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September, 2008

John Lautner, “Marbrisa,” 1973, photograph, © The John Lautner Foundation.

Numerous models, drawings as well as photographic images trace the career of Los Angeles architect John Lautner (1911-1994). Lautner worked in a visionary mode, his homes and public buildings fused with the specifics of the landscape. This exhibition not only traces his career, but also presents it in context. Images of architectural spaces Lautner designed are projected on the walls, giving viewers the sense of being there. Since Lautner's homes were featured in many Hollywood films, a film screening accompanies the exhibition.

“Houseguest” bolsters the view that when an artist looks through a collection, they tend to be drawn to specific things that resonate within their own practice or history. They do not necessarily have an agenda when they begin, more often drawing parallels between and among the things they chose to present. Jennifer Bornstein spent hours looking at the works in the Grunwald Collection, and created an exhibition that comes together through juxtaposition on the walls. Curating is its own form of creating; it’s a little of this and some of that for reasons that cannot always be explained. What Bornstein presents is personal. “Houseguest” brings to light many works on paper that have never been exhibited in this context, and it adds up to an aesthetic breath of fresh air (Hammer Museum, West Los Angeles).

Marlene Dumas, “Measuring Your Own Grave,”
2003, oil on canvas, 55 1/8 x 55 1/8”.
Photo by Andy Keate
Marlene Dumas knows art history. You will discover references to issues raised in painting by artists ranging from Francisco Goya, Edward Manet and Vincent Van Gogh, to Alice Neil in this mid-career retrospective of works too thoughtfully considered to fit neatly into the classification of Neo Expressionism. But while she analyzes contributions made by others, Dumas is simultaneously occupied with forthright considerations of what it means to be a South African born woman over fifty (she currently resides in Amsterdam), establishing a career painting portraits today. She begins by looking at photographs--family snapshots, news photos, fashion ads, porn, etc. After considering the images carefully, she’s employs her skills as a painter to alternately reinforce or turn their expected meanings upside down. Dumas' expressive brushwork defines personal features that evoke a wide range of emotions. The exhibition’s title, “Measuring Your Own Grave” hints accurately that the painter wishes to address the big issues: sex, violence, birth, death (The Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown).

Seemingly in hibernation since the seventies, sewing, knitting, and other forms of needlework have been weaving their way back into the world of contemporary art in recent years through artists and collaboratives including The Institute for Figuring, James Gobel, and Felipe Barbosa. The Horror of Tradition includes a fantastic grouping of five such artists, Sophia Allison, Robert Fontenot, Starlie Geikie, Evelyn Serrano and Liz Young. Although their approaches vary, each of these artists integrates finely wrought technique with equally rigorous conceptual underpinnings. Two artists re-imagine the American flag.

Liz Young, "Balmy Birds", 2006, thread on vintage American flag, 48x60"
Fontenot’s beautiful and poignant version is shredded at the edges and adorned with handmade flower appliqués. Young’s upside down flag is home to several embroidered black birds, a visual metaphor for anxiety and chaos. Allison’s wrestling costumes, handmade with such decidedly unorthodox materials as pantyhose and sanitary napkins, add a dose of humor, while Geikie’s skillfully embroidered portraits of Hollywood horror queens have a more subtle sense of irony. Serrano takes the social and political concerns inherent in her work to the street, literally, by trading a homeless man two clean shirts for his one, and using the aged, stained garment as canvas for her rendition of a work by the activist/artist Emory Douglas, stitching it in gold thread. A white line painted on the sidewalk outside the gallery leads to the site where she met the homeless man, circling the project back to its origin that lies, like the craft of sewing itself, outside the traditional exhibition space (AndrewShire Gallery, Midtown).

Robert Williams, “In the Land of Retinal Delights”, oil on canvas.
High and lowbrow art make for an easy mix in Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor due to deft curating by Meg Linton, gallery director at Otis College of Art and Design. The museum is crammed full to the rafters with some stunning paintings and a handful of three-dimensional works. Alex Gross’ “Redemption” suggests that veterans of this high-low brow genre have more than a casual acquaintance with the mainstream of an art history that tends to place them at the outskirts. Thus, one immediately recognizes Gross’ connection to Jan Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Marriage.” Much like the Paris crowd of the early 20th century, these artists are familiar with each other’s work and draw inspiration from that.  Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s “Custom Pin Stripe Panel with Rat Fink” echoes R.K Sloane’s “Rat Fink Experience.”
An engaging mix is achieved of current stars such as Camille Rose Garcia (“Orphaned Nihilist Escape Ship”) with L.A. old masters such as Llyn Foulkes [“But I Thought Art Was Special (Mickey and Me)”] and Liza Lou, remembered for covering her universe with tiny barrel beads. Her lugubriously beautiful portrait of a saucer-eyed, young woman titled “It Might Have Been” is one of the most arresting paintings in the show. Not surprisingly perhaps, she has found a follower in Sas Christian whose “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” is permeated by an air of sadness and resignation that may be implied by the title. “The Juxtapoz Factor” engages as well as  entertains, and if it might perhaps turn off a few curmudgeons, it’s a summer hit (Laguna Art Museum, Orange County).

