John Baldessari

John Baldessari

Los Angeles County Museum of Art                                                                                                   

June 27–September 12, 2010

Originally published in ArtUS 30

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“Pure Beauty,” the first major retrospective of John Baldessari’s work in the U.S. in twenty years (it ran first at Tate Modern, and concludes early 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum), felt concise rather than sprawling, unfolding over a floor of the Broad building at a steady pace. Considering he has produced thousands of works over five decades, such an end result must have been a challenge. But volume aside, Baldessari’s career lends itself well to a retrospective. There’s a clear arc in his practice, from the earliest paintings to conceptual photography and video, to the film still compositions, to the latest sculptural pieces, and a compelling, built-in narrative that almost shades into myth: the story of how a young artist working in National City, California, far from the art world’s epicenter, helped bring about great shifts in the game of art by playing off the board, and went on to become a revered, influential, and ubiquitous artist and teacher. There’s youthful rebellion—the photo-emulsion paintings in which Baldessari systematically defies conventional aesthetic wisdom, including the famous Wrong (1966-68), and the cheeky text paintings. There’s death (symbolized by Baldessari’s 1970 cremation of his early, more conventional paintings, a few of which survived, and figure into the exhibition), and resurrection. There’s exhaustion and reinvention. There’s wit and charm, but beneath it all, a well of unease: even in Baldessari’s facile-seeming works, the unsettling idea hovers that order is only ever an illusion of perspective.

Kissing Series: Simone Palm Trees (Near) (1975), for example, which served as the LACMA exhibition’s poster image, is a sunny picture of a pretty blond kissing a tall palm, reminiscent of snapshots in which someone pretends to hold up the leaning tower of Pisa. Apparently shot on the fly near Baldessari’s Santa Monica studio, it’s in line with his oft-repeated early intention to give people what they want. But the image hangs together thanks only to the perspective of the photographer, whose smallest move would expose the lack of any real correspondence between the subjects. These kinds of gaps between systems, these perceptual illusions, these contingencies of perspective, as those who follow his career know, are Baldessari’s overarching fascination, the foundation for much of his art. Often glossed over in the narrative of his freewheeling early years and belied by the casual affability of his work (and of the artist himself) is the cleverness with which he brought ideas first set out by theoretical trends in the 1960s and ’70s, which he followed closely, into the visual art sphere. Perhaps more than any other artist, he has made such abstract concepts vivid, concrete, and seductive. Arguably, he has helped prolong our romance with postmodernism by making its ideas so attractive as a basis for art, even as such ideas are now seen from the receding edge of history.

When presenting a retrospective of a living artist, there’s always the question of momentum—of whether, after a burst of groundbreaking early work, the later work will seem to wilt. Here, the pieces chosen to represent Baldessari’s late work hold up. Arms & Legs (Specif. Elbows & Knees), Etc. (Part Two): Green Knee/Red Elbow (2008), one of the last works on display, is arrestingly strange: a bright red arm painted directly on the wall cuts a trough into a glossy, 3-D pine-green knee concocted of resin and PVC. That it looks like finish fetish sculpture is no doubt one of Baldessari’s jokes, since his early paintings, with their slapdash aesthetic, were opposed to exactly this strain of L.A. art. As evidenced by the retrospective, Baldessari’s habit of circling back on the past while pressing forward with a current obsession (here, the notion of body parts other than eyes as vehicles for expression, an offshoot of the idea of misdirection that has long permeated his art) runs throughout his career. It’s visible, for instance, in the way painting, which he once decisively rejected, creeps back into his collaged film stills of the 1980s and beyond, and in his late-1990s reprise of black-and-white photographs printed on canvas, paired with text (Goya Series). This kind of recycling without empty repetition, these cycles of self-reflection and re-invention, help account for Baldessari’s staying power.

