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April, 2007

Life implies movement and change.  Robert Wilson has enlivened the traditional art of portraiture, moving beyond paint and canvas, and into the realm of High Definition (HD) video to capture nearly fifty subjects as they live and breathe.  In these “Voom Portraits” Wilson applies skills honed in the theater--lighting, musical accompaniment, scripting, costuming and make-up--to dramatize his  subjects, which range from film and theater celebrities, princesses and auto mechanics, to a black panther and a chorus of horned frogs.  The range of motion is equally diverse.  Robert Downey Jr. is stone cold dead.  Johnny  Depp and Jeanne Moreau barely blink an eye.  Brad Pitt squirts a water pistol.  A shaggy dog, whose owner commissioned his close-up, pants (Ace Gallery Los Angeles, West Hollywood).

Robert Wilson, "Macauley Culkin," 2006, 65" plasma screen,
custom speadkers, HD media player, 5'5" (h) x 3' (w) x 4" (d).

This show recounts via documentation a 2004 conceptual art project by West Hollywood based architect and author Martin Gantman.  Gantman's past suites have included a series of manipulated conceptual photographs of art historical odalisques, each bearing the head of their male creators--thus reversing the 3,000-year direction of the male gaze.  The project recounted here involved the gradual release some years ago of hundreds of eerie yellow-hued balloons that bore a kite-like tail with an envelope holding a card.  One side recounted the activities of what one assumes was a fictitious but ominous sounding surveillance corporation--Atmospheric Resources Tracking, Incorporated.  On the other side of the card the finder of the balloon could recount the who, what, when, and where of the balloons recovery.  You might see in it a commentary on our super militarized, red alert culture.  Or you could view it as a send-up (pun intended) of our assaulted rights to privacy.  It is a performance piece transgressive enough to conceivably get Gantman in a legal lurch.  In reversing the authorship role to the public, the 2004 event chronicled here was sheer genius.  

Martin Gantman, "Black Sky" from Atmospheric
Resources Tracking, Incorporated project, 2004.
It may not hold up quite so well in  the static retelling, but to see artifacts, quite handsome photos of sky-bourn UFOs mounted with alarmed news stories and the responses of viewer/finders, is simply very cool (Seyhoun Gallery, West Hollywood).

Giacomo Manzú, "Pittore con Modella,"
1982, bronze, 23 1/5 x 25 x 13 1/2".
Born in 1908, the late Italian artist Giacomo Manzú was was trained from youth in Renaissance art.  He moved in his career from loose expressive nudes in his youth to almost a decade of investigating colorful chevrons and a variety of hard edged shapes along the lines (pun intended) of Frank Stella.  Remarkably versatile, Manzu was commissioned to make utterly classical relief doors for the Papacy, and was known just as well for Bacon-esque eerie abstractions of pompously austere clerical figures that might give the spiritually conservative serious pause. The entire range of this energetic artist is on view, from works on paper to paintings on canvas, from graphics to bronze sculptures in the round featuring, for example, the head of a lovely adolescent Medusa with snake-tails framing a fragile face; or cast chairs cluttered with finely modeled bric a brac.  Much of what you will see is high quality work culled from holdings in the Manzu trust. Be ready to be charmed and intrigued, taken back to old and venerated art processes, as well as put to shame when you encounter the sheer volume Manzu produced well into his 8th decade. (Tasende Gallery, West Hollywood).

Why not repeat a good thing if it works?  George Nama previously collaborated with Alfred Brendel, the world-famous concert pianist who also is the author of celebrated poetry, like the suite called “Thirteen Angels”--to which Nama responded with abstract works in 2004.  A current show of works by this New York artist include sculptures, gouaches, and etchings inspired by the poetry of his friends and collaborators--all men of letters--Yves Bonnefoy, again Alfred Brendel, and Charles Simic.  Both poetry and the visual works by Nama serve as the basis of this collaborative exhibition.  Nama possesses a unique style that captures fraught, complex emotional concepts like imbalance (an “Untitled” bronze legged form poised on a table-like platform for example), evil or innocence.  This is done with the sparest of abstract shapes, somewhat in the vein of Jean Arp, which is to say with evocative but never literal accretions of suggestive organic form.  "Angles" become stacked and weightless shapes ascending upward; our baser instincts take the form of thick horned shapes attached to no objects in particular.  It feels quite clear that both Nama and the poetry that inspires him are deeply rooted in a Classical Western canon (Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, West Hollywood).

