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April, 2008

James Gobel, "Ridicule is Nothing to be Scared Of," 2005, felt, yarn, and acrylic on canvas, triptych: 90 x 192".

What happens in Las Vegas, stays there, runs the PR line. But, art educator/critic Dave Hickey has put that notion to rest by staging “Las Vegas Diaspora: Emergence of Contemporary Art from the Neon Homeland.”  Moved from Vegas to Laguna Beach, the show includes works by 26 multi-media artists who studied under Hickey at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and whose careers he helped set into motion. Hickey, an early, that is to say 1990s, proponent of the reemergence of the aesthetic relevance of beauty, evidently picked works that reflect his convictions. Paintings, sculpture and some photography here are indeed beautiful and superbly crafted. The works are as diverse in their intent as the artists who made them. Working mostly in larger scale, they cheerfully incorporate Las Vegas’ mirror and smoke, neon and silicone aesthetic and turn it into their version of high art. Theirs is indeed a diaspora--but fortunately it’s one of blithe spirits untouched by the tragedy usually associated with the word (Laguna Art Museum, Orange County).

Delilah Montoya, "
Migrant Campsite, Ironwood, AZ," digital photographic print.

"Sed: The Trail of Thirst" is a gallery installation by Delilah Montoya comprised of images of the barren, arid desert. Photos are aligned in a 360 degree presentation encompassing the viewer. The crisp, incisive digital technique shows vast, people-less landscapes filled with only the odd "sound" of wind, the "feel" of intense heat, tumbleweeds and the debris of persons who may well have died trying to make their way across. Therein lies the show title "Sed," which means "thirst" in Spanish. By showing us the pack backs, the parched and discarded water jugs, Montoya addresses the plight of migrant workers literally risking their life just to work. The "in the round" installation format puts you into the pictorial environment in ways the framed and glossy shot cannot. Saying much with very little, Montoya enters the current immigration debates, not as an ideologue but as a maker of very fine and haunting images. The truth is that we are often brought to ethical questions via beauty; that is certainly the case here (Patricia Correia Gallery, Santa Monica).

There are a few things that tell us we are more alike than different. One of those is humankind's absolute reliance on and awe of water. Whether industrialized or rural, no matter how advanced in technology, life forms on this planet depend on it for survival. As such it is the great equalizer: rich, poor, humble, powerful--it is everyone's lifeline. This vital idea is approached here not from a preachy position, but from the charm and persistence of cultural production. The show Mami Wata features a variety of works from brightly colored figurines, to painted voodoo banners, to wood carvings and masks, all capturing the various incarnations of the water spirit in Africa and all the lands of the African diaspora. The idea and magic of water is seen as a mermaid, as a snake bearing female, as the prow of a ship. The objects come from places as far flung as the Dominican Republic and Benin. Consistently charming and profound, these objects raise our awareness, in the most whimsical way, of resources we have venerated but today squander (Fowler Museum at UCLA, West Los Angeles).

Zoumana Sane, "Mami Wata"

Wangechi Mutu, "Eat Drink Swan Man," 2008, watercolor
and collage on paper, 43 x 63" (overall, in nine parts).
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.
Vestiges of the Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where Wangechi Mutu currently resides face off tradition and flux in the young artist’s homeland, Narobi Africa, in this super sensuous show. Animal pelts beg to be caressed. Collage elements of body parts confront disjointed facets of flora and fauna that Mutu scavenges from sources as diverse as women’s fashion magazines, medical journals and National Geographic. The sculptural constructions in the center of the main gallery push spectators towards the walls. There careful inspection of numerous small works displayed in groups reveals that Mutu’s  savagely glamorous collage paintings are layered with references to cultural identity, sexual fantasy, bestiality and societal myths (Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Culver City).

Jeffrey Vallance laid a store-bought hen named Blinky to rest in a Calabasas pet cemetery thirty years ago. Vallance and five other artists of his choosing commemorate the anniversary of that project in a show emanating from a Blinky memorial chapel in which relics and mementos including headstones, reliquaries, Blinky’s veil and coffin, etc. are dutifully displayed. Laurie Hassold makes inventive use of found objects in lovingly crafted wall sculptures. Scotty Vera’s eclectic work and James Goodwin’s zany box constructions delightfully offset Marja Hormozi’s darker paintings and drawings, while Dave Shulman adds a story line to the mix (Track 16 Gallery, Santa Monica).

Jeffrey Vallance, from “Blinky:  The Friendly Hen”, still from video, 1988.

