swing together on the dance floor. Elanor Colburn brings a geometric monumentality to her genre scene of a mother bathing a child, for she takes the viewer through space in a series of radiating circles starting with the tub and culminating in the mother’s head.

Elanor Colburn (1899-1939), "Bathing Baby"
Also intriguing is the work of Francis Todhunter, who pulls together both symbolism and pointillism in his balanced, jewel-like landscapes.  Phil Paradise’s luminous painting, “The Corral,” embodies the best of the modernist influence, as his streamlined horses shimmer in a brilliant California light (Irvine Museum, Orange County).

Ray Jacob, "Get off the Porch, We Need
Wood," 2003, lead/mixed media, 20 x 16".
Looking at this thirty-six-year retrospective, the multi-faceted Ray Jacob is clearly an artist who is enamored of words.  Even his expressive line drawings might strike one as words that took a rogue turn.  Jacob’s signature works are embossed lead sheets mounted on wood.  They display his gift for creating a verbal theater of the absurd.  An admonition not to judge the homeless as un-Christian (“Page 678, Holy/Homestead,” 1995), and his questioning of repentance as moral panacea (“Why Repent,” 1994) are brief and conscience provoking without being preachy.  Among the latest text pieces, typical is a spoof of today’s real estate advertisements that taunts “Hey Loser,” then segues into a sales spiel for a canyon cottage with one bath boasting such amenities as a garden hose shower for a mere three-quarter million bucks.  His muses are eclectic, to say the least.    
Jacob has made it his mission to put a mirror to the absurdities and contradictions of life as he sees them.  He sews up a soft quilt only to cover it in plaster, turns event admission tickets into bracelets and vessels, and has seven stuffed toy rats following their leader up the wall to be the first to reach a row of traps.  In Gallery II, Ellen Rose’s series of circus performers (“Performers”) and dogs (“Dogma”) are compelling paintings that display superior observation and narration skills (Irvine Fine Arts Center, Orange County).

“On Tenderhooks” is the title of Joan Tanner’s impressive room-sized installation, and it refers to a frame that stretches cloth by means of hooks.  It also refers to dramatic tension or suspense, a quality that Tanner certainly delivers. This veteran Santa Barbara-based artist (born in 1935) is less well known than she should be in Los Angeles.  For this installation Tanner culls together materials that are usually thought of as waste or trash, and she has assembled them into what may alternatively be regarded as a single huge room-sized sculpture, or a closely related group of discrete works.  

Joan Tanner, "On Tenderhooks," installation view, 2006.
While several stairway-like elements in the installation are carefully fabricated out of plywood, most parts seem more spontaneously conceived.  Corrugated plastic, crumpled paper, and expanses of metal create intricate designs and surprising relationships.  One needs to pay attention so as to not miss hidden treasures.  For example, beneath layers of plastic, video images emerge.  In Tanner’s installation nothing is as direct or straightforward as it may first appear (Otis College, Ben Maltz Gallery, West Side).

Eva Hesse, no title, 1965, collage with black ink, watercolor,
gouache, pencil, crayon, and ballpoint pen, 19 1/4 in. x 25 1/4".
Three-dimensional sculpture by Eva Hesse debuted in a happening organized by Alan Kaprow and Walter De Maria in1962, the same year that the multi-disciplinary artist had her first solo show of drawings in New York.  This exhibition of 150 works on paper supports the claim that Hesse was a proficient draughtsman, capable of infusing geometric abstraction with organic subtleties and enlivening collage with gesture, tying it to the working process that surfaced in her sculpture.  Of particular interest are a handful of sculptures with accompanying drawings documenting changes made as various works evolved.  But it’s the notebook and diary jottings that lay bare her process and the motivations and incentives that propelled Hesse through the challenges of her all too brief career: “don’t pressure self about this – it will come when life styles open up” (The Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown).