George Nama, “Untitled”, 2005.
bronze 12 x 5 1/2 x 7 1/2

Scott Grieger, "Impersonations: Robert Rauschenberg,"
1971, colorspan pigment print on canvas, 24 x 37".
It is a hoot to see Scott Grieger appearing as the subject of his early concept photographs, in which he used his body as media.  What a blast from the past to see Grieger looking fully like a "summer of love" hippie with wavy hair to his shoulders and full beard.  He could pass for Charles Manson were it not for that impish, irreverent near smile and that boyish glint in his eye. The man and the work are funny, inviting and cuttingly wry. This retrospective features prominently the "Impersonation" series made between 1973 and 1986, in which Grieger--surely responding to a spate of non traditional, bodily formats in Gutai, Fluxus and Happenings--costumes himself in the silliest of signifiers to denote, spoof, commemorate (you figure out which) art historically "important" works and artists:  
A hairy Grieger is on all fours with a tire around his mid section aping Rauschenberg's famous goat; Grieger in grungy garb perches like a living sculpture on a plexi wall bound pedestal wearing a Barnett Newman "Zip" taped dead center on his t shirt.  The show includes works up to the present, and these indicate that Grieger has remains an iconoclast, and has tried his hand at many things.  There remains a transgressive counter-culture lad lurking in every piece on view (Patricia Faure Gallery, Santa Monica).

Michelle Rogers knows what it means to be in a country under siege with a citizenry forced to wonder about the meaning of "nation."  She grew up in Ireland during its civil strife and bouts with terror.  Though fiercely loyal to her roots, she watched as the mayhem undermined feelings of patriotism.  She sees the same pattern in most Americans, who rallied under the banner of unity just after 9/11, but now watch in horror and inner conflict as civil liberties are curbed, torture is sanctioned as collateral damage, and trust extended to elected officials is broken.  In response to it all, Rogers makes large, thickly painted, loosely realistic canvases of scenes that intone this fractured state in which we find ourselves:

Michelle Rogers, painting
A women in fatigues regards what appears to be a feral canine; a crowd regards a coffin draped in the US flag.  Some of the sentiments are so direct they leave nothing to the imagination and turn saccharine; more often, the show raises tough questions in emotionally and visually charged ways (Track 16 Gallery, Santa Monica).

Laura Karetzky paints from her Brooklyn studio where she allows views from the window, as well as details of the interior space to inform her compositions.  Usually a young girl is seen posing by the window, holding a stuffed animal or dancing on the radiator.  The works are painted with tact and skill, as they explore the expressions of the sitter, as well as the light that fills the studio.  The somber palette reflects the mood of the day, and the girls’ contemplative expressions infiltrate the works, and are crucial to their complexity.  As Karetzky has remarked, “The work is about relationships.  It examines how roles flip from dominant to submissive.  It is about push and pull, polar opposites, contrasting emotions.  It speaks about vulnerability, trust, guilt and betrayal” (Hunsaker/Schlesinger Fine Art, Santa Monica).

Laura Karetzky, "Surrogate Monkey,"
2007, oil on linen, 66 x 50".

Yuriko Yamaguchi, "Bubble Head," 2006,
resin and mixed media, 25 x 17 x 15".

Darlene Campbell, "A Star Within Reach,"
2006, oil on panel with gold leaf, 6 x 6".

Although Yuriko Yamaguchi’s “Web/Seeds and Bones,” and Darlene Campbell’s “Portraits of California” come from different vantage points, they both highlight the uneasy interdependence between nature and technology.  In “Web Floating World”  Yamaguchi floats a delicate, labyrinthine web of copper wire, interweaving cast seed pods  with the glitter of gem-like computer chips.  This references communication and the difference between organic and synthetic growth.  More imposing  is “Bone/Message.”  Cast resin tree branches smoothed into bone-like shapes, they carry email and text messages.  Suspended into a rhythmic tapestry, the combination of techological and organic reference body identification and traditional craft with modern means of communication.  Campbell’s small, iconic paintings chronicle the sinister effects of modern development on the pristine landscape, particularly the unseemly detritus of construction sites.  Incongruously, her paintings evince a golden Renaissance luminosity that belies their content.  Her use of wood panels, gold leaf and arched forms bestow an ironic patina of reverence on land that has been raped by machinery.  “Conga Line,” for instance, depicts a row of giant earth moving machines that feel ominous in their implications.  They forecast that the natural beauty of the land is to be transformed by the hackneyed conformity of  tract housing.  At question for of both these artists is how changes in the physical world create a shift in values that affects the realm of the mind (Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Culver City).

Gina Magid, "Jaguara, 2007. oil
and charcoal on satin, 36 x 36".