Recently Baldessari has ventured into installation. Along with the René Magritte exhibition he designed for LACMA in 2006, he has created room-based installations at the Mies van der Rohe-designed Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany (2009)—for which he made a wonderful couch in the shape of an ear (not in the retrospective)—and at Margo Leavin, his longtime L.A. gallery, earlier this year. Brain/Cloud (Two Views): With Palm Tree and Seascapes (2010), made especially for the LACMA edition of “Pure Beauty” and situated in the final gallery, was a cartoonish sculptural brain, almost equally resembling a cloud, flanked by walls covered with photo murals of the ocean. On the fourth wall, in a nod to his early video work (and the 1970s time-delay videos of Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham), a feed of the hanging white brain played on a slight delay, so that viewers found themselves watching the versions of themselves that had existed a short time earlier. In the way it boxed up virtually all of Baldessari’s preoccupations of the last few decades—the X-axis of palm trees and the Y-axis of horizons, the diverted gaze, video, sculpture, photography, a gap (represented by the time lag) between two systems, the mapping of human elements onto the physical world—it was impressive, but veered into self-parody, as Baldessari’s art sometimes does. Taken together with pieces like the ear sofa (which was accompanied by nose-shaped sconces) and other recent sculptural body parts, Brain/Cloud points to a fresh ballooning of dada-inspired absurdity in Baldessari’s work to come.

The artist is now nearly 80. He has few serious detractors, since the taste his work helped create, and by definition epitomizes, remains a dominant force. As Baldessari might be first to say, the critical worth of art depends on perspective, whether skewed subtly or severely by evolving beliefs and passing time. As an artist who has built a practice around shifting vantage points, perhaps he appreciates the irony that, by so saturating the atmosphere, his work has become practically perspective-proof in today’s art climate—especially, and most significantly, in Los Angeles. It’s difficult for anyone to discount the potent mixture of focused inquiry, humor, and restless innovation behind Baldessari’s continually surprising career.

Aaron Curry

Aaron Curry

David Kordansky Gallery | Los Angeles                                                                                              

June 05 — August 07, 2010   

Originally published in ArtUS 29

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“Two Sheets Thick,” the title of Aaron Curry’s second solo show at David Kordansky, contains the idea of strata, taking its name from a torn paper collage in which he has peeled back sections of foreground to reveal underlayers. Dimensionality and obfuscation, two more of Curry’s preoccupations, also coil within this three-word phrase. Such tight packaging is typical of an artist who, rather than setting out on meandering investigations, seems to work by letting ideas ricochet in a compact space between fixed parameters.

As in previous exhibitions, Curry’s troupe of collages, screen prints, and large, part-playful, part-menacing powder-coated aluminum sculptures are closely interconnected. For one thing, they all adhere to a restricted palette of DayGlo rainbow colors plus black, white, and mud brown, a jumpy mix encapsulated in the found images appearing in Curry’s collages, including an ad for Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (Vision Revision (Donkey Lady) [all works 2010]) and a flattened Cocoa Rice Krispies box overlaid with Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s lurid seventeenth-century Festoon of Fruit and Flowers (Two Doors Make a Face). Heightening the show’s feel of cohesion and enclosure, the entire gallery is papered with cardboard panels screen-printed with a pattern of moisture beads, as if the walls are sweating or slick with condensation.

Beaded liquid—a recurring motif in Curry’s work, along with faces and figures that slither into abstraction—is a good metaphor for the way artworks coalesce, with rivulets of influences, fascinations, and accidents converging into organized forms. The discrete final works, spaced out in the gallery, echo the arrangement of the scattered droplets. With Curry, the essential solution generating his artwork, too, has remained notably consistent. Girding his practice are affinities with, among others, Picasso, Isamu Noguchi (particularly his biomorphic sculptures from the 1940s, which Curry’s sculptures made of flat, interlocking parts closely resemble), the Chicago Imagists—an influence visible in Curry’s offbeat, vibrant colors and allusions to grotesque portraiture—and camouflage. In previous work Curry borrowed the WWI-era technique of painting battleships in garish patterns designed to confuse enemy eyes rather than blend into the sea—here he reprises the theme by covering several sculptures with the same droplet screen prints that paper the gallery walls.

