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November, 2006

Who in this city does not know Robbie Conal? Classically trained as a painter in Italy, master self promoter, and truly heartfelt social activist he has, to his credit, never stopped being appalled at the hypocrisy of public figures and the shockingly violent spectacle of U.S. foreign policy. We know him for his impastoed portraits of (in)famous faces. There are the telling and witty couplets such as “Profit/Prophet” stenciled beneath the pathetic faces of indicted evangelicals. The sheer shock of Nancy Reagan’s manicured and melting mug just stays with you. And we know him perhaps best because his agit prop actions turned these paintings into posters that got plastered by night on so many street sites that Conal needed a PR firm to keep up with the sound bites. Well, happily (but not for everyone) he is back. He is no less sincere in his outrage, he is no less incisive in his commentary, and no less a virtuoso painter who can use pigment like a master to say the funniest things.

Robbie Conal, "Fireballer,"
2006, mixed media, 44 x 36".
Here he turns his gaze to portraits of corrupt politicians (who look like Day of the Dead Posada skeletons), and also to fallen, steroid abetted baseball heroes. A genuine baseball fan, Conal sees the game as the perfect metaphor for the ethos of “win at all costs and take no prisoners in so doing” (Track 16 Gallery, Santa Monica).

Llyn Foulkes, “The Lost Frontier,” mixed media, 87 x 96”,
is currently on view at Patricia Faure Gallery.

Llyn Foulkes will forever be associated with the iconoclast assemblagists that gathered around Ferus over 40 years back. He still lives to shock and remains an artist who can bring the most mundane things to bear to produce exceptional art. We know he is a rule breaker, that he likes melting faces and exploding heads and that he makes the body morph in the weird liquidy, oddly erotic way that compares favorably with Francis Bacon. Well, you will not be disappointed by these two shows; the strong surrealist flare is fully engaged. The materials Foulkes uses here are much more subtle and painterly than other junk sculptors of his generation: sand, sawdust, pebbles, wood shavings are used are used like pigments to produce grotesquely funny, oddly astute images. “The Lost Frontier,” a large scale painted bas relief, is the sole work on view at Patricia Faure.
Compellingly rich in detail, the image combines its frenetic commitment with a characteristic sense of futility that may be read as both personal and metaphorical. It is classic Foulkes. In a morphed view of Foulkes as Dali (or Dali as Foulkes), “Dali and Me,” a dandy yet horrific head sports slicked back hair, the mouth agape like Hell’s portal with a few carnivorous teeth. This all sits in a half fossil face out of which sprouts a goofy waxed moustache. Hideous, silly, cool and masterful are words that describe this work, and it’s a good gauge of everything else on view (Craig Krull Gallery; Patricia Faure Gallery, Santa Monica).

Zoos and natural history museums transport visitors into exotic environments, taking great pains to erase any evidence of the ploys used to construct and support their fabrications. Dustin Shuler pulls back the curtain to expose all of the mechanizations he manufactured and manipulated over a period of 15 years to sustain his remarkable living environment: a rainforest in a shower unit. Birds, fish and reptiles populate this tropical haven, responding to cycles of light and humidity as viewers contemplate the fragility of the natural environment and the effort required to maintain living systems in inhospitable sites—such as an urban art gallery (LACE, Hollywood).

Dustin Schuler, "The Rain Forest" (detail).

Aaron Kramer, “Black Hole”, 2005, street
sweeper bristles, steel, 16" x 16'' x 22"
In a cross-country bicycle trek across the U.S., artist Aaron Kramer began to see the formal and symbolic afterlife of materials discarded: bristles from street sweepers; shards of wood from tossed out salad bowls, and coffee stirrers. He collected these and uses them to make quite lyrical vessels, gourds and spheres--all shapes and objects with long and lofty mystical or ritual connotations. The marks and surface designs that are usually effected in ceramics by fired finishes or painted glaze are little 3-D “flecks” of tossed out bric-a-brac all gathered and recycled. The clash of opposing expectations--precious vessels and orbs fashioned so carefully out of what you soon realize is trash--makes for a most intriguing experience (Bandini Art, Culver City).