Ginna Triplett, "Pirate Tattoo, 2007, paper,
flashe and carbon on canvas, 29 x 39".

Another among the current crop of shows featuring female artists is filled with good art, but predicated on a logically flawed starting point: contemporary women creators who are inspired by a white man of letters, and a misogynist at that.  Works by these five artists are ostensibly based on the rough chapter headings of Charles Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal."  It sounds like some dreadful paternalistic homework assignment, but the works prove compelling.  "Death" is handled by Gina Magid, who uses sensuous fabrics, or painting on slabs of wood that include images of wildlife as symbols of man vs. nature--the Romantic noble savage theme. The work is fine enough, the tie to Baudelaire, silly.  Under "Spleen and Ideal," Ieva Mediodia offers up images with a retro/futuristic feel, calling forth among other things links between technology and violence.  German artist Anke Weyer makes overwrought expressionistic paintings that really do mix the sublime and the apocalyptic.  Debora Warner creates multi-media sculptures invoking roses.  They celebrate those odd and voiceless things like flowers that hold our memory and desire.  Her large black minimal bud taps the idea of obsession, but Baudelaire did not invent passion nor  urgency.  Very much versed in the Baudelaire-ian legacy of woman as object-muse, Ginna Triplett makes lush paintings tapping sources like Playboy, Victoria's Secret, and Disney.  Her themes include standards of femininity coined in media representations and clichés of innocence, maternity and sexuality these inculcate.  If anything, Triplett's take is the opposite of an homage to the kinky, brooding poet, and the closest to an interesting interrogation of the masculinist legacy Baudelaire most certainly helped to build (Mary Goldman Gallery, Downtown).

Perhaps due to the absence of any human traces the lush color photographs by Catharine Stebbins seem somehow haunted.  Without the reference to humanity, these intense images exist in a timeless place where weeds or grass or twigs or a ripple on water are the most significant things going.  Addressing the overlooked within the immensity of the L.A. experience is not a new topic, but these 40" x 40" shallow focus images (referred to by Stebbins as eco-tableau vivant and organic mise en scene) find their own elegant perspective (drkrm., Northeast Los Angeles).

Catharine Stebbins, "wash #1,"
2007digital C-print, 40”x40”

Bill Jacobson, "New Year's Day #4580,"
2002, chromogenic print, 60 x 50".
Like conceptual photographer Jeff Wall, New York artist Bill Jacobson uses the camera to question the limits of reality, to query the idea of the "authentic record" and its relation to representation, history, memory and desire.  He shows large images, done between 2000 and 2003, of an urban landscape where city folk, fuzzy as evaporating specters, mingle and move.  Usually this type of work favors crystal clear photo formats designed to convey absolute mechanical truth, while they are in fact constructed and simulated.  Jacobson uses a very different visual tack: his images are hazy, utterly out of focus scenes that look like the vision of someone with acute myopia.  Our long term associations linking soft focus, blurred camera work with nostalgia, pictorialism and expressionism can distract from the artist's more philosophical aims.  These sultry views of the city evaporating remind us that whatever technical record the artist employs, there will always be an active subjectivity behind the creative process (M + B Fine Art, West Hollywood).

Imagine wide ribbons made of porcelain thin clay, colored taupe, black, blue and even pinkish, whose walls are so thin you wonder how on earth the objects were hand-fashioned in the first place, and how they could have possibly held up through a kiln firing for durability.  Dutch artist Wouter Dam seems to take sections from cylinders--transverse sections, cross sections-- and then commit these bands of color to these not quite minimalist table top curios, really.  The flat, fragile looking almost fluttering rectangles evoke something that is part obdurate silica and part fabric caught in wind--the pink one is a banner; the blue one a geometric sail billowing, the charred one recalls bands of a tire blown out on the freeway.  Their strange visual and emotive locale between poetry and austerity, between centrifugal and centripetal forces is their distinct draw.  Easy comparisons to the architectural forms of Frank Gehry or Richard Serra are overblown.  These are luxuriant objects that at once appear equally ready to fly and to sit solidly in place (Frank Lloyd Gallery, Santa Monica).

Wouter Dam, "Yellow Sclpture No.
35," 2006, stoneware, 9 x 13 x 12".

