Sunday, February 1, 2009

Fresh Holes in the Universe and a Baroque Resurgence (I)

11 January – 31 January 2009

As I was saying …. Well, gee, is anyone really surprised Slumdog Millionaire swept the Globes? The only people who might have been surprised are those Hollywood-political types whose idea of a bankable movie is either something that might have played well as a made-for-television movie circa the 1970s or something likely to play well as a video game for the next couple of years, and/or the people who haven’t seen the movie. What passes for a Hollywood ‘establishment’ or its tattered remains – which seems to be mostly agency or agency packaging people – wouldn’t know a bankable script from a licensing agreement – or maybe an oil change. As long as the machine runs – might as well be their pathetic motto. It was also gratifying to see Mickey Rourke honored for his performance in The Wrestler. The Globe writers, editors and critics got it: ‘attention must be paid.’ I think it was also acknowledged in the daily press that both of these films were studio independent division projects that were nearly shunted off to television or video before finally getting distribution deals. Not to dismiss games – but this is the future of film (or digital or whatever) theatrical entertainment; and for the studios to take a cavalier or dismissive attitude towards the independents is sheer lunacy.

So where were we – oh yes, painting. Surprisingly painterly painting – in the midst of what might be Little House on the Prairie-Land (à la that Nara YNG Conestoga at Blum & Poe) or might be closer to the Kierkegaardian fear-and-trembling-and-sickness-unto-death terrain evoked in Valérie Favre’s brilliant show at Suzanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Come to think of it, the two might have a bit in common on that level. The work Favre showed evinced two distinct strains – one a kind of cartoon-ish emblematic yet fluid scrawl – think Ludwig Bemelmans (you do remember Madeline, don’t you? – in a similar blowsy sort of yellow, at that) in a kind of Sarah Kane-ish 4.48 Psychose setting (is this what we can expect the contemporary Madeline to grow up to?); the other a more expansive, quasi-narrative – almost lyrical -- and dazzlingly chromatic. There is an element of Doig here (but of course, also the Leipzig school, though no painter in that group shows a singular influence – Favre is entirely her own artist) – but more immersed, submerged – a sunken (not saturated) world caught on the surface. The palette is Bonnard-like – in the full Bonnard mature-to-late intensity of luminous purples and oranges relieved by verdigris and paler blues – notwithstanding the use of yellows and the mossy greens that fill out some of her quasi-narrative panels. I see I’ve used the ‘quasi-narrative’ descriptive twice, so let me explain. First of all, there is no explanation, nor for that matter a narrative; but there is certainly the suggestion of conflict, possibly mortal combat (e.g., ‘pugilists’ penned in a ‘boxing ring’), a ‘grim reaper’s’ scythe; a sense of simultaneous ascent and descent; a sense of overreach (that may parallel Favre’s own transparent ambition here), implosion, explosion (more little bunnies flaming out) – in other words, the mythological. There is a baroque quality to some of these paintings that is far from accidental. Mythological subjects are taken up in a great deal of late Renaissance and Baroque painting – with many other subjects treated as if they were mythic. (Who can say whether they lived up to it in actuality? In the paintings, they are mythic.) Oh – one more thing. At the opening, I overheard more than one viewer remarking on Gerhard Richter being an “influence.” Well, maybe and what of it? I’m as big a fan as anyone; but can we just get over Richter for a minute? Let’s face it: Richter is an influence on almost all contemporary European painting (and probably American, too). Favre’s work can stand on its own two(?) flaming bunny feet. It may be the best painting in town right now.

George Stoll’s show is by now long closed – and in any case, it was more than adequately noticed by the local press (well, ‘adequate’ may be stretching it – though my scan of Hunter Drohowska-Philp’s gave me some background on Stoll that I never really knew. I knew he’d had a Prix de Rome fellowship or something at the American Academy, but had no idea he’d spent so much time there). In any case, I thought the notices I saw (Christopher Knight in the L.A. Times and Hunter Drohowska-Philp’s (somewhere on-line – maybe the gallery sent it to me) were both fairly thoughtful. It’s no secret among my pals that I rather like Stoll’s work – he has a wry, ironic, almost wistful touch with, you might say, the paradox of life and art – not just its intimate, yet frequently paradoxical relationship, but the paradox of its continuity; its stream of ephemera – that sometimes make for something more than ephemeral – and its endurance, its persistence. Stoll intrigues – with his sensitivity to the gravity of what in outward appearance seems light, the sense of how one thing might stand for something quite different than what it superficially ‘says’ or ‘announces’; the sense of what is hidden or held or contained in forms both fanciful and more or less straightforward or generic. (I always have the feeling that Duchamp’s ball of twine, “With Hidden Noise” must have spoken to him in the most direct and personal way.) Stoll has worked with ‘Halloween’ themes before; but I thought it was interesting for Drohowska-Philp to point out an implicit reference in the Lightbox show to the Roman catacombs. Also Knight’s reference (or am I confusing it with something else?) to Baroque ‘vanitas’ – those gesso ice-cream breasts melting away into soupy oblivion (like my own ‘pre-molten’ pair??).

