Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dandelion Whine

2-3 October 2009

Before I pick up where I left off – and yes, I’m lagging behind again – here’s a discovery. The Blue Whale is apparently a beached whale on Saturdays. This has always been the case to some extent, as I’m aware – the building has long been mostly devoted to design, architecture, textile and furniture showrooms catering mostly to the trade who keep regular Monday through Friday business week hours. But until recently, it seemed there was always something open (besides the restaurant) – or at least some special event that kept the doors open for some segment of non-trade customers or would-be clients trawling the interior design studios. Not so – or certainly not so anymore. When I returned early Saturday afternoon for a bit of reconnaissance (mostly Carl Berg), I was dismayed to be told by a guard that the entire building was closed. That, I said confidently to him, was impossible. There were art galleries on the second and third floors that should be open for business. Should be – but apparently are not. As we both made calls on our respective phones, it became clear that there was no one at the Carl Berg Gallery. I left a message; but there was no reason to expect an immediate reply. The building is apparently closed on Saturdays to ALL. You would think this might change, given the re-purposing of so many of these spaces for art galleries – but nooooo. The galleries will simply have to find a way around this. Here’s a shout-out to Carl: I think some kind of party or salon at some bar – say half-way between that area and Culver City (not the Mandrake – which is something apart and unto itself) – should take the place of the gallery’s Saturday hours – which, let’s face it, are as important to clients and collectors as they are to the rest of us art world shmos cruising for a free view, intel, and something to talk about at the next dinner, drinks or, uh, BAR.

So – Erin Dunn (half the reason I was there) will have to wait a bit. But let me just preview more extended comments by saying it is one of the most astonishing debuts I have seen in some time. Carl Berg obviously agreed. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have essentially handed over an entire gallery – an enormous space divided axially into several smaller rooms or galleries – to this young artist, who only recently settled in Los Angeles after graduating from RISD, with only a few appearances in group shows to date. Obviously any artist this young (I’m not sure if she’s even 25) is still evolving and will probably veer some distance from what is on view here. But the assuredness of her vision (and its range) and technique – in addition to the exuberant, fantasist freedom with which it’s deployed – are truly astonishing.

The work is largely drawn from nature – but abstracted, heightened in color, composition and orientation, and scale to something that is a world apart – a garden of earthly delights transformed into a private fairyland of exquisite, almost monstrous creations. The closest comparison (in terms of both color and style) I can make is to the work of Odilon Redon. Some of Dunn’s flower paintings (I’m not sure what else to call them) struck this note most distinctly – but with slightly more immediacy, a more vivid charge. (And for the most part, they are larger than Redon’s typical scale.)

But it is not just the paintings. Berg did not just throw a gallery to Dunn. Her work – which ranges into collage/assemblage, objects, textiles – encompasses a world. It is something that requires this kind of space. I don’t mean to overstate or exaggerate, but it is visionary on an almost Blake-an scale. No, she is not a William Blake, a Bosch or Breughel, or – well perhaps it’s jumping ahead a bit to even put her in the same company with Redon. But it is a vision complete, compelling and coherent. Okay – let’s move on. I’ll come back to the Beached Whale. At some point.

This past evening (which now slips into the 4th) I’ve been to the opening of the Robert Gober-curated Charles Burchfield show at the Hammer – Heat Waves In A Swamp – which is something of a revelation viewed within the context of the past 15 or 20 years of Los Angeles art. I should say, with some embarrassment, a revelation to me – not obviously to Gober, nor to Ann Philbin. I had only the vaguest clue who he was – knew his work dated from some time in the early 20th century, knew he’d worked in Buffalo, New York, vaguely associated him with Ashcan School painters of upstate New York. As far as I knew (which was NOTHING), he might have just been another journeyman artist cum illustrator cum graphic artist (partially true – his work does have a graphic quality; and he earned his living for a time designing (with splendid success) wallpaper. Nothing could be further from the truth. In point of fact, he was the first artist given a solo mid-career retrospective at MoMA – which triggered an extensive correspondence with the redoubtable Alfred Barr. Edward Hopper singled him out for praise early in his career. (It was not long after that encomium that he was able to devote himself full-time to his art.) More recently (well, okay 25 years ago) there was a Metropolitan Museum show; still more recently (1993), a show at The Drawing Center. Well, we know where Ann Philbin was; but where the hell was I? Apparently sleeping under a rock somewhere – what? – my subscription to the Times had lapsed?

Of course, Opera Buddy (who I assumed had skipped in favor of the Resnais movies at LACMA) knew all about Burchfield. “Oh, of course – Charles Burchfield. He was a genius. I love his work.” (Am I awake yet?)

The work is not exactly a ‘wake-up call’, however much a revelation to me. Hopper praised Burchfield for his dedication to painting “life” or nature. But as a ‘naturalist’, Burchfield’s hand (and eye) are heavily stylizing – occasionally abstracting nature into a tapestry of interweaving ornament. It is at once schematic and elaborate – a simplified line extended and elaborated into a motif repeated or integrated within a composition of similar landscape elements – or ‘natural’ motives. And as much of a ‘naturalist’ as he was, he did not shy away from depicting the industrial landscape of the northeast and midwest U.S. It was easy to see how he could lend his talents quite successfully to wallpaper design – and of course, his designs were rich, fantastic. But it was a good thing he was able to get away from that business. His best work – mostly watercolors, or watercolors with goache, ink and graphite – has an almost ethereal quality – qualities he was able to sustain almost to the end of his career. One of the most amazing pieces – slightly monochromatic, almost grisaille – comes close to the end of his life (1961-65), Dandelion Fields and the Moon – silvery and shimmering.

In short (yeah, it deserves more than a ‘short’ – but bear with me for a bit), it’s a terrific show. Who was there? Oh let me get back to you about that.

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