Pierpaol Campanini, "Untitled," 2007, oil on canvas, 96 1/2 x 74 3/4".
Pierpaolo Campanini's current show might better be described as an anthropological study than an art exhibit. The five paintings and five photogravures that comprise the show depict suspended objects that at first glance could be identified as artifacts from an alien civilization. He first creates assemblage sculptures, but what we get are carefully rendered paintings of these, thus removing us by a step—but by the artist’s own hand. Close inspection reveals the mundane materials that comprise the original mobiles. However their transformation from 3-D to 2-D has imbued them with mystery and nuance.
As both painter and sculptor, Campanini insists that his new works are more about the process of creation than the product (Blum & Poe Gallery, Culver City).

Han Dai-Yu, "Zoom Zoom," 2007,
mixed media on canvas, 54 x 78".

Huang Yan, "Chinese Landscape--Face Tattoo
Summer," 2005, chromatic print, 59 x 47 1/4".

Works by Han Dai-Yu and Huang Yan challenge notions of photograph and painting, portrait and landscape and essentially, Eastern and Western. In an age of outsourced mass production, how can we be sure of what is "Made in America" or "Made in China", and what is the real significance of the location of origin? Han Dai-Yu's large mixed media canvases line the north walls of the gallery like neatly placed posters advertising Chinese merchandise. Each canvas contains a "Made in China" bar-code in the bottom left corner, and the outlines of hands signing the phrase "Made in China" run across its central image. Huang Yan's photographs also broach the paradox of the Chinese landscape. These  nontraditional scapes are painted on the face and the body among other unconventional surfaces. His predecessors would have thought such a deviation blasphemous. Unfortunately, taking in both artists’ works in such a tight gallery space leaves the viewer feeling like they took a trip through a Shanghai market: a bit crowded and overstimulated. Despite the cramped placement however, the works are worth the stop (LA Contemporary, Culver City).

The title of his current show is named for the as yet unproven “String Theory” of theoretical physics. In it Brian Wills continues his investigation of color and line through meticulously constructed abstractions. Single strands of thread are carefully wound around thin pieces of wood in a technique that calls to mind a concert violin, in terms of both precision and formal qualities. These sumptuous wall works reverberate with color and form rather than sound and music. Though these wall pieces are lovely and highly refined, the standout work is a single sculpture made with a similar process that powerfully extends and elaborates on Wills’s unique practice (Happy Lion, Downtown).

Brian Wills, installation shot, The Happy Lion, 2008.
Photo: Joshua White

Rhea Carmi “Upheaval,” 1980, mixed media on panel, 20" x 28".
Israel-born artist Rhea Carmi pays homage to Israel’s 60th anniversary in a mixed media series entitled “Light in the Dark.” Carmi develops the theme of life cycles as she takes us back to last year’s Israeli war with Lebanon and the many other wars Israel has experienced. Abstract shapes, space, color, and texture are well handled, but she is especially skilled with the subtle, less noticeable features that transform each piece into a gripping work of art. Along these same lines, Carmi seamlessly integrates real materials into an abstraction. The viewer, absorbed in the poetry of each drama, may not notice the distinction between real object and illusionary paint. Carmi begins with the concept of nature and the eternal land: mature trees shedding their real leaves and sycamore seeds planted in real dirt.
She moves us to the here and now with the faceless soldier who endures bullets, bloodshed and the chaotic upside down peculiarities of war, while the spirit of the dead hovers over the living. In one work, Carmi draws with wires to give the impression of being caught in the maelstrom that war brings about. This chilling work is nonetheless saturated with great deal of hope. Carmi, who is married to a Holocaust survivor, ensures that the light shines through the darkness (Frank Pictures Gallery, Santa Monica).

Werner Drewes began as a student of architecture at the famous Bauhaus. He studied with the likes of Wasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Their dead serious and highly intellectual approaches to form, color, line as the purest means of direct existential expression are writ large on this concentrated survey of watercolors, woodcuts and paintings. Smart enough to leave Germany before Hitler's sweep of the avant garde centers, he came to the U.S. in 1930 and was, as the excellent gallery materials inform us, a founding member of American Abstract Artists (AAA) in 1936 with peers such as David Smith, Josef Albers and others who began to tutor and change an American art on raised on realism. Drewes died in the 1980s after a long career. His collages, geometric abstractions, woodcuts move seamlessly back and forth into the free lined gesture that certainly helped set the stage for Pollock. As he was a keen formalist, he was also capable of equally astute observation of things in the world. The real shocker is how early he anticipated what was to come. "Dynamic Rhythm" from 1934 is an ancestor to action marking. The carefully observed "Frankfurt" of 1928 is charming and chilling as hindsight reminds us of what Germany would become only a few years later (Tobey Moss Gallery, West Hollywood).

