September 11 is upon us, and we all know what that means — opening weekend for the new fall line of upscale home decorations! But, hey, given the profusion of cultural fanfare marking previous anniversaries of the whole chickens-coming-home-to-roost thing (and the brouhaha undoubtedly brewing in anticipation of the imminent 10-year milestone) it’s not surprising that the art world would want to back away from geopolitical topicalism in favor of a back-to-normal (a.k.a. “Daddy Obama will fix everything! Let’s go shopping!”) mode of discourse. Which is fine. Frankly, I would consider the most self-indulgently aesthetic self-expression more authentically political than most formulaic ideological illustrations. This weekend offers the gamut, in overwhelming abundance — here are a few of the highlights to help map out your gallery-hopping:
One artist who manages to combine his personal vision with contemporary political insight (and a heavy dose of art history) is Sandow Birk. His last major project was a multimedia re-envisioning of Dante’s Divine Comedy as a scathing, wide-ranging satirical critique of contemporary Western industrialized society. While it undoubtedly ruffled some feathers in some backwaters of the Vatican, Birk is wisely taking a more middle-of-the-road tack with his “American Qur’an,” which opened Tuesday at Koplin Del Rio Gallery. It is a faithful transcription of the prophet’s revelations embedded, illuminated manuscript style, in luminous miniature Persian landscapes depicting contemporary American life; Birk again exploits his position at the fringes of the mainstream to deliver a sumptuous depth charge of engaged and engaging narrative pictorialism.
Speaking of Persia, another fringe enterprise — graffiti writer Man One’s downtown Crewest Gallery is hosting the U.S. debut of a selection of works on paper by street artists from Iran — a calling that is considerably riskier in that neck of the woods, one would imagine. Our culture tends to defuse the subversive potential of graffiti by commodifying it as just another desktop theme or sneaker motif — hopefully “From the Streets of Iran,” which opens September 10 as part of the Downtown Arts Walk will generate just enough of that to keep the aerosol flowing back east.
Most venues are superstitious about launching on 9/11, bulking up Saturday’s schedule even further. One notable exception is Allen Ruppersberg’s survey show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art; it consists of two, large interactive arrays of pop culture jetsam — similar to his reconfiguration of Allan Kaprow’s Words (1962), which was the highlight of the “tribute” section of last year’s MOCA Kaprow extravaganza — and allowed viewers either to sift through reams of photocopied midcentury paper ephemera, assemble them into their own configurations, and take them home — or rearrange them on a giant wall display for the next person to appreciate, then rearrange again.Assuming the smoke from the Station fire doesn’t obliterate the entire stage, another old-school West Coast conceptualist will have a 40-year-old work realized for the first time in the skies over Pasadena. Bruce Nauman’s untitled skywriting piece (“Leave the Land Alone”) will be realized between 11:30 and 12:30 Saturday morning, as the kickoff for the Armory’s 20th anniversary show “Installations Inside/Out” (officially opening on September 19). We are advised that the best views will be from La Loma Bridge, Colorado Street Bridge and Brookside Park, but Nauman might consider an addendum to his four-word text piece, which would say: “…except for dumping a few more hundred thousand gallons of water on it before the fire reaches Raymond Avenue!”
Young artists continue to mine the rickety-cobbled-together-Pop-reference genre Ruppersberg and many other West Coast artists have found rewarding. Ry Rocklen — a local boy who holds a triple-whammy pedigree from CalArts, UCLA and USC — has assimilated recent L.A. cultural traditions from Charley Ray and Tim Hawkinson to Evan Holloway into a mutational Dumpster-diving vernacular all his own, and debuted his latest body of work at Parker Jones gallery in Chinatown September 9. Parker’s former boss at Black Dragon Society, Roger Herman, is reoccupying his old Chung King Road digs — now the home of Jancar Gallery — with a small survey of his influential but long-unseen paintings from the 1980s.
Another of my favorite cobblestoners is Brian Bress, whose chaotic but formally exquisite collage strategies are deployed with equal aplomb in his delirious videos, space-bending photographic tableaux, and, well, collages. “The Royal Box,” his first solo exhibit at Cherry and Martin, opens Saturday. Essentially a multimedia exercise in extended self-portraiture, Bress’ oeuvre overlaps considerably with that of his former running mate Elliott Hundley. But where Hundley’s work offers breathtaking optical swaths of pixilated sincerity, Bress’ work seethes with dark humor and comical paranoia. His new short video It’s Been a Long Day is one of the funniest and most disturbing piss-takes on painting ever, while the lengthier Because It’s the Depression pushes his surrealist cable access cutup aesthetic to new heights. Always slightly more serene, Bress’ 2-D works foreground his phenomenal formal chops, particularly the mournfully sumptuous A River and the Arcimboldo-inspired Impostor the Head.
Arcim-who-do? Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593) was that Italian dude who made paintings of heads created from fruits and vegetables, and was adopted by the Surrealists as an early precursor. His strangely specific strategy also permeates the work of Constance Mallinson, whose recent paintings are the subject of a Project Series exhibit at Pomona College Museum of Art, opening Saturday night. It’s a bit of a haul, but if you missed Mallinson’s January show at Angles, it’s worth the trip to see these meticulously crafted oil-on-paper memento mori, re-creating art historical images of the human body — from Donatello’s Mary Magdalene to Manet’s Olympia, as meticulously representational accretions of dead and dying vegetative scraps. Haunting.
There are plenty of interesting shows to check out closer to home — Kevin Appel’s new modestly scaled works on paper wouldn’t have looked out of place in his former teacher Don Suggs’ OTIS survey (which, incidentally, I co-curated with Meg Linton. I also went to grad school with Appel. … And I’m pretty sure I once saw Willem Dafoe riding the trolley in Disneyland.) Superimposing his disintegrated cubist architectures on vintage landscape and wildlife photographs, Appel’s first solo show with ACME adds a welcome layer of conceptual tension to his elegant geometric abstractions.
Doug Aitken’s hypnotic animals-in-hotels video installation migration will screen at Regen Projects II. Another selection of Lorser Feitelson’s late curvilinear abstractions is up at Louis Stern Fine Art — I have yet to tire of these blasts from L.A.’s endangered past.
As for L.A.’s shaky future, Saturday also features openings at two of the new model of artist-run collectives. Charles Irvin — most recently featured in the Hammer’s “9 Lives” weirdness buffet — is kick-starting his Chinatown commune WPA with a solo show titled “Four Baboons Adoring the Rising Sun,” opening Saturday, from 7 to 10 p.m. Back out West, at Godawfulist, artist Steven Hull’s newly hatched Las Cienegas Projects, emerging artist Nikki Pressley is sharing the space with up-and-comer Daniel Hawkins, a recent UCLA undergrad who has been producing some of the most interesting painting/sculpture/performance/engineering hybrids. His new piece is a sort of fun house diorama of an infinite stretch of railroad tracks, with the bells and whistles exposed. The great technological agent of manifest destiny collapsed into an obvious fiction. Say, maybe this shit is all about 9/11 after all. Never mind.
– DOUG HARVEY
This article was originally published on September 8th, 2009 in LA Weekly.