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July/August, 2007

The color and glow that emanates through the rooms of Dan Flavin, “A Retrospective” confirms that he was a master at transforming spaces and creating rich environments with minimal materials. Flavin works with light, specifically commercial florescent tubes that he had fabricated in subtle as well as vibrant colors. Many of the rooms in the exhibition juxtapose one or two works, allowing the subtle shifts in color to create similar but distinct impressions. The focal point however is the recreation of an installation done in the corridors of the Pacific Design center in 1982. The grids of pink and yellow tubes placed at the ends of the hallways fill the empty space with light that changes depending on where you are in relation to the fixtures. This is a magnificent work that highlights an elegant as well as thought provoking exhibition that reminds us how far modest means can be taken (LACMA, West Hollywood).

Dan Flavin, "
Untitled (in honor of Leo on the 30th anniversary
of his gallery)," 1987, fluorescent light fixtures with red,
pink, yellow, blue, and green lamps, 96 x 96 x 9 1/4"

David Drebin, "Untitled (Carnival Kiss)," n.d., Digital C Print.
Basically David Drebin is a masterful color photographer who understands the basics of voyeurism. In his own words: “The most gripping photographs are either funny and sexy, sexy and sad, or sexy and funny--without being sad.” Note the common denominator is "sexy." He gives us intimate moments between people embracing, kissing, otherwise connecting in quasi public places where we as the viewer see things we feel we ought not be watching. In one of the most striking images a tall blond girl bends slightly to make out with a comically shorter guy, while an odd little kid looks back at the duo as if to say, "are you done yet?" To the technical charm of the works, Drebin adds this element of both sensuality and silliness, mystery and utter banality--these scenes take place in the oddest locales--that you cannot help but be pulled in (Fahey/Klein Gallery, West Hollywood).

This may be the older and tamer Chris Burden now dealing with issues in a less head-on (no pun intended) fashion. Here he uses the allegory of the machine on four wheels. Smugly invoking an Asian and now clichéd term for the show's title ("Ying Yang"), Burden calls up die-hard oppositions that are tucked deep in myths of gender and machismo, power, wealth and work. He does so, as is his way, using material culture and the body. Burden shows a flat footed bulldozer that says "mechanical power" better than any painting by Thomas Hart Benton or a treatise on economic hegemony. Four Polaroid photos of the same vehicle are mounted on the wall like high art and snap-shot portraits of things beloved. The bulldozer shares the space with a 1973 Lotus accompanied by its own adjacent set of six original Polaroids. Burden eschews the pyrotechnics of his notorious early work to say similar things less obviously. The boundaries of high culture and real life, and the role of bodily experience in constructing perceptions and realities (like class and aesthetics) that are quite often as arbitrary as an old tractor in a blue chip gallery (Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills).

Chris Burden, "Yin and Yang".

Exene Cervenka, “Back to His Dear Loving
Arms,” 2006, mixed media, 14 x 11 inches.
Exene Cervenka's exhibition "A Fifth of Tomorrow” is comprised of new collages together with artist journals that she has been keeping for over three decades. They document her travels and her life in the world of contemporary art and music. Cervenka’s main focus is her celebration of the American bandwidth, with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Using the classic collage technique of cobbling together layers of images and text from disparate sources, Cervenka integrates color and paint to structure a world of sentiment and populist beauty that is poised between critique and romanticism. True believers will be heartened at the overtly celebratory nature of her America, while cynics will turn up the sounds of X to drown out this other side of her vision (Western Project, Culver City).

Connie Arismendi has made provocative assemblage art using nailed metals, lamps and velvet pillows to aptly suggest the fragility of life and desire. These wall works are manufactured with precision-cut and remarkably delicate tendrils of hard metal fashioning flora shapes that bring to mind colonial embroidery, wrought iron and urban industry. Many see in the works references to papel picad, that Mexican folk tradition of cut paper decorations, and it is this rich complex of allusions to culture, identity, beauty, labor and borders that makes them more than just charming. The radical switch accomplished with a good deal of maturity bodes well for this newcomer (Patricia Correia Gallery, Santa Monica).

Connie Arismendi, “Stag Beetle,” 2007, acrylic
on panel, pencil on mylar, 24 x 24 x 1 3/4 inches.

David Bailin is an Arkansas-based artist whose large charcoal on paper drawings most resemble the works of William Kentridge. As in Kentridge's work, the gestural hand moves swiftly across the page, creating narrative scenarios in which a man struggles against his environment. In these evocative and well drawn works, Bailin's figure performs the tasks of a teacher or office worker, cleaning, filing or simply waiting, isolated in a corner of the work. Often surreal or at least surprising elements share the space, yet the protagonist never seems aware of the intrusions. The images are purposely claustrophobic, which serves to identify you with the characters’ plight (Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Culver City).

