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December, 2008

Not since the LACMA show of early works by Pablo Picasso have we seen so many of his early graphic works gathered in one place. Whatever we think of Picasso, the man and the misogynist, the fact is that whether working in expressionist line or classical rendering, he is one of the surest masters of graphic media, from pencil to prints. There is something about leaning close in to one of his drawings that cannot be beat. Of particular note here is a strange but lyrical 1905 image of a bloated circus clown, sitting in leotards with legs spread wide, getting a moment of rest, and the 1899 sketch portrait of the Spanish sculptor Joseph Cardona. The 25 drawings and prints span 68 years of production from Picasso’s very early arrival in Paris through the late 1960s (Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara).

Pablo Picasso, "Paysans Italiens (Italian Peasants),"
1919, pencil and smeared charcoal on paper.

Francisco Goya, “The Burial of the Sardine (Corpus
Christi Festival on Ash Wednesday),” 1812-
1819, oil in panel, 32 1/2" x 24 1/2".
Midway though an exhibition of Francisco Goya’s “Los Caprichos,” a dark cloud of nocturnal creatures swarms over a figure and we read the inscription, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” Goya’s biting critique of superstition bears a prescient warning for our current “faith-based” initiatives. Goya only sold a handful of sets, including an early printing bought by the Duke of Osuna. Credit must be given the collector, whose mother is lampooned in “Until Death,” which shows the dowager primping for a birthday party. No one gets off easy in Goya’s masterful combination of aquatint and etching--even the artist himself gets depicted as a monkey (Cal State Fullerton Art Gallery, Orange County).

In Rhea Carmi’s world there is light where there is dark, hope where there is despair, peace where there is war and good, even in the face of great evil. Carmi’s multi-media works give voice to those whose voices are silenced, mostly through the Holocaust but also through more current wars, illness or disappearance. Whether she paints or makes multi-media assemblages, her work is always personal and physical. Nothing is simple; every line or object is fraught with personal symbolism and historic meaning.

Rhea Carmi, "Light in the Dark," 2007, mixed media on panel, 60 x 96".
Carmi changes styles, incorporates found or created objects, creates multiple textures--anything but just paint. “Full Cycle,” for example, is a small installation that pays homage to her husband’s mother, Esther Weingarten, who perished in the Holocaust. The piece alludes to the rail transports carrying millions to the death camps (Soka University Founders Hall Art Gallery, Orange County).

Richard Turner, "Contempt Mandala," 2008, multi-media installation.

Richard Turner’s installation “Contempt Mandala” floods the gallery with a tide of detached, interrelated fragments of images and objects that set the mind spinning like the needle on a compass in the devil’s triangle. Everything keys off a disjointed and multi-layered 1963 Jean Luc Goddard movie which erratically tells the story of a failed marriage that is also the story of Ulysses leaving home, yet is also a movie about making this movie. While the film flickers on one wall some of its distinctively odd and disorienting modernist architecture appears to have washed up as flotsam in the gallery.
As enigmatic objects ripped from cinematic reality, their crude but powerful shapes spin out a weirdly suggestive scenario that is part map, part planetary orbit, as well as a rambling tale about getting lost in travel and in the studio. It feels as much a personal narrative as a comment on the multiple realities of art and life, but ultimately suggests an intellectually demanding game played by a shipwrecked vagabond passing the time (CSUF Grand Central Art Center, Orange County).

“Annotating History” serves both as an introduction of Kara Walker's work for the uninitiated; works from the mid-1990s to 2005 are on display. In a series of 15 lithographs from 2005, Walker inserts somber silhouettes of slaves, fragments of black bodies, and disturbing satirical figures of African Americans on enlarged pages from Harper's Weekly Picture History of the Civil War, which heralded Southern soldiers and battlefields. Small watercolor and gouache paintings entitled “Negress Notes” (1996) illuminate the artist's line and drawing skills, rather than her silhouette cutouts, in Goya-esque and often grotesque images. An enlarged silhouette tableau has been painted onto the Museum's wall, so that the viewer encounters Walker's work in varying formats and sizes. Whatever the method of delivery, her work disturbs, confuses and creates discomfort (Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont).

Kara Walker, "Negress Notes (Brown
Follies)," 1996-97, watercolor on paper.

Mary Dessert, "Untitled MD.1," 2008, colored
pencil, ink and cut marks, 20 1/2 x 26 3/8".

The mixed media paintings of Mary Dessert are like visual Braille. Each hosts at least one wonderfully odd organic shape that seems to float peacefully or spin steadily amid patterned grounds so thick with little slashes and daubs of paint they almost beg to be touched. To make the works Dessert coats wooden panels with thin layers of paper and hand worked color. Then she sands, carves and gouges into the surface. Eventually she draws out some kind of a rounded, vaguely cartoonish and simple organic form that she then solidifies into a kind of faceless personality. By turns prickly, slippery, rubbed raw and smooth the forms and their atmospheric grounds load mystery and delight into all kinds of small details (SCA Project Gallery, Pomona).

Jorg Dubin has built his considerable reputation as a figurative painter by creating portraits, some as headshots others full-length, that uncannily reflect his subjects’ deepest psyche. Now, he has switched gears and turned his sharp eye on the landscape. His most recent series of paintings depict the old El Toro Marine Air Base as it transitions from an abandoned ghost town into urban wilderness. Buildings are deteriorating due to neglect and the elements, pavement is being reclaimed by spontaneous flora, aka weeds, and over it all hovers the same blue sky that lumbering war planes once crisscrossed.