While Mammut, a vivid pink sculpture that from one vantage point describes a mastodon, perhaps one resurrected from L.A.’s tar pits, and Bcklmnmppe, a lemon yellow giant that flickeringly resembles a horned emperor (its title has something to do with the experience of circling the sculpture, with spaces collapsing like dropped vowels) shout their presence, Curry’s camouflaged pieces disappear into the background, save for their candy-colored wheeled pedestals. The wheels, unexpectedly painted, lend levity and a flourish of showmanship, as if the sculptures were shy circus animals parading through on carts—they tap into the work’s undercurrent of absurdity. They’re also a particularly successful patterning device, echoing the exhibition’s many other circular forms, such as rivets, egg shapes, eyeholes, facial outlines, and of course the droplets’ dollops of white highlight circled in black, of which the googly-eye cyclops in Monsters, Inc. is a perfect example. Takashi Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes wallpaper of 2002, in which hundreds of disembodied eyeballs stare out at the viewer, also comes to mind. Figuration is another of Curry’s obsessions: look at just about any work, and some relationship to the body, however distorted, begins to emerge. There’s an ease and familiarity to this kind of verging anthropomorphism. And yet the border zone between abstraction and representation is a fitting place for Curry to camp, given that slippage, including free slides through cultural and historical strata, is integral to his art.

In the midst of Curry’s brilliantly mapped, all-cohering environment, you wish sometimes for a breeze, some whiff of randomness. Maybe it’s that the few reckless moments—the smeared areas of paint in the collages, streaked ink on the cardboard screen prints, the macho signatures on the sculptures, lettered in liquid metal—seem contained, like counterweights that only further balance the system. You want to see what happens when the beaded liquid runs down the wall, in unpredictable patterns that crack the door wider to chaos. There’s nothing wrong with a taut system, but sooner or later, you hope to see it enlarge and relax.

Rachel Whiteread

Rachel Whiteread                                                                                                                            

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles CA                                                                                               

January 31 – April 25, 2010

Originally published in ArtUS 29

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Unlike the other famous British artists of her generation—Damien Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracy Emin et al.—Rachel Whiteread can’t be called nimble. In 1989, shortly after graduating from art school, Whiteread made her first cast-plaster sculpture, Flap, a whitish block representing the negative space surrounding a hinged wooden table (an echo of Bruce Nauman’s 1965 Cast of the Space Beneath My Chair), and ever since her work has tended to cleave to that initial sculpture’s methods, themes, and materials. Ghostly, somber, often monumental, emotionally immediate, legible across languages and cultures, her best-known sculptures communicate a kind of mute sadness regarding the passage of time, mortality, and carved-up space—qualities that have made Whiteread a natural choice for public projects like Vienna’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, completed in 2000. But her tight focus captions a limited correspondence with the world. By 2001, when, invited by the Royal Society of Arts to create a sculpture for an empty plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, she cast the plinth in resin and inverted the duplicate atop the plinth to make a transparent echo of the original form, one sensed that the realm of possible choices in her art had come full circle.

“Rachel Whiteread Drawings,” at the Hammer Museum (through April 25), organized by Allegra Pesenti, doesn’t cause a major shift in our understanding of the past trajectory and shape of Whiteread’s practice, but it softens the edges and admits a great deal of light and air. The show fades Whiteread’s sculpture into the background, bringing over 120 of her works on paper—not preparatory or technical drawings, but works created in parallel to the sculptures, and mostly, until now, filed away in Whiteread’s studio—to center stage. Often fluid and lively, they indeed reveal another side to a familiar artist, striking different, more delicate notes while still ruminating on themes of absence, time, and the structure of human habitats. Their materials correspond closely to her three-dimensional work: yellow-white correction fluid assumes the blanked-out quality of plaster; ruddy varnish echoes the feel of resin; graph paper refers to sculptural space. Other media include ink, watercolor, gouache, silver leaf, and collaged photos, all laid down, for the most part, in a palette mirroring the muted tones of her sculpture.