David Bailin, "Map," 2006,
charcoal on paper, 54" x 53 1/2".

A Southern California expatriate now living in Italy, Caridad Barragan creates what the gallery refers to as a tower of feelings.  It is comprised of boxed assemblage works that represent a re-collection of things that function as a metaphorical portrait. The gallery space is mostly bare, with the exception of this agglomeration of collected boxes stacked like a ziggurat, as if a life lived ends up being just small experiences compartmentalized into smelly brown instances best kept under lock and key.  We probably have all felt that way at some point, that our feelings might better be left in a box, unsaid.  The tower exists in the round, so the viewer is forced to walk around and around, alternately focusing in on the small stuff then the "big picture."  If this was intentional, it works admirably (Avenue 50 Studio, Northeast Los Angeles).

Caridad Barragan, one box from “In a Box,” mixed media installation, 2007.

A late addition to the illuminated manuscript tradition and very popular in England, the bestiary was an illuminated text depicting an encyclopedic array of the earth's creatures--real and imagined.  These are typically captured in parables and narratives seeming folkish or zoological but which in fact held religious lessons--with the animals as archetypes. This type of illumination came later in the history of the painted manuscript, and because of this showed a very advanced sense of color, draftsmanship, and execution. Medieval Beasts presents a newly acquired bestiary from the 13th century, and is highlighted with a page open to display the most delightful flying fish. Flying fish were said to follow ships leaping out of the waves for miles until they became exhausted and then descended again into the deep. A gorgeously drawn flying fish is seen leaping high and it represents the soul of the faithful, which try and try to reach goodness but in the end give up to the temptation of sin (Getty Center, West Los Angeles).

Samta Benyahia, “La Vie en Paillettes,” 2003.
Artist Samta Benyahia plays on the idea of the veil and veiling both as cover and as structural motif in this museum-wide installation work called “Architecture of the Veil.” The latticed open work screen called a moucharabieh used in Islamic architecture becomes a complex symbol and tangible reality as the artist covers windows, doors and the Fowler courtyard with printed films holding a blue tinted moucharabieh pattern. These screens were intended for those inside to look out without being; those outside to have no view in. Beyond the obvious gender politics and cross references to the veiling of women's bodies (most always women were behind the covers on windows and balconies), there is a sense here of the fragile, poetic, real and pernicious barriers that separate cultures and people (Fowler Museum at UCLA, West Los Angeles).

The history of contemporary art of the last forty years is encapsulated in the works of Mary Heilmann, the Zelig of the art world, a Jerzy Kosinski character whose genius was “being there.” She knew everyone worth knowing over key decades in American art starting in the 1960s. This exhibition bears traces of many of the artists she encountered in San Francisco and New York. The young Heilmann moved in a patriarchal world where she absorbed the ideas of teachers such as Peter Volkos and David Hockney, and reacted to the exercises of such friends as Bruce Nauman and Gordon Matta-Clark. Volkos and Nauman are thrown uneasily together in Heilmann’s witty clay and foil “Big Dipper” (1969). The aqua paintings “Sea Wall” (1986) and “Lupe” (1987), bring Hockney together with a repositioned notion of Piet Mondrian.

Mary Heilmann, "Go Ask Alice," 2006, oil on canvas.
She had a Joan Mitchell phase, and one can see hints of Elizabeth Murray and touches of Jasper Johns. A ceramicist, Heilmann glazes canvases, stressing the object quality of a painting, which she layers with conflicting textures and techniques. Untrained in the craft of painting on canvas, this body of work speaks less of skill and more of the history of painting. The retrospective is, as Roland Barthes would say, “writerly,” challenging the spectator to locate a probable source and to contemplate whether and how she has overcome her quotations. This döppelganger art is a mélange of objects, furniture, and paintings, all de-centered and multivalent.  The sidebar exhibition “There’s Something About Mary,” spotlights work by young artists who have either studied with or have been influenced by her. Judging by galleries filled with colorful abstract paintings and the visitors intrigued by her free-flowing style, this is clearly her time (OCMA, Newport Beach, Orange County).

"Painted Pottery Tomb Guardian," earthen-
ware, Han Dynasty, c. 206 BC-AD 220.
An object removed from its intended use can eventually be regarded as an artifact or a work of art, and it is thus with some incredibly beautiful (still after thousands of years) bronze and ceramic vessels on loan from the Shanghai Museum. Treasures from Shanghai: 5,000 Years of Chinese Art and Culture will open your eyes to exquisite artifacts from the Quing Dynasty, which flourished roughly 5,000 years ago. There are also porcelains, jade and bamboo carvings, and lacquer objects that will enthrall collectors of Asian art, along with paintings that give an idea of how Chinese court ladies (no resemblance to Gong Li) really looked in their resplendent costumes. Visitors mystified by predictions of Tarot card readers will be even more so when contemplating the various Oracle Bones that helped regents and scholars determine their own and the fate of thousands. Most importantly, the exhibit bears testimony to human ingenuity and creativity not only through the skill of the artisans, but in the myriad ways they were shielded from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, which was based, among many other precepts, on the destruction of evidence pertaining to an imperial past (The Bowers Museum, Orange County).

