Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Flâneur at Cruising Speed

8 September 2007

After a long slog of a summer – most of August anyway, and particularly the last couple of very hot weeks in Los Angeles – I needed an evening of unadulterated pleasure to kick off the season, and, happily, fette was there to provide it. Being fette, of course, there was much more – the provocation of the unexpectedly incongruous or disjunctive, the poignancy of transmuted perceptions, of charged, revised memory. Being fette, of course, the bill of fare was international and very much of the moment. Not a little surprising, though, for a show whose first incongruity was the title itself – Le Flâneur (entirely irresistible for a Baudelairean Parisienne manquée like me). What is flânerie in a city like Los Angeles? Leave it to fette to figure it out – or simply let the concept fly, as it were – to fan out over a suburban, meta-urban (or micro-urban) expanse and alight where it will – washed over, enveloped or entirely swallowed up by intersecting points, places (and their corresponding moments), the warrens and corridors lost in its vastness, the blur that crystallizes (or not) only after the car is parked.

It’s not entirely a surprise that my own intractably urban penchant for flânerie survives the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles; this is simply the way I live. But what surprises me is that a peculiar Los Angeles type of flânerie survives and thrives at cruising speed on its streets and boulevards. (I won’t say freeways; that’s an entirely different, and mostly alienating, experience.) It’s a flânerie born of fleeting perception, reflections (of light and of thought) anticipation, anxiety, dissonance and disjunction, destination and desire; and finally the seduction of places that unexpectedly fascinate and spark our imaginations when we finally slow or stop, or – surprise! – actually walk the finite number of blocks we can before giving in to L.A.’s oppressive scale.

Joshua Callaghan and Christiane Feser seize on different aspects of the suburban situation in terms of apprehension, dislocation and disjunction. In the darkness, I didn’t even see Callaghan’s steroidal pigeon, “Bubba,” perched on the rooftop of fette’s gallery – a ‘flâneur on the fly, quietly surveying the stream of first-nighters below. Feser’s C-prints (from her Strassen series) present their own kind of reversals – an inside-out world, digitally depopulated and depersonalized, of suburban streets and fields – warehouses – or simply houses – washed of their doors and windows, entrances, exits; purged of human ingress and egress; both fields and streetfronts are rendered even more anonymous, and indeed indistinguishable, where openings are closings and endless.

Christopher Davison’s gouache and papier collé reclining figures – one of them (with voodoo mask head clasped in a cup-like hand) parenthetically titled “Judith” – evoked the dream-like intersection of figure and land- or cityscape. Davison’s essentially symbolist vocabulary conveys a sense of figures painted, even tattooed (or conversely, eviscerated) by the flow of place, experience, dreams; the endlessly folded and re-folded maps literally folded into our laps.

Flânerie is also about the process of fastening on, and collecting the curiosities of the urban streets – as tangible souvenirs (perfect bilingual word) – exotica, antiques or antiquities, or simply fascinating detritus; things almost unconsciously sought after, the epiphanal object. Aya Saieto’s large drawings (if that is the correct word for them) in oil, acrylic and ink on paper are both journeys and curiosities, its distinctly figurative elements – physical, organic, animal, avian – extrapolated and abstracted into intricate, sinuous improvisations, yet woven into a whole, the macrocosmic emerging out of the microcosmic, and vice-versa.

There were affinities, however oblique, among these two very different artists, as well as a third (and a fourth?) – Ami Tallman, whose oil/gouache/watercolor (and ink and pencil) works on paper pulled us into a very concrete microcosmic sphere of objects, still lifes, halls and galleries (shades of those Baudelairean arcades!), fixtures, and drawing room interiors – slightly pompous but also slightly déraciné, conveying a sense of evacuation not too far removed from Feser’s streetscapes – with both aspects of ‘curiosity’ and alienation heightened, enriched by a warm, saturated palette of near-psychidelic intensity. (The alien quality is further emphasized by strokes of enamel worked over portions of the surface.) Tallman has a sure technique, a formal and tonal control that is almost breath-taking, and above all a sharp eye and a wit to match it.

The cabinet of curiosities closed fittingly with a suite of photograph C-prints from Adrien Missika’s Safari Classique series. (A Bas Louter portrait in charcoal shared the wall.) What appeared to be miniature landscapes – artful and somewhat romanticized composites of photographed foregrounds and painted backgrounds, photo-realist painting, or some combination of the two – turned out to be fragments of natural history museum dioramas (in fact, taken at the American Museum of Natural History in New York) – just the sort of thing I’d pick up from Deyrolle or a bord-de-la-Seine-bouquinist after a day wandering around Paris. (If there is a hint of nostalgia here, I think it’s probably my own: Paris me manque, and the Natural History Museum was always one of my favorite places in New York.)

The American writer Edmund White has noted that in recent years even Parisian-style flânerie veers far from the familiar, bourgeois boulevards of St. Germain des Près, Batignolles, Montparnasse, etc. into the most exotic ethnic quartiers of the city – even the banlieues. With fette, it seems to be the more or less consistent policy: to keep an open eye and an open door.

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