The most stellar exemplar of Italian Baroque sculpture, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, became the poster boy for the Catholic church and its Jesuit Counter Reformation attack on all things pagan--that is to say classical--and all things Protestant--that is to say simple and unadorned. The perfect answer for a Church trying to stay away from either of these semiotics but still advertising its wealth and power was the Baroque style of opulence, surface energy and high drama. This is fairly easy to execute in buildings where plasticity is a given, but Bernini accomplished this in subtle ways, in both portraits of the clerical nobility and the rich of Italy who helped to fund the Counter-Reformation. This display of portraits by Bernini includes an impressive and famous visage of Cardinal Borghese. Works here originate from places like the Galleria Borghese and the Palazzo Barberini, top notch collections sharing the Baroque's motive of celebrating and constructing representations of entrenched wealth and piety (Getty Center, West Los Angeles).

Before “Reality TV” entered the entertainment lexicon, photographers Jacques Garnier and Doug McCulloh set up lights and cameras on public beaches and let their subjects approach them. The result is a growing body of portraits gathered into an organic exhibition titled “On the Beach: Chance Portraits from the Shore.” Garnier and McCulloh have captured (or trapped, as they put it with more than a fleeting sense of irony) permutations of California’s Everyman (and woman) who defy the media stereotype. Here one encounters real people who, spurred on by an opportunity for their proverbial 15 minutes of fame, felt free to do/pose as they pleased, often hilariously but just as frequently, given the setting, with surprising grace and dignity. It’s performance art--instant street theater captured by artists equipped with patience, wit, an imperviousness to sunburn, and a sense of the absurd. Although the show has been up at several venues and in various permutations and is also the core of a book by the same title, it is worth revisiting since it keeps reconnecting us with each other (Irvine Fine Art Center, Orange County).

Jacques Garnier and Doug McCulloh,
“Sara and Ali,” 2006, color photograph.

Patrick Merrill, from "4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse".
“7th Seal” features current works that expose not only Patrick Merrill’s inner workings but also the absurdities of our increasingly difficult to fathom society--as he sees them. As the Biblical source of the exhibition title would suggest, he uses apocalyptic subjects as points of departure, such as The Dance of Death, and The Power of the Court Jester who, unlike other subjects, could criticize the King (“Kiss Your Flesh Goodbye” #1 and #2). Central to this selection of work is a depiction of the “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Death and Pestilence)” in modern dress. One features a Ku Klux Klan rider, and another resembles that elusive warmonger Dick Cheney; these bearers of warnings and retributions resonate more than ever. Merrill’s compositions are packed with images, most of which have socio-political significance. It’s as if Hieronymus Bosch meets Leon Gulub in a framework of urban street corner gospel. Thus, it’s best to view the works in a contemplative state of mind and, eyes ready for a workout, and maybe just to be certain bring along a magnifying glass (Old Town Gallery, Orange County).

Encounters with Eleanor Antin’s work are like sightings of icebergs. Recognizing that just the tip is visible, you begin to ponder the expanse that lies beneath. Each of the large-scale, color chromogenic prints draws from multiple sources: Greco-Roman history and mythology, the tableaux vivantes tradition, 18th- and 19th century painting, early narrative photography, as well as theater, where Antin has her roots. Nor are these photographic images without contemporary parallels. Who can look at banquet guests suffocating beneath piles of gold coins in “The Golden Death,” (2001, from “The Last Days of Pompeii”) without reflecting on the excesses of our own culture? Also included in the exhibit are photographs and videos from Antin’s earlier projects, underscoring the continuity of Antin’s fascination with history, heroes and heroines. Whether her characters are famous or fictional, Antin lures us into her fantastical world with her witty and passionate portrayals of Florence Nightingale, black ballerina Eleanora Antinova, and “The King of Solana Beach”  (San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego).

