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January, 2009

Louise Bourgeois’ ongoing determination to confront life experiences, addressing personal issues of violence, disappointment and loss with unflinching wit is exposed to view from the earliest to most recent of a collection of over 100 multimedia works in this startling exhibition. Plates from Bourgeois' book, “He Disappeared into Complete Silence” (1947) illustrate emotive samplings of stories rarely disclosed outside a confessional, with line drawings fusing the French-born American doyen’s interest in architecture with references to the body. Spiders, severed limbs, breasts and buttocks are constructed in materials as widely varied as stuffed pink knit to translucent marble. The cell like installations in which Bourgeois jails memories from her past, laced with elements alluding to tapestry restoration--the family trade--retain a tragic, mysterious power too compelling to ever ignore (The Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown).

Louise Bourgeois, "Cumul I," 1969,
marble wood plinth, 22 3/8 x 50 x 48".

“Sur le Motif: Painting in Nature around 1800” is an intimate collection of exquisite landscapes that reveal the interest of the French 19th-century painters in the Neo-Classical and Romantic landscape and corresponding atmospheric effects.  Outstanding quality paintings by little known French artists beautifully depict the gradual evolution in landscape painting leading up to the works of the great Barbizon and Pre-Impressionist painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. A lovely light-filled classical landscape by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes shows the influence of 17th-century French masters Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain in his use of mythological figures against the dramatic background cliffs and a towering antique castle. De Valenciennes adds a thunderous rainstorm to the equation, with sheets of grey water visible in the distance.  Perhaps the best example of the Romantic impulse is “The Falls at Tivoli” (1826) by Louise-Josephine Sarazin de Belmont, where thundering falls drop dramatically in an eroded ravine capped by classical ruins. Every detail shimmers in this precisely depicted landscape, yet the artist still manages to convey a wildness that is central to Romanticism. A precursor to Plein Air Impressionist painting is the tiny oil sketch by Simon-Alexandre-Clement Denis, where dark, layered clouds hover over a deep grey-green ocean, obviously witnessed at first hand and quickly rendered by the artist. The exhibit revolves around six glowing paintings by Corot, a painter able to deftly wed the Neo-Classical and the Romantic, yet brought an immediacy to his paintings of nature in the Forest of Fontainebleau that proved hugely influential to the Impressionist painters that followed him.

Outdoor photographer Carleton Watkins’s efforts to maneuver his bulky, oversized nineteenth century camera equipment into position to capture the best views of Yosemite Valley are matched by the curatorial zeal of curator Weston Naef to deliver a comprehensive pictorial history of a pioneering visionary. Watkins’s career had as many ups and downs as the peaks and troughs of the Yosemite Valley he photographed with his peers Eadweard Muybridge and Charles Weed. His study of reflections in nature is a delight, as in his photograph of the Columbia River in Oregon in 1883, where the photograph becomes a lyrical tribute to the compositional balance of light and dark. Naef makes the case for attributing unsigned daguerreotypes such as those of Sutter’s mill and other mother lode sites to Watkins, based on stylistic similarities to larger signed works and a careful study of Watkins’s travels. Among the one hundred fifty works on display are a series of Western landscapes, viewable in three dimensions through stereoscopes. Of special interest are Watkins’s panoramic depictions of San Francisco and his half-dozen images of California missions, abandoned and crumbling, decades before being restored as popular tourist attractions (The Getty Center, West Los Angeles).

Elger Esser, "Cutting Wharf I," 2008.
As seen through the eyes of Elger Esser, one of a younger generation of photographers to have benefited from studying with Bernd and Hilla Becher, these American sunsets lure the viewer towards infinite but indistinct horizons. Reminiscent of ephemeral Romantic landscapes painted in brownish tones, Esser often employs weathered wood structures to frame tranquil waterways. This series is the product of the German photographer’s recently completed residency with Lapis Press of Culver City and his investigation of sites along the California and Washington coast.  By shooting in film and scanning to digital printers, Esser maintains sharp details which play off beautifully against barely discernable veils of color in these gorgeous large prints and accompanying portfolio (Rose Gallery, Santa Monica).

Greek photographer Yiorgos Kordakis comes to art following careers as an auto designer in Turin and a media designer in London. He has had a crop of shows in Europe, and makes his local debut with sumptuous photos of seascapes. Atmospheric and still, the people are static structures of oscillating form, much as they are in Impressionist paintings by Monet of the new monied strolling at the seashore. The difference here is that the horizons lie very low--the sky and the sea are large abstract swaths that in effect absorb the figures (M+B Fine Art, West Hollywood).