Werner Drewes, "Abstraction I",
1934, watercolor, 8 1/4 x 5 3/4".

Massimo Vitali, "Catania Under the Volcano (#2808)," from
the Series: Sicily Primo, 2007, chromogenic print on diasec
mounted to dibond with aluminum brace verso, 72 x 86".
Massino Vitali shows large scale photographs of bourgeois scenes of leisure circa 2008 that you might say competes with Impressionism circa 1899 in their ability to offend no one but add not much. Like the Impressionists' scenes of ladies and gents at the sea shore (there is quite a bit more flesh here), the huge photos have this "what's not to like" appeal and mirror the dream of middle class leisure from a fuzzy, busy, almost bird's eye view. Whenever we see a large format photograph we are enticed by the transposition of an intimate technology into a public size; here images are often joined as triptychs for even more impact. We stand slightly above colorful crowds of beach goers, skiers, that look like so much appealing confetti in the same way that Pissarro's stylish Parisians looked when he painted them sprinkling boulevards.
As we work harder and harder to keep up, one wonders just who these people might be who can fly to Brazil for sun or ski the Alps. . .Exxon Mobile execs one imagines (M+B Fine Art, West Hollywood).

As the gap between rich and poor deepens here in the United States, the social documentary imagery of three photographers from Britain, investigating the stratifications of British society during the transformative Thatcher years, seems especially pertinent. Two of the Brits capture everyday reality in black and white imagery. Chris Killip focuses on the effects of de-industrialization in bleak areas around Newcastle in the mid 1970’s, in well composed images that reveal tenacity and strife in the faces of punks and the unemployed. Graham Smith documents friends, relatives and acquaintances seeking consolation in pubs in images more are more staged than candid. Yet he also is able to communicate the life and times of his subjects’ struggle with poverty. In opposition, Martin Parr’s colorful Chromogenic prints underscore the growing buying power of those who are better off with imagery that includes humorless Conservative garden party fetes and preparations for a picture perfect formal wedding celebration in Bath (Rose Gallery, Santa Monica).

Chris Killip, "Helen with Hula-Hoop, Seacoal
Beach, Lynemouth, Northumberland,"
1983, silver gelatin print, 20 x 24".

When overwrought German art connoisseurs of the early 19th century got wind of classical statuary, they perhaps assumed that the unpainted, pleasure-empty statues they saw were the standard. Possibly as a consequence they also invented the historically revisionist--and as we find out here quite inaccurate--notion that unpainted, polished white marble figures typical of the Neo-Classical period were the historical norm. So it was that every school kid and art history primer still perpetuates the notion of unpainted classical figures. "The Color of Life" goes a long way toward restoring the true fact. The show features a variety of objects that collectively make the case that color played a huge role in the vision of artists from classical times, during the Renaissance, and right up to the 19th century. Not only do we se that polished stone was often painted, we find out that materials like black onyx; honey toned amethyst, etc were worked into surfaces like colored pigment. In the bust of a "Jewish Woman of Algiers," by Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, a brilliantly hued headdress sets off an ebony polished face of black precious stone. El Greco gives "Pandora" flesh colored paint, brown locks and pink lips. Old dogs die hard as even those educated about the prevalence of color in past figurative sculpture may find that the added hues give even ponderous pieces a slight sense of the exotic, the folkish or provincial (Getty Villa, West Side).

We don’t think of art of India as mainstream, yet because of artists such as Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) and his students who continue in his footsteps, the country’s artists, long relegated to an ethnic position in museums and art history volumes, are slowly introducing their rich heritage to the contemporary art world. Bose was one of the most important artists in this emergence process. Considered the Father of Indian Modern Art, Bose lived through turbulent times and created in most of the traditional graphic modes even as he sought to break through historic limitations and teach his ideas to others. His goal was to excavate the essence of India, and express it in art in a modern tongue, rather than continue the influence of colonizing cultures. His art is still an integration of Asian and Western influences. We can even see some Japanese influence in Bose’s drawings. History is evident moving through the exhibition of about 100 of Bose’s paintings and drawings: his life spanned from the ear of British colonial rule, when Western imagery was required, through the first decades of a struggling pluralistic democracy.