Wire, cardboard, old plastic cups, foam core, styrofoam and every other manner of junk he finds go into the works of Tom Friedman. This is not your standard Dada recycling--he’s not interested in the artlessness of these materials, but in how they show the alchemical transformation of matter from, say, atoms to toxic white stuff we drink coffee in, or from disordered lattice to useful object, and back to disintegrating trash again. At his core Friedman is more of a scientist who looks at everything around him for its structure, to see how it is made and can be remade into a newly ordered system. To show that the entire universe is this play between system and chaos, he has even taken his bodily fluids (feces is the epitome of entropy) and transformed them into objects that reference minimalist precision. So, yes he is a thinker and someone whose tongue is pressed firmly to his cheek in the manner of Duchamp and Fluxus. In one work the disorder-to-order cycle is applied to an exploding image of the artist’s once intact body made from collaged, expanding paper bits; another is a wry, unruly, all over the place collage of Art Forum (the reigning “art order”) headlines (Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills).

Tom Friedman, "greenyarnalien," 2006
yarn, styrofoam and paint, 153 x 24 x 15".

Pasha Rafat, "Untitled (20.1 Ne, 10)," 2006
(Photographed in Ambient Daylight), 2" neon
tubings, two panels, each 2' 10" x 4' 8".
The sole quality Las Vegas resident Pasha Rafat has lifted from the gaudy, attention-grabbing neon that electrifies his home town 24/7 is it’s ability to mesmerize. The Iranian born artist chooses to manipulate the properties of argon, helium, krypton, or neon in slender glass tubes, nudging them along the chromatic scale towards the sublime, drawing lines with delicately glowing gases. Many of his recent minimalist geometric orchestrations are effectively framed within bands of steel. But the orange glow coursing through ribbons of two inch wide glass tubing in “Untitled (920.1Ne,10)” floats freely over adjacent walls in a corner of the gallery, challenging the architecture to keep it within bounds (Ace Beverly Hills, Beverly Hills).

Rirkrit Tiravanija is not a conventional artist. His past exhibitions have included the serving of meals--specifically Thai food--and investigating social and political interactions. But for this Rirkrit presents 100 protest drawings. These modest sized pencil on paper works are presented salon style on two adjacent gallery walls. They are newspaper images depicting a wide range of protests and demonstrations. Rather than draw the images himself, Rirkrit commissioned other artists (mostly former students in Thailand) to redraw images from the International Herald Tribune.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, "Untitled (demonstration no.
128)," 2006, graphite on paper, 7 /34 x 10 3/4".
The finished work becomes a collection, and is finally a conceptual art project. Although the drawings are intriguing for what they depict, the method of their creation--selection and translation--is what Rirkrit’s practice is all about (1301PE, West Hollywood).

Ron English, "Guernica Trilogy", oil on canvas, 88 x 74" each.

A kind of cinematic realism that looks so exaggerated that it lies between movie poster and highest tech digital figuration is the style that Ron English employs to make a variety of open ended commentaries. The means lures you in, and the message mixes up into an often overloaded soup of messages about gender, spectatorship, media, commodity--and the seduction of high value light and well pushed paint. Either spoofing or extending the ethos and inquiries raised by “Broke- back Mountain”--i.e. what exactly is manhood?--the work called “Marlboro Boy” presents a wide-eyed, juicy little chap in an oversized rodeo hat out of whose pursed, plump (and slightly lip-sticked) mouth dangles a cigarette. This is either too obviously Freudian or funny; you are left to sort out which and to decide if the sorting is worth the trouble (Berman/Turner Projects, Santa Monica).

There was a show at LACMA not long ago that dealt with kinesthesia in art--visual forms that produce aural, tactile and other cross modal responses. Typically, as that show made clear, this type of art is abstract and traces itself back to Kandinsky and modern art. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing, because our “been there/done that” reaction can stop further engagement. In its ability to create a cross modal experience that is not stale, that is able to move from the visual to other senses, the very long 124-inch scroll of abstract marks made by Judith Lindenberg stands out.