“The Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives” looks at marriage through the eyes and art of James Strombotne and his wife Tere Worley-Strombotne. The two artists have much in common, painting the figure and presenting thought-provoking scenarios where situations are partially developed and the viewer fills in the blank. The gravity of the exhibition lies in the situations the artists create. Quiet narratives hint at the mystery of what draws people together, pulls them apart, or keeps them as one. Is it out of love, mutual interest and a respect of each others’ talents? Or are there reasons that no one could fathom or art could not depict? James combines painting and drawing, outlining the figures, creating moody shadows and broad empty spaces that are filled in with subtle texture and luscious colors. In his paintings, the two are close and far apart. They smoke, walk, kiss, pose, and engage in the ordinary and the beautiful.  Tere’s style is flatter, without lines to define the figures.

Tere Worley-Stronbotne
While she creates couples too, in a cryptic manner she also observes the introspective female deep in her thoughts. The key to the exhibition is how each vignette provides unanswered questions concerning how two different people relate and choose to stay together. What makes a good marriage? The art has no answers, but does let us in, just a bit, to reveal some of its secrets (SpaceOnSpurgeon, Orange County).

Marcelo Pombo, "Ave Fenix en una gruta en el fondo
del mar," 2007, enamel on panel, 39 1/2 x 59 inches.
With the gossamer detail of an illuminator, using enamel on panel so that surfaces seem to gleam like miniatures, Marcelo Pombo makes works of the imagination that have the feeling of those odd and gorgeous borders you find in manuscript making. The imagery and how it is painted are incongruous to a point of silliness. These works retain that dreamy fussiness, but the difference is that these can reach six feet in size. One work titled in Spanish very roughly translated to "Phoenix Bird at the Bottom of the Sea," depicts an elaborately plumed fowl whose feathers looked bejeweled (Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica).

“Escape: Urbanscapes and Landscapes,” which includes paintings by Jamie Ennen, Dick Heimbold, William Wray and Star Higgins, might best be characterized as revisionist plein air.  Urbanscapes, night scenes and views of signage painted on location honor the plein air tradition and give it new life by incorporating subject matter not typically seen in what is usually a pastoral mode of expression.  The lyricism of plein air, the joyful handling of paint and rendered light, is evident but it is instead applied to scenes of urban distress or volatile nighttime landscapes of a city in motion. The work of William Wray particularly embodies this novel application of the plein air tradition. A work titled “All That’s Left” has transformed an industrial workplace into a site of luminous revelation. Wray is attempting to document old factories, rundown docks and shacks that are fast disappearing with urban renovation. “California’s urban pockets of age are disappearing at a record pace,” he declares, “so I have to paint as fast as I can.” (M.J. Higgins, Downtown)

William Wray, "All That's Left," oil on canvas, 16 x 12".

Eleanor Antin, “Myself—1854,” from The Angel of Mercy:
The Nightingale Family Album
, 1977, tinted silver
gelatin photograph mounted on paperboard.
Identity Theft:   Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, Suzy Lake, 1972-78 is a poignant and in-depth look at three feminist artists working in the mid 1970's whose works were concerned with matters of identity, alter egos and taking on new personas. The imagery of all three comments and editorializes on the roles of women in contemporary culture. Most of the work is presented as documentation, video or photo-based projects. Feminist artists in the 1970's claimed these new mediums, and many artists, rather than make paintings or aspire to create “masterpieces,” embraced these new vehicles as modes of communication. Thirty years later, however politically topical they may be,  none of the three artists’ works tend to feel dated (Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica).

Longtime dealer and radio host Molly Barnes guest curates a group of six women, each of whom has impacted L.A. art significantly.  The six include Lita Albuquerque, DJ Hall, Rachel Rosenthal, Patssi Valdez, Deborah Sussman, and June Wayne.  Sussman is a notable designer who has been behind such major endeavors as the 1984 L.A. Olympics and Walt Disney Resorts. While Rosenthal’s historical impact lies in the area of performance art, a selection of recent watercolors here makes public her retirement from performing in favor of painting, a transition that occurred several years ago.  The generic title “Summer in the City” conveys that this will be a relatively informal gathering that cannot do more than skim a characteristic sampling of each artist.  But it proposes a credible “A” list of women artists whose historical position is likely to be further confirmed as the years go by (George Billis Gallery, Culver City).

D.J. Hall, "Perfect", Jacquard
Tapestry, 78" x 108" , 2006.