Nandalal Bose, "Sati," aquatint, 9 3/4 x 6 3/4".
Because Bose’s art stood out as representing the struggle of the nation, he was honored by such leaders as Mohandas Gandhi, Jawarharlal Nehru, and the revered poet Rabindranath Tagore. The exhibition is groundbreaking because the art is not well known or often seen here. Many of the pieces on view were permitted to leave India for the first time (San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego).

Asher B. Durand, "Kindred Spirits,"
1849, oil on canvas, 44 x 36".
In addition to showcasing the monumental landscape paintings that attest to Asher B. Durand’s position at the center of the Hudson River School, an exhibit that includes portraitures and engravings from his early profession, as well as sketches and studies, demonstrates the depth and breadth of Durand’s career. “Hudson River Looking Toward the Catskills” (1847) is a quintessential Durand, with its view of distant mountains, trees towering over a picturesque lake, two couples getting into a small boat, picnic in hand, and sheep and cows grazing calmly nearby. Light appears to flow from the background, flooding the center of the image with an extraordinary radiance. Durand’s sketches and studies reveal an unexpected and quite different approach to nature. They have none of the idyllic grandeur of the large landscapes, reflecting instead a sensitivity to the lines and shapes of unadorned nature.
In both the drawings, as in “Study of Fallen Tree Trunk, Boltin, Lake George, NY, Oct. 3, 1863,” and the small paintings, such as “Study of a Rock,” Durand filters out the superfluous, retaining only what is essential (San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego).

The paintings, drawings, and mixed media works that make up Eddie Ruscha’s current exhibition intelligently update the psychedelic swirls, skulls, and other iconography of surf and skate culture. Unlike artists who utilize this style in contemporary art simply by shifting the context, Ruscha updates, perhaps even transforms, the ideas that inform this imagery. Drawing equally from the history of fine and street culture, he forges a style of his own where yarn extends from a painting of brightly colored eyeballs into the center of the room, and tiny penciled figures copulate on the beautifully rendered water-color image of a vintage car (High Energy Constructs, Downtown).

Eddie Ruscha, "Deadhead 25," 2008,
acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12".

Cal Lane, “Untitled (Map 3),” 2007, plasma cut steel, 78.5'' x 71.7'',
Cal Lane's work is made from welded metal. She takes apart automobiles and oil drums, cutting intricate patterns from these hard materials so that they end up looking like lace. The patterns and designs appear as negative spaces in these stunning works. The contrast between the hardness of the material and the softness of the subject makes for an striking juxtaposition. What appears as decorative patterns are also pictorial. Topics vary, and there is a sexual component, as many of the images depict couples copulating. For these scenarios to emerge requires close inspection. Entitled "Sweet Crude" the double entendre in the title references both the material and the subject of the work (Patricia Faure is now Samuel Freeman Gallery, Santa Monica).

Faultlessly drawn features of friends and acquaintances animate Clair Oswalt’s puppets. Hinged at their major joints, the Culver City artist’s flat wooden cutouts wave, jump, change directions and tumble, casting shadows on supportive imagery drawn on large white sheets of paper tacked to the wall inches behind them. Only one work, “Eternal Introduction” (featuring two headless, suited male figures shaking hands), relies on motorization to impel action. The others skillfully suggest constriction and movement on their own, implicating time and space while raising issues of control and trust in ways that compel us to laugh and/or sigh (Taylor De Cordoba, Culver City).

Claire Oswalt, “For Right Now,” 2008,
graphite, paper, wood, 54 x 40”.

Kara Walker, “Darkytown Rebellion,” 2001,
cut paper and projection on wall, 14 x 37 ft.
A survey exhibition tracing the development of Kara Walker’s investigations into racism’s terrain--grounded in her studies of sources as varied and contradictory as antebellum novels, the testimony of slaves, folk tales, minstrel shows, art and film--come to life early on in dioramas peopled with cut-paper silhouettes. “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart,” was initially unveiled at the Drawing Center in 1994. Composed of animated black cut outs affixed to a 50 foot long curved white wall, it sets the tone for this grand survey of Walker’s witty, tender but unsettling work. Drawings, collages, paintings and films accompany her large murals, augmented with a video examining the artist’s process. Shadow puppetry and light projections draw spectators into works like “Darkytown Rebellion,” where they become participants in Walker’s examination of racial and gender identity issues (Hammer Museum, West Los Angeles).