The best drawings in the show are highly elegant and playful. A 1993 study shows a herringbone floor spilling out irreverently from its pattern, loosening into a wavering grid of diamonds at the bottom of the page. In two 1995 drawings done in white correction fluid on black paper, long lines flow down from every right angle on a pair of staircases, creating a screen of layered vertical threads, as if the architecture were unraveling. Untitled (Torso) (1990), a simple pencil drawing of a water bottle, its contours traced several times, evokes a chest expanding with breath, beautifully distilling a relationship between body and built environment in a few economical strokes. A cabinet displaying a cross-section of the numerous collected objects Whiteread keeps in her studio, including such colorful curios as a group of shoe lathes, miniature furniture, and a bronze cast of her ear, provides another playful and revealing moment, while a series of drawings on postcards contains some gems. An untitled 2005 work consisting of differently sized holes punched through a postcard of a Gothic cathedral, the whole picture Swiss-cheesed except for the ceiling and pillars, makes an inspired poster image for this exhibition, since it literally ventilates a stuffy image and is also delightful.

Pesenti devotes the final galleries to Whiteread’s later work, from a 2005 installation of cast cardboard boxes at the Tate’s Turbine Hall (which seems to mark a turn to intimate scale in her art) to more recent projects like studies of villages and streets that incorporate brighter and more varied colors—evidence that Whiteread has emerged from the funnel neck and found directions in which to expand.

Doug Aitken

Doug Aitken by Katherine Satorius
Regen Projects | Los Angeles
September 12 – October 17, 2009

Originally published in ArtUS 28

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Doug Aitken’s first major hometown exhibition since 2005 consists of four interlocking parts, filling Regen Projects’ two galleries and weaving between interior and exterior space. Migration (2008), the latest in Aitken’s series of ambitious video installations (it previously screened at the 55th Carnegie International and New York’s 303 Gallery), is presented in two forms, running during business hours on a specially fabricated, scaled-down digital billboard inside Regen Projects II and playing continuously from dusk to dawn on two adjacent walls of the main gallery’s exterior. The double projection can be seen by cars driving either direction on Santa Monica Boulevard, as suits a work partly about isolation and repetitive travel. Meanwhile, a collection of recent light box pieces occupies the main gallery’s interior—seven illuminated photographs manipulated into words and geometric shapes. The glowing image of a livestock auction building fills letters that spell out “FATE” (the handle comes up, the hammer comes down, 2009); a triptych of human silhouettes have hearts represented by pictures of a cave opening filled with sunlight (Heatwave, 2009). Finally, a few miles away, in the sky above LA><ART, an actual billboard, albeit one too diminutive to deliver the proper impact, displays the “FATE” photograph, bringing the exhibition full circle.

But migration is the obvious centerpiece—a mesmerizing, melancholic 24-minute epic in which a procession of animals and birds mostly common to North America inhabits a sequence of banal rooms in the kinds of motels that populate lonely stretches of the American highway. They carry out instinctual acts, engaging with the strange surroundings as they would their normal habitats: a cougar gnaws the bed pillows and wrestles the sheets to the floor; a buffalo butts heads with the standard-issue lamps; a beaver paddles in the bathtub. Aitken’s camera follows with a reverent gaze, lingering on bristly fur, velvety antlers, dusty hoofs and glassy eyes, closing in on each protagonist’s legendary attributes—the owl’s stare, the horse’s musculature—playing up the disconnect between this cast of intricately made living creatures and their manufactured surrounds.