Eleanor Antin, "The Artist's Studio", from "The Last Days of
Pompeii," 2001, chromogenic print, 46 5/6 x 58 5/8".

Frans Lanting, "Twilight of the Giants," 2006, photograph.

It does have the “tah-dah” feel of an introduction, and the environmentalist mission of the host gallery is worn on its sleeve, but Boundless Vision wins you over because the aesthetic engagement of the seven photographers rings true and clean. This is landscape as spectacle, no doubt, but it wins you over.  David Muench, Frans Lanting, Jack Dykinga, Thomas D. Mangelsen, Larry Urich, Jim Stimson, Marc Muench all offer travelogue quality intrigue combined with a joyful formal eye.  Dykinga’s “Light in the Forest” connects a fog shrouded valley floor to the top of this mountainous world with a magical umbilical cord of a waterfall.
Lanting’s shot of a herd of elephants, pessimistically titled “Twilight of the Giants” bunches them and their reflections in a pool along the central spine of the print, surrounding them with a melancholy maroon evening sky in which a small dot of a moon is suspended. Stimson’s “Bonneville Salt Flats” emphasizes the quality of geometric abstraction. The surface of the famous Salt Flats starts off like a body of water reflecting the sky, but changes into the partched material it is as your eye adjusts. The upstairs galleries are generous spaces that permit each photographer space to make their own impressions, but it might have been even more interesting to mix the aesthetics into a curated show that gives the individual talents a purpose that looks beyond what they each capably do (G2 Gallery, Venice).

Melanie Pullen, “
The Jumping Soldiers (Soldier Series),” 2008, transparency in lightbox, 60" x 120".

Melanie Pullen went at the complex issues of voyeurism, violence and the mystique of sex with her now well known fashion crime scenes. Now she goes after our penchant for that territorial and sanctioned type of ritualized violence we call war in huge, impressive color transparencies of leaping, preening, staring soldiers dressed in American Revolutionary and other period military garb. The near life size figures are shown as color transparencies in light boxes---the men of King George's brigade leap stupidly in the air like a slow-mo GAP commercial. The particular quality of light-through-film intensifies the perceptual impact and the banality of what we see. Engaging these men staged in the costumes of battle, depicted with such quirky, high tech charm, we are compelled to compare the theatricality of this gallery experience with the actuality of the battlefield. The rumination engendered in us by these inconsistencies is better than any bleeding heart appeal against slaughter in the name of officialdom (Ace Gallery Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, West Hollywood). 

Kori Newkirk, “Untitled (Modernist House),”
2005, plastic pony beads, artificial hair, 45 x 45”.

Kori Newkirk, “Untitled (Modernist House),”
2005, plastic pony beads, artificial hair, 45 x 45”.

Kori Newkirk has quickly drawn art world attention on both coasts by combining a sleek minimalist aesthetic with streetwise materials in ways both bold and bombastic. It carries much of the tone and confidence of ‘70s glam rock, circa early David Bowie. Indeed his signature beaded curtains--images popping pointillistically out of arrangements of beads threaded on artificial hair--take us back just a wee bit further. But the images, here and elsewhere, walk a thin and thoughtful line between conceptualism, formal elegance, and racial commentary. A beaded image of flames, “Jubilee” illustrates a wall of flames; a blurred self-portrait suggests African American invisibility. But if images such as these deal in racial content, they succeed in providing crucial elements of visual complexity that opens the path to a deeper richness. Newkirk makes it a point that this is just the way he wants it; a simple neon word work spells it out:  “TAKE WHAT YOU CAN.”  Let’s all be art thieves!

Glittery, reflective surface is a big part of what the outsized trophy, “RANK,” is all about at LAXART. The object is an elevated speaker’s podium, complete with a bank of silvery microphones sans cables. It’s all mirrored like a cheesy bathroom sliding glass door, suitable for straightening your tie or brushing your hair before facing the media.  Not to mention diminishing its own presence in favor of reflecting the goings on around it. If in this Presidential election season it all seems a bit topical, the artist is certainly not apologizing. Considering the work’s title, we take in the conventional association that whomever occupies a podium festooned with mics is a public figure. But it also conveys that other meaning, that something stinks. The whole emanates from Newkirk’s attractive brashness. He may be harsh, even outrageous, but there is that sense that he can smile his way through anything. Well, more power to you (Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena; LAXART, Culver City).