Judith Lindenberg, "Improvisation" (detail), 2006, mixed media, 21 X 180".
Smaller sheets of painted marks are spliced together into a gallery-length horizontal band that reads like a huge musical score: opening softly, building a theme, and raising to a crescendo. Like densely packed notes moving briskly on a staff, the colored, alternatively drippy, chalky, tendrilly “tones,” though purely abstract, enter the senses directly and communicate in ways that language and literal narrative can’t (TAG, Santa Monica).

The Getty has expanded its photo galleries with the removal of classical objects back to Malibu. The result is sumptuous spaces, more room--and a debut show called “Public Faces/Private Spaces” that is quite fine. Four photographers continue the lineage of Robert Frank, all four chronicling (each with a slightly different approach) the faces of Americans and the culture of America between the 1960s and the ‘80s. Donald Blumberg, Anthony Hernandez, Mary Ellen Mark and Bill Owens share the newly expanded wall spaces. The two who stand out are Blumberg and Owens. Blumberg captures unsuspecting New Yorkers--the good, the bad and the ugly--as they pour out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, tilting or slightly moving the shooting angle to make the formal effects fight with the idea of piety. Owens on the other hand did not engage strangers, but has chronicled his family and friends for some ten years, shooting photos and asking subjects to write their thoughts on cards. The themes that recurred and the photos that chronicled certain grand narratives became titles for series (and books) such as “I Do It For the Money” or the recent and gorgeous “Leisure.” Whether on the fly or carefully planned, all four photographers capture a view of Americans working and relaxing, quirky and exuberant, boorish and lovable (The Getty Center, West Los Angeles).

Cartoon by Barry Blitt, published May 23, 2005. From
the cover of the exhibition's companion publication
“On the Couch” is a funny and telling selection of 50 cartoons from the fabled New Yorker magazine dealing with our preoccupation with self and psychoanalysis. It celebrates the 150th year of Sigmund Freud’s birth. Though many of Freud’s theories have been revamped, our reference to him and his impact on our popular consciousness, from relations with our mother to a love of bananas, is satirized in these wonderfully clever cartoons. Indeed, they are penned by some of the most famous cartoonists of our times: William Steig, JC Duffy and others. To have a cartoon in the New Yorker is, for a cartoonist, tantamount to having your work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. True to that analogy, both the wit and the drawing is expert. And in a world that needs it, you will laugh and laugh. For example, an intense Dr. Freud trying to multitask is shown driving intently with an angst filled urbanite talking away while prone in the back seat of the car (Skirball Cultural Center, West Los Angeles).

Egon Schiele, "Girl," 1918.

The long history of art is built on the nude female, while the short history of feminism is built on a reaction. However you cut it, we are interested in the female unclothed form for a variety of reasons. “Nude” includes some museum quality works from the mainstays of the genre--and their takes on it run from the sappy lyrical to the hard core. Two artists stand out: in this long history of showing skin, Egon Schiele occupies a unique place. First his spidery, tormented line is one of the most eccentric and original signatures in art; second, he rightfully raises responses of pedophilia and perversion with porno poses by little pre-teen girls. Schiele was among the first of the early 20th century artists to forcefully confront an issue we are yet and will certainly continue to contend with: the freighted nature of our sexuality and the barrier between public and private desire (enter the scandal du jour, now former Congressman Mark Foley). Schiele’s images are of young and squatting girls oddly covered above the waist and exposed below. The subjects are gorgeous, and disturbing in the extreme. The other show stopper that reverses in the funniest way the objectification of women so typical of nudes is Jerome Witkns’ paintings of a rail-thin, naked model sprawled in the detritus of a studio. She looks impatiently at her “pure business” watch, while the painter sits (we only see his arms) and clearly wants to talk to her of love or aesthetics. A great show if taken in with serious gender implications of such art (Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, West Hollywood).

California Impressionism is always popular because it has that visually tasty mix of loose Monet-type technique and purple hills that appear to be seen through a haze of light and air. California Majestic includes acute, sun drenched oils of sites in Orange County when they were pristine and unimaginably open wilderness (now filled with freeways and malls). The idea that strip malls we see from the 405 Freeway could have ever looked like this stretches the imagination in and of itself, but the art holds our interest on it own merits. An especially finely crafted oil done in 1923 by William Wendt presents Mission Viejo as an unspoiled pioneer paradise (Irvine Museum, Orange County).