People have grown accustomed to understanding themselves as the foreground against nature’s backdrop. Migration inverts this convention. Interspersed shots of American landscape (the video roughly describes an east-west cross-country journey) show evidence of human activity: trains and barges advance; oil derricks peck the ground; electricity hums. But like the presence of animals concealed behind rocks and vegetation, human existence in these scenes is ghostly.

Lonesome, spectral beauty has long characterized Aitken’s work. The famous still from electric earth (2000) of a solitary red shopping cart in an empty parking lot beneath a brooding sky stands to become an iconic turn-of-the-millennium image, reflecting apocalyptic hysteria and twilight. His methods of transmission maximize the numinous tone. A film or video is already spectral, but, like Bill Viola, Aitken doesn’t just make videos; he makes immersive, monumental viewing experiences that approximate communications from the beyond. Like sleepwalkers, projected in giant scale on the outer walls of MoMA in 2007, flickering over the upturned faces of passersby like a divine vision, migration aims to hold viewers in thrall. But with Aitken, the portentous tone is cut with absurdity, irony, and self-aware wit: migration, for instance, has a horse watching grainy footage of running wild horses on the motel TV. No sooner do we pity him than we remember it’s all just a setup; we’re caught red-handed, projecting human anxieties onto another creature’s mind. In another scene, a full moon dissolves with comic conspicuity into a globe light bulb. Aitken isn’t taking an easy jab at the failure of human design to live up to nature—for all the comparisons between manmade and natural realms in his work, aesthetic judgment is never the issue. On the contrary, he elevates everything in frame to the same plane of mirage-like beauty, from the texture of fox fur to a low-lit parking lot to the acid aqua surface of a swimming pool.

Human consciousness, and its intersection with the exterior world, is Aitken’s great obsession. The pathos that seeps from his work comes less from despair over what we have wrought on ourselves and on our planet than from a kind of dissonance between how we are compelled to view the physical world, as a place that reflects and somehow listens to us, and probable reality. In the final scene of migration, owl feathers and feathers from a torn-open pillow mingle in black space—a reminder that the dichotomy between the natural and manmade, on which so much art of recent decades relies, is a made-up distinction, since from an ecological perspective there is no difference, no actual separation between foreground and background, no “environment.” “The ‘environment’ is nothing but the phenotypical expression of DNA code,” as ecological theorist Timothy Morton has put it: “A beaver’s DNA doesn’t stop at the end of its whiskers, but at the end of its dam.” Which is also to say that, though we like to believe that we have conquered wild frontiers, we have only been building habitat, carrying out our program like beavers and foxes. In this light, the frontier mentality on which the West was built seems rather ironic. Migration touches subtly and intelligently on such ironies, and its very title contains another: there’s no clear direction to migrate anymore now that the east and west have both been colonized; there is only repetition, back and forth—a restless situation that echoes the state of affairs in contemporary art.

Larry Johnson

Larry Johnson by Katherine Satorius
                                                                                            

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles CA

June 21 – September 6, 2009

Originally published in ArtUS 27

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The Hammer Museum’s comprehensive survey of Larry Johnson’s career to date, curated by Russell Ferguson, makes a strong argument for Johnson’s inclusion in the pantheon of iconic L.A. artists. It begins with the 1984 work that brought Johnson to prominence—a series of small photographs depicting celebrities’ names floating in a fake sky (Movie Stars on Clouds)—and proceeds via casual chronology, ending more or less with a 2009 photo depicting a hasty sketch of an Emmy award in an anonymous window (Achievement: SW Corner, Glendale + Silverlake Blvds). The 50-odd works in between are tightly related in theme and identical in medium: color photographs Johnson made using techniques he gleaned from a day job producing television graphics and later crafted through digital manipulation, for an appearance as utterly handless as advertisements. All are untitled, identified by brief parenthetical descriptions.