Colin Campbell Cooper, "The Wall Street Ferry Slip (The
Ferries, New York)," 1907, oil on canvas, 34 x 50".
American Impressionist Colin Campbell Cooper (1856-1937) has not received the accolades he deserves.  Largely cityscapes and landscapes, these masterful works encompass all that is magical about the painting process.  The title of the show, “East Coast / West Coast and Beyond,” refers to phases in Cooper’s life.  Imagery of the industrial, smoky, bustling East Coast is contrasted with the later serenity of a far more bucolic California, where he was known as the Dean of Santa Barbara art.  The “beyond” of the title refers to picturesque scenes from Cooper’s travels abroad.   What is most striking is the way Cooper builds a canvas, the range of colors he used, his composition, and the small mosaic-like strokes used to construct the spirit of each locale.  Cooper captures and conveys the distinct essence of each.  
The earlier New York City paintings are also an historical record of the teeming energy of skyscrapers, tenements, Wall Street, the Lower East side, and horse drawn carriages intermingling with funky early automobiles.  Masses of people wait for the now defunct “L,” the elevated train.  Most impressive are his paintings of boisterous Manhattan, the sweeping New York harbor with its majestic lighting arranged in an almost abstract composition.  Sunlit scenes of California, enchanting moods of India, and a variety of architectural subjects round out this impressive selection (Laguna Art Museum, Orange County).

Presenting works on paper from the mid 1960s to the present, Vija Celmins’ survey is an stunning presentation of an artist's quiet but unyielding dedication to her craft.  Celmins’ renderings of the ocean or the night skies are delicate graphite on paper works in which every detail is scrutinized and represented.  Often drawing from photographs, and making the same drawing over and over again with subtle differences, Celmin's practice is one of obsession and compassion.  The work straddles the conceptual and pop genres, but is more closely akin to realism and photographic practices that seek to transform observed reality into something new.  The exhibition moves from her drawings of objects, to the most recent renderings of spider webs.  Each image is a feast for the eyes, a coupling of skill and idea that translates into awe (Hammer Museum, West Los Angeles).

Vija Celmins, "Untitled #10," 1994-95, charcoal on paper.

Paintings by Dresden artists separated by a century-and-a-half, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), reveals a coincidence of similarities in formal, compositional elements like color and line.  However, topics including the devotional nature of Friedrich’s “Cross in the Mountains (Tetschen Altar)” can be used as a means to begin consideration of the changing cultural and political history of Germany and its effects on the work of the respective artists.  For example, how has our understanding of the role of man in nature changed from Friedrich’s awe to the contemporary Green Party’s concerns?  How did photography, often employed by Richter but only coming on the scene at the time of Friedrich’s death, influence the role and mechanics of painting?  How does framing (or its lack) impact viewers’ response to these works?  This is only a beginning; there is much more to consider as a result of this pairing (Getty Center, West Los Angeles).

Minjung Kim, "Void in Fullness," 2004,
mixed media on rice paper, 49 5/8 x 63".
Some work that might have been passed off as strict formalism is now being seen in light of the undeniable influence of gender.  In the case of Italian-based, Korean born Minjung Kim, it is both gender and ethnicity mixed up in an inextricable complex that drives these gorgeous paintings on rice paper.  The paper is worked with what seems to be heated pigment into dimensional surfaces coiling like flower buds or patterned rosettes you find in embroidery.  Colorful and delicate, deliberate and finely tooled, these matrices of colored paper coils are like pointillism in high relief.  The works invoke the craft and process traditions of Kim's native South Korea and Asia in general.  They simultaneously address the whole dialogue of high vs low and East vs. West that extends back to John Cage's interest in Zen back in the '50s, and forward to current geo-politics of the Orient as the "to be liberated other."  
In her own words, the artist's ritual touching and forming of rice paper relates to the expression of and transmission of Korean ghee (chi in Chinese, ki in Japanese)---that life force that runs through all things and is communicated from the vibration of one energy field to another.  It is an energy that  is most certainly felt in these works (Leslie Sacks Fine Art, West Los Angeles).

Carlos Estrada-Vega makes numerous small (approximately one inch square) monochrome paintings that are then combined to make larger composite works that can be seen as both paintings and sculptures. Interested in color and shape, he assembles his works by combining the miniature paintings to create overall compositions. Some of the works are studies of a single color.  For example in “Pastel Black,” the final work--about 750 pieces--appears to be black from a distance, but up close you’ll see that it reflects the many colors that are embedded in any black.  While the majority of works are monochromes, Estrada-Vega also makes paintings that push the color palette to its limits.  In “Kazan,” for example, rectangles, rather than squares create the compositional pattern.  This work begins to resembles pixels that have pushed out into the third dimension (d.e.n., Culver City).

Carlos Estrada-Vega, "Pastel Black," 2006,
oil, wax, oleopasto, limestone dust and
pigments on canvas on wood, 20 x 20".