John Baldessari’s “Maquettes, 1987-1994” are drawings/collages that serve as the preliminary layouts for the finished photographic work.  Made on graph paper with black and white xeroxed images and colored pencil, these seemingly spontaneous works are actually the backbone for Baldessari’s ouevre.  Where the final photographs are polished and seamless, the maquettes illustrate ideas and gestures in a direct and revealing way.  The xeroxed images are often taped to the graph paper, indicating an approximation rather than an exact placement.  Baldessari often gives these maquettes to the photolab as schematics or maps to indicate the size, color and position of the final photographic images.  The casualness of the maquettes are what makes them so appealing.  They function like drawings and are indeed sketches--a mode of working that is less precious to the artist, yet often more meaningful to the viewer (1301PE, West Hollywood).

John Baldessari, "Untitled (Maquette)," 1989,
black and white xerox, graph paper,
colored pencil, tape, 19 4/5 x 17".

James Leonard, "Floral Movement,"
acrylic on canvas, 48 x 68".
James Leonard’s paintings embody the dissonance and harmony, and unconventional juxtapositions of contemporary classical music.  They are visually distinguished by mostly unconventional combinations of heavily impastoed beiges and purples, reds and blues apparently straight from the tube.  The few works that suggest a quest for conventional visual harmony (studies in beige) are the most forgettable ones.  If much nouveau-abstract painting has entered the realm of decorative art, there is no danger of that here.  Leonard leaves viewers plenty of room to construct their own narratives around shapes and colors.  Purple reigns, and blues are really the blues.  There is no way you will be indifferent; one either loves or hates them.  As Eldridge Cleaver once said under different circumstances, “you’re either on the bus or off the bus” (Marion Meyer Gallery, Orange County).

Alex Donis’ "Pas de Deux" pairings, an ongoing series of soldiers of opposing armies frozen in classical ballet poses, investigate macho culture and man to man contact through this ironic and insightful vehicle.  These works are popular and accessible, and have thus been sampled liberally in numerous group shows.  They are equally incendiary in some circles, and were physically attacked in one exhibition at Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco, and banned from another exhibition at Watts Towers in which Donis paired L.A. Police with gang bangers.  The image of a Marine in a helmet decorated with camouflage fluff lifting up over his knee a graceful enemy insurgent is forcefully painted, hilarious, and hard to resist as an image.  However, when will Donis use his wit and painting skill to investigate other metaphors?  Or more to the point, as the government spends billions not on easing explosive inner city tensions but to in effect sink the entire Middle East into bloody mayhem, does the humor and irony at the core of these balletic and swooning dancers devolve into lightweight escapism?  We may be there now (Sherry Frumkin Gallery, Santa Monica).

Alex Donis

Three sections of  “Eliot Porter: In the Realm of Nature” are his  progression from black and white prints to color—he was among the first fine art photographers to embrace this transition--and his extensive photographs of birds.  Over 75 photographs from the 1930s to the 1980s were taken in wilderness areas in the United States, Mexico and Iceland.  Throughout the years, Porter’s  belief in the preservation of wilderness areas remained constant.  Highlights are color photographs of the magnificent gulches, rock walls and canyons of Glen Canyon, Utah.  Formed originally from the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, the canyon was lost to a reclamation project.  The ecological aesthetics of Eliot’s photographs will also intensify your felt desire for environmental preservation, assuming you have any such desire (The Getty Center, West Los Angeles).

They were strange partners: Peter Paul Rubens, the maker of plump and pink bodies, and Jan Brueghel the Elder, known for his carnivalesque sense of the macabre.  But, as Rubens and Brueghel:  A Working Friendship makes clear, the two 17th century masters did collaborate on over twenty paintings (one wonders what those planning meetings were like!), and the results are rewarding. Rubens' robust fleshy women are placed in scenes where a proliferation of frenetic detail surrounds them.  One painting is a classic example: a view of Venus (Rubens) distracting her lover Mars from his preoccupation with all manner of scary war toys (Brueghel) in Vulcan's shop.  Often neither artist seems completely at his best as they wrestle to combine styles, but the partnership, given its social context of Europe torn by religious wars, and the curiosity of the works dual signatures, is mutually revealing (The Getty Center, West Los Angeles).