Yiorgos Kordakis. "Global Summer
No. 19," 2005, pigment ink print, 41 1/2 x 53".

Robert Ginder, "Casa Rustica," 2008,
oil and gold leaf on wood, 24 x 31".

One can almost envision the angel Gabriel descending through the overgrown palm trees that pierce gold leaf skies arching above Robert Ginder’s humble Spanish Revival bungalows. Like the architectural styles that emerged in California during the 1920s, Ginder’s oil paintings on distressed board are based on historic precedent, tweaked to add dramatic suspense beyond mere historical authenticity. Grinder meticulously captures every detail of the sunlit pastel stucco walls and red tile roofs in these established neighborhoods. Lawn sprinklers, trash cans, carefully pruned hedges and other details of ordinary existence abound in his portraits of homes such as “Casa Rustica,” “Coral Place,” and “Comfort and Shade.” But Ginder heightens the mystery surrounding life in these modest abodes by concealing all occupants behind drawn curtains or blank windows, and artificially aging and gilding his paintings as if they were sacred icons (Lora Schlesinger Gallery, Santa Monica).

For more than a decade, Los Angeles-based George Stoll’s ingenious and meticulous trompe l’oeil sculptures from such prosaic objects as toilet paper rolls, Tupperware cups, and sponges have elevated these forms by playfully blurring boundaries between what is considered common versus something exquisite. Stoll’s newest exhibition, “Sacred and Profane” takes a more direct approach, with mixed results. The two-part exhibition consists of white plaster renditions of bones and oddly spherical breasts with colored nipples lying in bowls or placed in niches on one side; the other part includes a series of drawings and Stoll’s familiar luminous wax cups integrated into geometric sculptures.

George Stoll, "Untitled (Daphne and Apollo Valentine's day)," 2008
plaster, cheesecloth, spackle, and alkyd on a painted wooden pedestal
12 x 36 x 11 inches (sculpture), 36 x 48 x 24 inches (pedestal)
The objects are no doubt intriguing, but their division into two segments presses Stoll’s typically subdued humor and subtle ideas perhaps too emphatically to the surface. Nevertheless, Stoll has admirably gone out on a limb by trying something new with this pairing and his works--invariably feats of imagination and craftsmanship--continue to impress (Kim Light/Lightbox, Culver City).

Greg Stone, "Free Radicals Version
3.1," 2007, paint, 44" X 30".

A three-person exhibition with Joe Amrhein, Greg Stone, and Jamison Carter examines unique ways of layering or combining materials and images. Stone’s primarily brown, black, and white wall-works are made entirely with materials purchased at Home Depot, though one would never guess it. Part tie-dye trippy and part mystical imaginings, the dimensional wall pieces reveal textured layers of materials through painted surfaces. Their seeming homage to things of the earth combines with thoroughly artificial media and intricate designs to make for some truly unique works. Similarly, Carter’s neon twig-like sculptures resemble coral excavated from a fake sea, as if dreaming of nature well beyond a time when it had once been readily available to humans--something perhaps not so remote for contemporary city-dwellers. Amrhein’s word collages, made with graphic text on clear vellum, could be considered the apple that doesn’t fit in with a group of oranges, but their inclusion allows the exhibition--and thus each of the works included--to resist a simple or quick reading (Jancar Gallery, Chinatown).

The uniform square shape of Jay Sagen’s seven 4’x 4’ paintings serve to neatly frame strange black and white biomorphic blobs and drips; each panel is a glimpse into a larger indecipherable whole. The abstract pools of latex paint edged with non-reflecting rivulets and dribbles of India ink look, by turns, like microscopic views of alien cellular tissue and then like parts of misshapen creatures themselves. Get closer and the abstraction becomes clear. There is no representation here, but ample abstract play--drips are painted lines, and what first appears to be simply black and white now has hovering gray clouds and gold flecks. Upon even closer inspection the marks become spots where the paint has been gouged away to reveal the particle board underneath (At Space Gallery, Orange County).

Jay Sagen, painting

Mark Flood, installation view, Peres Projects, 2008/9.

Under an acid-green limelight, Mark Flood’s found and altered colorplast signs admonish us to do everything from killing ourselves to becoming whores. In his show, “Entertainment Weakly,” a cautionary tale is told by Wild Card, where Heath Leger, River Phoenix, and Wallace Reid--all dead-in-their-prime heartthrobs--share fifteen minutes of post-mortem fame. Even the more sensible and conservative stars are cut and transformed; Flood’s X-acto refigures their faces into uncanny horrors--showing that ugliness as well as beauty can be skin deep. As the saying (should) go, ars longa, celebrity brevis--art endures, fame is brief  (Peres Projects, Culver City).