Central to many works is the concept of packaging—at times literally, as in The Perfect Mensa Man and Why Say High School? (both 1994), which borrow the multicolor stripe motif designer Paul Rand (1914-96) created for the boxes housing IBM’s first personal computers—but more often figuratively, drawing on the slick, cunning packages of language and design engineered, in the era of mass communications, to slide straight into a consumer’s unconscious. Invoking the names of famous people, who function as universal shorthand for various character traits and fragments of cultural narrative, provides a similarly direct route to mass numbers of minds. Johnson’s images constantly exhort us to focus not just on content but on its wrappings: the lettering in many works changes colors randomly, at times nearly blending into the background. Even as we read, our attention gets forced back continually to the surface of the words.

Johnson was born in the postwar “instant city” of Lakewood and has lived in L.A.’s Koreatown for over two decades. In his images, the city—particularly gay Hollywood of the 1980s and ’90s and specifically the hustler turf of Santa Monica Boulevard—is omnipresent. Hustler figures, with their seductive, solicitous, insinuating language, are objects of fascination for Johnson: “I honestly believe my work is different for gay men of my generation than it is for other people,” he has said. Indeed, camp figures like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, the Kennedys, certain restaurants, bars and intersections, and gay porn stars Leo Ford and John Sex all make appearances in his photographs. Many of his appropriated and invented narratives dating from the last two decades have an undercurrent of death.

The show’s centerpiece is a large gallery hung with ten of Johnson’s “winter landscape” works (1990-92). Whereas earlier photographs displayed text on solid backgrounds, here panels are stuck into desolate snow scenes as if waiting for wanderers to stumble across them. In contrast to previous blurbs lifted out of media sources like TV Guide and celebrity bios, these texts—snippets of confessions, testimonials and rants—are largely Johnson’s fictions. The surrounding cartoon winters seem colored by pathetic fallacies: double mountain peaks rise behind a story about twins; spiky branches converge around musings on the Manson Family killings—the world as viewed through warped first-person lenses. Behind the photographs, the gallery wall acts like a field of snow, ringing the viewer into this echo chamber of needy, disembodied voices. Despite the affected coziness of their phrasing, greased with easy-to-swallow clichés, and the warm colors of the placards bearing their messages, the texts often betray a vacuity that matches the barren scenery. At once tragic and affectless, these thorny images might also be read as metaphors for Los Angeles and its culture of fame, which tends toward a strange mixture of exhibitionism and isolation.

Given his habit of “exposing” the machinery of language and aesthetics, it may seem that Johnson has cast himself in the role of benevolent unmasker of truth, but the reality is more complicated. Johnson uses the devices he critiques to his own benefit: we’re drawn to his candy-colored images as surely as we’re reeled in by advertisements and are easily hooked by his fast-talking, hedging, wheedling narrators. Most of his designs, which, like advertising, liberally co-opt ideas from past art, are crafted to captivate our eyes. Land w/o Bread (1999-2000), which borrows the characters of a donkey and goat from the Luis Buñuel film of the same title, is a four-part work in which two panels are partially obscured by the artist’s fingers interfering with the camera lens. What seems like a revelatory gesture—the hand behind these handless photographs brought into plain sight—is also a demonstration of the artist’s power to meddle and hide things from view. Similarly, in a series of photos from 2007 in which Johnson’s pencil penetrates various orifices of pencil-drawn cartoon creatures—a kangaroo, an ass, a giraffe—an outward display of puncturing illusion serves also to heighten it, by endowing the cartoons with an even more illusory interior dimension. And far from vilifying the master genius behind some of the most powerful commercial design of the twentieth century, Johnson reveres Paul Rand; the exhibition even opens, fittingly, with a short video piece paying homage to Rand’s typographical work, Paul Rand’s Women, 1948 (1984). The dynamic between hustler and john, like that between advertiser and consumer, salesman and sap, even artist and viewer, in Johnson’s work is nothing if not mutually parasitic. The donkey in Ass (2007) grins helplessly, lifting his tail for the eraser that threatens to undo him: obviously, despite the prospect of negation, the creature likes it.