Jorg Dubin, "House of Blue Lights," oil on linen, 48 x 32".
While the area has been documented by a small army of photographers, Dubin gives these vistas, destined to become the Great Park someday, a fresh, contemporary look. Geoffrey Krueger has spent decades painting the eucalyptus arbors and strawberry fields that are slowly yielding to stucco and cement. Keeping his palette dark and his lines softer than usual, he has created vistas that appear more informed by dreams than reality. One wonders whether he is still painting what he sees or what he remembers, and therein lies the appeal of his work (Peter Blake Gallery, Orange County).

The Andy Warhol Foundation has divvied up twenty-eight million dollars worth of Andy Warhol’s Polaroids and black and white prints to 183 university art museums. Among the recipients is CSULB’s University Art Museum, which has a selection of Polaroids used to make his iconic silk screens and portraits. Like a visit to Warhol’s Factory under glass, the show includes Warhol’s working images of Margaret Hamilton (aka The Wicked Witch of the West), O.J. Simpson among others, along with the resulting silkscreens and paintings. In an adjacent room, Warhol’s helium-filled Mylar pillows is installed so as to provide the full Factory effect (CSULB University Art Museum, Long Beach).

Andy Warhol, "O.J. Simpson," 1977, Polacolor Type 108.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

While early work like “House” could be seen as a critique of gentrification, with her current show Rachel Whiteread offers viewers a whole new take on her practice. Working alone--rather than with a bevy of assistants--the first female recipient of the Turner Prize presents modestly sized translucent to opaque casts of the insides of shipping boxes and tubes, transforming them into idiosyncratic shapes, arranged on high shelves and balanced in piles on the frames of chairs. Pastel shades of plaster and luminous blocks of resin refocus the viewer’s attention on pure form, while their intimate scale shows off the artist’s hand. Collaged photographs of museum quality glass goblets line the walls of a side gallery, playing off plaster, metal and resin sculptural groupings in the middle of the room. Upstairs, larger resin casts glow in the natural light, with the most magical, doll sized, lavender dollhouse and honey-colored beehive giving up their interiors (Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills).

Rachel Whiteread, "Green Model," 2007-08, plaster, pigment,

resin, stainless steel, wood and metal, 15 x 35 1/2 x 9 3/4".

Darren Hostetter, "Circling (Black) Hawks," 2007,
acrylic on aircraft aluminum, 12 x 16 5/8".

Darren Hostetter's candy colored acrylic on aircraft aluminum paintings of military jets, weapons and helicopters are contradictory visions. While fighter jets and weapons are swallowed up in the overall pattern of a luminous afterglow, their deadliness remains intact. Growing up with a father who worked for the classified sector of the aerospace industry, Hostetter takes the streamlined shapes of these magnificent machines and turns the tables; instead of twisting their way to targets, his aircraft and weapons become decorative patterns as they multiply and divide against backgrounds of glowing red, blue, pink and orange. An earlier, subtle painting of “Circling Hawks“ remains an inspiration for Hostetter as his jets, drones and helicopters emulate the intricate formations and precision flying of flocks of birds.

Natural phenomenon also appears in the painting “In The Deep,” where cruise missiles dive like schools of fish into a midnight blue realm. In “Omnipotence” he portrays a military satellite as shimmering blue plates being juggled through space in an elegant dance, instead of an unseen eye constantly relaying secret and terrifying information. Particularly strong is the lovely pink painting, “Forest,” where multiple silver cruise missiles fly low over a thicket of bristling antennae and satellite receivers, as is “Green Black Hawks,” where dramatic black helicopters with spinning blades vibrate against a lime green background. The military industrial complex becomes an ironic thing of beauty, not of death and destruction (Sam Lee Gallery, Chinatown).

Nowhere is the allure of drawing more evident than in the current show of new works by Robert Schultz. His current graphite and silver point drawings are intimate in scale but huge in visual punch. There is a gorgeous female figure laying with her breasts exposed and eyes shrouded with a cloth called “Bed Figure.” ”Black Shawl” creates color with obsessively careful laying down of layer upon layer of sooty pencil marks to limn an exotic, photo real young girl draped in a scarf. Added to the lure of aura or touch, a few works contain that other great part of lasting art--the uncanny. In the tiny jewel titled “Juggler,” an agile, weirdly muscular male practices his trade (Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Culver City).

Robert Schultz, "Bed Figure," 2008, graphite on paper, 19 1/2 x 24 1/4".

Lillian Bassman, "
Barbara Mullen:
Blowing Kiss," c. 1950s, photograph.

Photographer Lillian Bassman has been shooting high fashion and gorgeous women long enough to remember cinched waists and little pill box hats with black netting hiding demure eyes. The veteran permitted the gallery to go through vintage archives and agreed to reprint in her own vision some of her most iconic couture shots. In hindsight these representations of female identity were in fact as much a fiction in the suburbs and Park Avenue high-rises of the 1950s as they are today.  It is still great fun to see a type of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn allure revived from the pages of post-war Harper’s. Besides the nostalgia and the recognition that mass media has and will continue to tell us what it means to be a girl, there is Mullen’s streamlined, sinuous aesthetic: long, oddly staged bodies in strategic light and extreme outfits become less ladies in clothes and more stylized human sculpture (Peter Fetterman Photographic Works of Art, Santa Monica).