It is impossible to escape the context of an economy in flux when visiting an exhibit of three of the biggest capitalists to ever grace the art world. A show of Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol challenges one to look beyond the price tag now that we live in a different sort of economy. . .and yet there is consistently nothing there at all. Like a Bernard Madoff securities investment, Warhol Dollar Signs, Murakami cartoons and Hirst spin paintings suddenly become invisible, absent all potency. These three are united in a showcase that, for all of its bright colors and familiar themes, could not escape answering for excesses of an art world surrendering to blue-chip capitalism. Shallow product most likely consigned from collectors suddenly desperate to make a buck, each artist is now revealed to be less clever than conceptualism and more dangerous an investment than a derivative of a derivative (Ikon Ltd, Santa Monica).

Damien Hirst, "Happy Head Number 10," 2007
6 x 7 x 9", household gloss paint on resin skull
from an edition of 20 different unique skulls.

Barbara Beirne, "Lili Shek,
age 18," 2008, photograph.

Disregard the exhibition title and captions underscoring each portrait and you could be lead to believe that documentary photographer Barbara Beirne had been conscripted to shoot pictures for a high school yearbook. The photographs seem quite ordinary until you read the excerpts from Beirne’s interviews with these teenagers and realize that every one of the nearly sixty young people portrayed is an immigrant, adjusting to a new way of life in America. Titled “Becoming American,” the exhibition by this award winning documentary photographer goes a notch beyond National Geographic docu-pics because Beirne is smart and empathic. Newly arrived teens like Lili Shek were provided with cameras to portray themselves, and are not shown in native clothes from Nepal or Ecuador, but instead in their swim team gear or in Western teen garb, so as to suggest what it means for first generation young people to move through liminal self spaces. The subjects’ narratives add to our understanding of the complexity of these newcomers' lives (Skirball Cultural Center, West Los Angeles).

If America’s consumer spending accounts for one fifth of the world’s GDP, “Forming” is quite prescient, themed as it is around artists’ reuse of consumer goods. A cat by Macha Suzuki is transformed into a surreal lake, made from materials familiar to the model railroad club next door. Looking like creatures that crawled out of San Pedro Bay, Michael Dee creates tentacled forms from plastic cups. A close inspection of Eric Johnson’s resin casts of toy packaging stop the viewer’s gaze on their candy-colored surface, transforming empty vessels into ciphers of desire. From a distance, Nancy Keys sculpts dust bunnies from detritus, using discarded bits of consumerism. Having lost their allure, Keys spins gravity from fine wire, pulling together flotsam into clusters of delicate waste. In a narrow space, paperboard forms float silently overhead, giving visitors a narwhal’s-eye view of Margaret Pezalla’s icebergs--which transcend their humble materials (Angels Gate, San Pedro).

Kiel Johnson, "Pack It Up, Put It Behind You,
Let's Go," 2008, wood, chipboard and straps.

Jorg Dubin, "Over a Barrel," mixed media.

Mark Chamberlain conceived of this high-voltage show, My Father’s Party is Busted” where, prior to the national elections and up to the inauguration, artists are invited to comment on the state of the nation. Chamberlain sent out invitations and questionnaires to the gallery’s 36-year network of participating artists. As concerned citizens, they were asked to express their thoughts through art, with no topic being sacred. This no holds barred, conceptual show frankly represents disparate opinions of 40 artists who show over 70 works, largely dealing with how big government, the military, and business organizations affect their lives. The show continues to evolve as artists add new work, further interpreting a variety of points of view. The theme of “badly broken systems” is seen in Jeff Frisch’s comments on the financial meltdown. He shreds money in a kitchen meat grinder to express how devalued it has become. Ron English combines two historical generations by creating one portrait of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln. Lynn Victoria photocopied a patchwork quilt of her hand gestures, expressing acquiescence to rage through sign language. Among the most provocative work is a sculpture by Haley Blatte, “21st Century Freedom,” which turns an American flag into a jumpsuit-cum-prison outfit. Blatte deals with patriotism and how it can blind, masking the very thing we claim we are against (BC Space, Orange County).