Jedediah Caesar

Jedediah Caesar
“Holding Pattern” at Susanne Vielmetter Projects
April 11 – May 23, 2009

Originally published in Artweek 40.5

On its face, Jedediah Caesar’s work seems engaged in revelation—cutting up objects to show us the parts we never see, gathering forgotten junk and rearranging it as sculpture, impelling us to re-examine cast-off matter. Following in the tradition of Process Art, in which the story of the work’s creation theoretically can be reconstructed by a thoughtful viewer, Caesar presents as artwork not only the end results of his by-now trademark procedure (pouring resin into a cardboard box or other container filled with various objects, then slicing the resin form with a band saw into different shapes), but also the intermediary steps. Two works in “Holding Station,” Caesar’s second solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Projects, consist of the resin-filled cardboard boxes themselves (2009, all works untitled). Then there are the sculptures of collected materials, everything from trellis pieces to piping, window frames to twigs, jutting up from their rectangular bases in rowdy spikes and angles. An unprocessed version of the embedded resin sculptures, these Constructivist-style structures have been spared a trip through the feed-tube of Minimalism, showing off their unruly uniqueness in the face of so many compressed, rearrangeable units.

But while Caesar’s practice borrows heavily from Process Art, attempt to fully reconstitute the origins behind Caesar’s resin sculptures and you will soon hit a wall. Sliced into cross-sections, the objects trapped in resin are rendered unrecognizable: In obsessively revealing their interiors, Caesar obscures their former identities to the point where they become abstractions. Indeed, cut into thin tiles and arrayed on the wall in diamond formations, in vertical towers, in checkerboard rectangles, the sculptures impersonate abstract paintings, and often lovely ones at that. One untitled 2008 work consisting of 30 roughly 1-foot square tiles seduces with shards of bright yellow, coral, and royal blue material punctuating marbled areas of black and grey, the yellow form existing at various points as a full circle and half circle, like a moon progressing through phases. And yet even at a time when painting encompasses so many diverse methods, these wall pieces are emphatically not paintings, not images, but things—conglomerations of matter.

The push-pull between showing and hiding in Caesar’s work sheds light on a gesture made by the artist in one of the gallery’s back spaces. Coming to the end of the exhibition, you encounter two plywood-backed resin panels, one propped against the wall, facing forward, the other lying facedown on the floor at an angle, as if it’s just fallen over. It seems like an accident, since it’s an anomaly in the show—but the arrangement is Caesar’s intention; the facedown work is actually face-up. On one hand it’s an act of exposure, granting the plain wooden support the same status as the material comprising the more detailed flip-side—and why not, since it’s all material. On the other hand, the effect on the viewer is that the “real” surface is being concealed. That both circumstances are true make this simple gambit unexpectedly odd and clever.

In fact, a similar shifty, unpindownable quality suffuses the entire exhibition, which seems at first glance like a mere straightforward progression of Caesar’s practice, offering up further iterations of resin and found-object sculptures. On one level it is that, but as the title, “Holding Station,” hints, it is also more, or maybe less. One wouldn’t know it without being tipped off or reading the press release, but it turns out that Caesar, who was included in the 2008 California Biennial and the 2008 Whitney Biennial, conceived the show as a sort of connector node branching out to his other works, with some of the sculptures in the exhibition created from “shells” of previous works or made of “remnants” of other sculptures also contained in “Holding Station.” Even with this knowledge, though, it’s difficult to deduce specific connections; the extent of the links, the big picture, must be known only to the artist. As with the obscured objects embedded in resin, here again Caesar provides all the pieces, but the prospect of reconstitution lies just beyond reach.