Edgar Payne (1883-1974), "Rugged
Peaks", oil on canvas, 18x24".

Clayton Campbell, untitled image
from "Paradise" from "The
Divine Comedy", photograph.
Of a current three-exhibit offering, it is Clayton Campbell’s solo show of photos that stands out. He draws on the themes of Dante’s poem “Inferno” for a series of photographs that begin like the 13th century work in hell, symbolized here by images of a recent “erotica” convention where every type of pleasured obsession is captured almost as camp parody. He then cleverly handles “purgatory” with a section of intentionally flat footed self-portraits, to emphasize that this banal world of the everyday self sits tauntingly caught between the lure of wickedness and the illusion of the divine. Finally, Campbell moves us to views of the faux classicism in Forest Lawn gardens, alluding with intelligence to the complete kitsch fantasy that attends most of our ideas of perfection and paradise. As a very inventive way of addressing notions of good and evil, mortality and subjects that are ever relevant but way over mined, these 45 photos divided into three narrative groups are a pleasant surprise (Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, Hollywood).

Lewis Baltz is best known as a photographer associated with the New Topographics--a style of photography begun in the 1970’s that depicted the landscape as a barren industrial wasteland. His black and white photographs are objective documents that present the changes in the natural landscape. The images on view are from three portfolios: “Nevada,” “San Quentin Point,” and “Near Reno.” All capture the crisp desert light and accumulated debris that confounds the notion of pristine wilderness. From a formal standpoint, the images are simultaneously beautiful and haunting.

Lewis Baltz, "Near Reno, element No. 6," 1986, gelatin silver print, 10 x 8".

Baltz directs our attention to the details of the ground and buildings. The landscapes’ vast vistas cannot be ignored, but Baltz transforms them from colorful tourist pitch to harsh black and white realism (Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica).

Aurnout Mik, "Refraction," 2005, DVD; 3 projected images
creating a single 4:1 ratio, panoramic image; video still.

Aurnout Mik staged a catastrophe in the Romanian countryside, where an overturned bus has drawn the people in the town to congregate at the intersection to survey the damage and to help the victims. A 30 minute film loop is presented across three screens and zooms around the action. Footage focuses on details as well as reactions. The silent work is engrossing for what it leaves out as well as for what it depicts. Given the appearance of such a violent accident, it is striking that there is no blood, nor crying, nor even bodies to be seen. Mik staged the event and choreographed its filming to focus on the surroundings. A flock of sheep wander into the scene as if it was an everyday occurrence. That the film is not violent in any way makes it easier to watch.
But it is a chilling and engrossing depiction made more memorable because it manages to allude to without depicting its victims. Christine Nguyen fills the museum entry’s large wall with a photographic collage, the first photo project to be displayed in this space. This fantastical work, entitled “Migration over the Woods and its Strange Powers,” fuses drawing and photography to create an undersea fantasy world. The work is made from individual pieces of paper that are presented as a large grid on the gallery wall. These pieces coalesce into an enchanting and coherent image (Hammer Museum, West Los Angeles).

Timothy Nolan, "Untitled (detail)," 2004,
oil stick on mylar, 99" x 72".

Connie Zehr, "Incidents, Black Mound" 2000, Nova
encad inkjet print mounted on aluminum, 24" x 24"

That Joni Gordon has been exhibiting artists’ work for over 30 years is a feat in itself, and the fact that she has decided to no longer host monthly exhibitions is a loss to the Los Angeles community. To celebrate her achievement she has organized ”Joni Gordon: 33 Years at Newspace”, impressively tracing the gallery’s history by presenting works from the numerous artists she has shown over the years. Works made between 1973 and 2006 are on view by artists including Mike Kelly, Judy Fiskin, Lisa Adams, Chris Burden as well as Newspace regulars like Connie Zehr, Timothy Nolan and Martha Alf (Newspace Gallery, Hollywood).