I’m not sure if it’s the impending inauguration of one of the most authentic individuals ever to assume the Presidency (and not a split second too soon), or the skyrocketing unemployment or imploding world economy, but – to judge from the arts and culture calendar alone – melt-down of one sort or another seems to be on almost everyone’s mind lately. You see the extreme rationalism cheek-to-jowl with a kind of (refreshingly) ideology- and religion-free spiritualism. What to call it? ‘Baroque Obama’? I’m only half-kidding. Without trying to comment directly on recent art market activity, it’s very hard to predict what is moving (in all senses), where the focus or emphasis is now or where it should be – I’m not sure that verb ever really applies; but on the other hand it’s a reflection of the real state of emergency we’re left in after almost eight full years of the Bush/Cheney state of emergency.

I’m not trying to make a case for the relevance of the L.A. art world, to say nothing of my odd peregrinations through it; but let’s just say I can find myself struck by that sort of dual resonance in the oddest places – art galleries included. The other night [January 10], I previewed Lester Monzon’s show at Kinkead Contemporary, an abstractionist whose work seems to be evolving with some sensitivity to this febrile climate around us. At one point a year or more ago, I would have simply viewed him as an abstractionist of a certain, uh, stripe – or grid or – you get the idea – not uninteresting, but nowhere close to the level of complexity he’s dealing with now. It would be radically over-simplifying to see this kind of painting as emerging from the pixelations of digital media, though certainly that is alluded to. But even within the underlying grids, stripes, checkerboard squares, roundels or, well, pixels, if you will – the color scheme is rigorously controlled – its own fabric (I mean that almost literally – it gives the impression of a textile weave) or manicured fields (dare I say landscape?) of brilliant yet subtle color gradients. Out of what might already be an interesting painting on its vivid yet restrained surface, a more painterly chaos erupts – though I’ve already exaggerated by using the word ‘chaos.’ Yet it’s almost impossible to resist the notion, given the control and restraint beneath. Is it simply the same tug-of-war of order and entropy? Order bleeding, if not exactly breeding chaos. Easier to look at it as a kind of painterly event that erupts or oozes from the not-so-randomly section of canvas (or linen). There is of course nothing random about it at all. The events, the brush-strokes, however sweeping or halting, seem, if not composed, then certainly choreographed. And so we’re back to a gestural style of abstraction – except that the old terminology – at least in this new context – doesn’t seem to apply. The gesture – signifying? towards? and how do we receive it? Or perceive it? And it’s not as if entirely floats free of this weave, this ground beneath it. Or does it – and where does it move the viewer?

Lester’s made something a bit more open-ended here – yet tethered to these brilliant swatches of an idiosyncratically manicured world – or maybe just the rods and cones of our eyes. It will be interesting to see where he moves these pieces of the seen and felt world – just as it’s already interesting turning and pivoting these pieces about in one’s mind.

It’s not a bad place to start from – the warp and woof (or whatever you call it) of an increasingly inter-woven – and pillaged – world we seem to have inherited. Lisa Adams similarly starts somewhere at the intersection of natural and constructed worlds – both in the most plural sense possible: the pillaged and polluted world; the natural world – or at least its invocation – of humanity, the biosphere; and the world reconstructed, transfigured, in imagination, in art. Adams titles her current exhibition at the Lawrence Asher Gallery (which I checked out the evening following the Monzon preview), after one of her paintings, The Future of Paradise Past, conveying its acute consciousness of that pillaged and polluted world which is our plundered legacy. The eponymous panel gives a literal sense of this hole in the universe – a ‘bird’s head’ opening to sheer sky around which quail-like birds repose or simply float. It is a deliberately floating, isolated, not so much mis-shapen as hybrid, universe – the physical world as re-built, re-written, re-embroidered as if the artist were projecting her own private Lhasa – the kind of Lost Horizon you might just as easily find outside your kitchen window as at the top of the Himalayas. (Mere coincidence that a pagoda (or a birdhouse??) looms out of Adams’ painterly blocks of acid yellows, whites, moss greens? – here surmounted by a red cardinal who seems to weave a mask out of a string in its beak. (The title: “After the Deluge.” Coincidence?? My guess is, no.) Elsewhere, filigree vines are fashioned variously into weaving parabolae, arches, necklaces or simply sentinels in twilight tones of storm-gray, flaming coral, lapis blues, and sullied cloud-whites – variously broken down into the suggestion of an incipient grid or simply swept across the panel. Funny, too, how, notwithstanding felicitously rendered birds and blossoms, the filigree vine can segue from seeming embellishment to something akin to barbed wire. You thought irony was dead? Tell that to Lisa Adams. This is a show replete with irony – but I mean that as a compliment. How else to get through something like what we’re clearly on the brink of?

Any more inaugural notes?? This seems something of a departure for Adams. It’s a mordant and, as I said, heavily ironic, show. I would have to guess this rather elegiac tone comes as much from where she’s standing right now in her life. But, how different is it for any of us here in L.A., to say nothing of the more benighted corners of the world? I’m looking forward to the celebrations in a week or so. But I have a feeling we can expect a few similarly sobering, cautionary notes from the 44th. This is a pretty terrific show.