Matt Greene, “We Beheld the Holograph of Our Second
Selves (Why Did You Eat Us)”, 2004, mixed media on canvas.
Gary Garrels' curatorial debut, Eden's Edge: Fifteen LA Artists, is a foray into the gamut of art being made in Los Angeles from a cross-generational perspective. The roster of artists includes Ginny Bishton, Mark Bradford, Liz Craft, Sharon Ellis, Matt Greene, Elliott Hundley, Stanya Kahn & Harry Dodge, Monica Majoli, Matthew Monahan, Rebecca Morales, Lari Pittman, Ken Price, Jason Rhoades, Anna Sew Hoy, and Jim Shaw. Some are well advanced in their careers, and in other cases unknown. It is all very quirky and speculative with regards to the truth in art. More fantastic and phantasmagorical than historical in ascension, the array of works on view does little to convince of an overarching philosophical validity. What is staked out is ambiguity, contradictions, and the role of the individual in cultural concoctions.
While linkages are few and far between, the sense of adventuring into the very broad palette that is Los Angeles lends it proceedings an air of excitement (Hammer Museum, West Los Angeles).

Jesse Simon, a surfer and a former graffiti artist, exhibits three dimensional wall sculptures formed from old or broken surf boards. These pieces are a cross between painting and sculpture in that they extend off the wall, yet are painterly in their use of line and shape. The abstract shapes and bright colors of the fragments of foam encased in resin are assembled together to create curved-but still rectangular shaped objects. Within the works are lines of wood- the core of the surfboard that serves as a linear element in the work. Sometimes Simon creates human forms by piecing together these fragments of wood. The colors can be almost Life Saver bright, but also run to neutrals; and the emotional tone also runs from exuberant play to something that calls up nature or a shiny fossil. . .go figure. Look closely and you will realize this is labor intensive and thoroughly thought out. What Simon creates from assembling these fragments transcends the clichéd surfer aesthetic (Patricia Faure Gallery, Santa Monica).

Jesse Simon, "Boundary Waters," 2007,
Foam, Wood & Resin, 90'' x 52'' x 7''.

Alex Kizu.
The transition of young graffiti artists from street punk to gallery sophisticate is no longer news but an established and legitimate route of art apprenticeship. For “L.A. Style” the current crop being considered includes Andrew Clinco, John Hartman, Alex Kizu (Defer), Kofie, Danny Mateo, and Hashim Thomas. The artists have been selected in good part for their level of technical precision, and the gallery has encouraged each to bring their street and neighborhood identities inside to strut their own stuff and to collaborate on a single large work. The twist that this introduces is that these hip-hop artists will use a recently developed digital marketing tool called Compulsion, which primarily makes video clickable. One of the principles in the local tech company that developed Compulsion, J. Scott Mahoney is involved in facilitating the exhibition, which offers the young artists a slick new interface on which to exercise their creative impulses. It also provides a working lab for Mahoney’s company to test drive their product. The vision: online corporate entertainment generating product placement revenue throughout the visual “real estate” of TV and motion pictures (LA Contemporary, Culver City).

The spanking new gallery, At Space, not only has arrived with a great deal of promise, it has already demonstrated (by changing its shows twice a month) that it will present a range of stimulating works in all categories. At Space has positioned itself to be the avant garde provider in the neighborhood. The current show is conceived by Robbie Miller, who mixes performance and photography as he creates candid images of himself spoofing various societal phenomena. In “What I Would Wear if…One Man’s Obsession with Game Shows” Miller becomes 12 different contestants for separate reality and game shows. Miller becomes the characters, as he dresses and acts accordingly. His work takes a serious, yet humorous and poignant look at the psyche of the contestants, and how people, often make fools of themselves for the rare possibility of fame and the dream of fortune. His digital palette gives an intimate view of the game show culture, its tactics, its agenda, and how contestants are easy prey (At Space Contemporary Art, Orange County).

Robbie Miller, "What I Would Wear If I Was
On Wheel of Fortune"
, 2007, Digital
C-Print, 20 x 30 inches. 

Vik Muniz, "Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter and
Jelly)," 1999, Cibachrome print, 30 x 40 inches.

Brazilian artist Vik Muniz is an object maker, obsessed by processes and materials, denying corporeality through photography as an intervention between thing and theory. He is a canny practitioner of the art of concepts. Such philosophical play is entertaining for those in the know. But what is the lasting power of cleverness? Muniz wrote an excellent catalogue with an extensive bibliography that may just be more convincing than the art in the exhibition. The artist’s works become relevant when he makes portraits of homeless children of San Paolo, fashioned out of the detritus of the streets, thrown out, like the children. But much of the work of this articulate artist is an extended postmodern witticism. However, the Twentieth Century has come and gone. The Muniz exhibition is weighted down by the chains of belatedness, like Bob Marley’s ghost (San Diego MoCA, San Diego).