A founding member of “Aperture,” as well as a designer and editor, Nancy Newhall (1908-1974) is best known for her writing and for her profound influence on the form of the modern photographic book. It is refreshing to see her photographs on exhibit, along with those of her peers, like Paul Strand, Helen Levitt and Minor White, among others.  In “Hands and Alpha Particles, Buckminster Fuller, Black Mountain College” (silver gelatin print, 1948), the subject points his index fingers forward, gesturing above the tape-and-cardboard, pyramid-shaped figures piled about. We imagine the subject talking, explaining, questioning, although we see only his hands. It is the powerful references to what is not in the frame that makes this image seem so representative of Newhall’s work.

The connection between landscape and photography is deep-rooted and multifaceted.

Robert Parke Harrison, "Edison's Light," 1998, mixxed media.
Originally, in the early to mid-nineteenth century, the landscape provided what the photographer needed—stillness and ample light for the long exposures. “Picturing the Process: Landscape through Time and Space” explores the various paths landscape photography has taken since that time. Three images, Samuel Bourne’s “Tibet Road—Great China” (1867), Seneca Ray Stoddard’s “Black Mountain from Sabbath Day Point” (n.d.), and John Pfahl’s “#2 Bundle Pile, Salvage Yard, Connecticut” (2000), illustrate what all these approaches have in common. The photographer succeeds when the viewer not only sees the scene, but also feels what it is like to be there. Bourne captures a sense of the struggle of traveling this road etched into the rocky hillside in “Tibet Road.”  In contrast, the placid spaciousness in Stoddard’s “Black Mountain” feels peaceful. Pfahl’s “Salvage Yard” also elicits a visceral response, one of antipathy, as if the smells and sounds are as perceptible as the image of the compacted bundles sitting in the brown muck (Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego).

Xu Bing, photograph from “Human/Nature”
project at Mount Kenya National Park, 2008.

Too often mixing art and social consciousness makes for preachy art that everybody wants to avoid; and so, one might be reasonably skeptical about the art produced from sending eight artists to eight UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world with the mandate to “investigate the relationships between fragile natural environments and the human communities that depend on them.” However, the caliber of the accomplished artists chosen for the residency and resulting exhibition, “Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet,” has produced an intriguing body of work that is all the more fascinating because some of the projects have been created in collaboration with indigenous populations without losing artistic integrity.

Ann Hamilton’s sound piece in particular, with dangling ear cones emitting recorded sounds of the Galapagos, deftly avoids becoming merely the ephemera of a spoken-word performance created with an eighth grade class, providing viewers with a genuinely contemplative visual and listening experience (San Diego MoCA, San Diego).

In uncertain times it seems that the art world is playing it safe. But then, staging a huge retrospective of William Wendt, a painter whom some regard as the father of West Coast plein-air painting carries a risk of being deemed un-hip as well, since it runs concurrently with the Orange County Museum of Art’s edgy and far-flung Biennial 2008. But, this is no fuddy-duddy of a show, quite the contrary. The paintings, with very few exceptions (the artist did not do watercolor all that well) are masterful depictions of a Southern California that one will never see again. His landscapes are bereft of people and bear only scant evidence of their existence. His palette is earthy for the most part, green predominates but, when he intersperses vivid color, as in “Sycamores Entangled” or “Lupine Patch,” he paints paradise and takes his audience with him (Laguna Art Museum, Orange County).

William Wendt, "The Grove," 1915, oil on canvas.

Kara Tanaka, "Crushed by the Hammer of the Sun,"
2008, mechanical sculpture, silk skirt, 56 x 40 x
40 in. (at rest); 92 x 84 x 84 in. (in motion).
Courtesy of the artist and Simon
Preston Gallery, New York

It has been a rough start to the new millennium, and the 2008 California Biennial expansively includes the works of more than thirty artists on site--and a dozen more projects off-site from Joshua Tree to San Francisco--that reflect the current plethora of crises we are living through. Curator Lauri Firstenberg’s selections display a bias towards social scrutiny and new media. Bruce Conner’s fourteen-minute film loop, Looking for Mushrooms (1959-65/1996), is a mesmerizing series of atomic mushroom clouds exploding in the Bikini Atoll. Art spills out the front door, where Sam Durant hijacks the OC's civic-boosterism-via-banner, reminding residents that their homes were built by an undocumented workforce. Inside, Julio Cesar Morales lends historical context to the porous and mutable border, depicting the transfer of California from Mexico. Artists’ age-range spans nearly fifty years, from 74-year old Yvonne Rainer, to new Cal Arts graduate Kara Tanaka. Tanaka’s Dervish whirls to rack-and-pinion transcendence, while next door, Rainer's dancers move to a BBC reenactment of Stravinsky. For the most part the works here share the spare, practical feel of the kind of work often created in the art school-driven milieu of the present moment (Orange County Museum of Art [OCMA], Orange County).