Mark Dutcher

Mark Dutcher at Steve Turner Contemporary
February 14 to March 21, 2009

Originally published in Artweek 40.4

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“Havilah,” as Mark Dutcher titles his first solo exhibition at Steve Turner Contemporary, is the name of an unincorporated community in Kern County, California, a former mining center now a virtual ghost town, itself named after a Biblical land known for its gold deposits. Dutcher, who grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles, packs the show with such references to California’s social and cultural history, with four paintings and a sculpture taking titles from similarly collapsed Central Valley boom towns: Lost Hills, Arvin, Boron, Shafter. Containing fat squeezes of brilliantly colored paint, horizontal squiggles that refer loosely to the region’s desolate, bumpy landscape, the town-titled painting exude the rich, mineral scent of still-wet oil paint, as if offering a ghostly whiff of underground treasure. In contrast to the locations themselves, which most would see as lonely and barren, the paintings are vibrant, dense, gleaming and vivid. Perhaps they are inversions, or perhaps they faithfully represent the energy Dutcher finds in these out-of-the-way places, which, if poor in present population, are rich in past lives and narratives.

Other works in “Havilah” recall more recent aspects of the state’s past. “Sylvester (Do You Wanna Funk?)” (all works 2008), a giant X-shape decked with a rainbow of paint and a thicket of colored feathers, refers to the drag queen known as “the Queen of Disco,” a Los Angeles native who once said, “My life started when I moved to San Francisco..” “The Raiders,” a large silver-encrusted painting with a saw-toothed edge coated in glossy black, borrows colors from the Oakland football team—but of course, in light of Dutcher’s myriad references to California history, the title also calls to mind the act of mining, as well as skirmishes between settlers and Native Americans. Feathers, that automatic symbol for Native Americans, figure in other works, too, including “Three Men,” a sculpture that reads like a three-dimensional version of a Philip Guston painting, with twin pink balloon forms resembling feet, and a blocky “body.”

Considering how Dutcher delights in symbolism, how he traverses the edges of abstraction and representation, it’s no surprise to learn that Guston has been a formative influence on his practice. For while Dutcher’s paintings and sculptures possess surprising compositions and electric color combinations, and can work as pure abstractions, they are above all symbolic, suffused with signifiers that range from cryptic to obvious. His earlier work frequently contained floating images of everyday objects, often depicted with a deliberate naiveté, a paucity of definition, just enough for the brain to make the connection with reality. One memorable motif was the rag rug, which, because it is woven from discarded clothing of people who might no longer be living, Dutcher envisioned as a portal to the afterlife. This type of metaphor, poignant, strange, and magical, abounds in Dutcher’s work, and helps explain why he’s one of the most interesting painters working today in California.

“Havilah” finds Dutcher’s symbols coalescing into the X-shape, a kind of uber-symbol that works as a gesture of both discovery and erasure. “X” is a crossed-out idea, but it’s also a trope of treasure maps, as in “X” marks the spot. The large, gold, glitter-encrusted “X” forming the centerpiece of “Total Eclipse,” for example, calls to mind a prospector shouting eureka. “X” is also the shape of a disco dancer, legs spread and arms in the air—a fitting form for an homage to Sylvester. And, of course, “X” is shorthand for expiration, for death, “X”s in the eyes being cartoon language for a corpse. Dutcher’s work, in fact, for all its exuberance and unrestrained delight in texture, color, and form, quite often meditates on loss and grief: he has made paintings of cabinets containing objects that memorialize lost friends, and his 2006 show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, “Gone,” was centered around imagery inspired by The Chapel of Chimes, a columbarium in Oakland. “Havilah” is no exception. Sylvester died a victim of the AIDS epidemic, and the Kern County towns, while not wiped from the map, are after all ghost towns, husks of the places they were at the height of the Gold Rush. What disco queens and boom towns have in common is an especially bright-burning period of life, which death only throws into relief. Life as a flame contained, but also intensified, by surrounding darkness; the cycle of creation and destruction; the interdependence of beauty and mortality—this might be well-traveled territory in art, but Dutcher’s work explores it brilliantly, with a sensibility that is unexpected, original, and poetic.