For nearly a week we roamed: from Santa Monica to Hollywood, from Beverley Hills to downtown, and from Claremont to Pasadena. We reveled in the wackiness and tackiness of it all — and yes, got stuck in some epic traffic snarls. Our reward: a handful of worthy shows, some of them life-changing.
Arshile Gorky’s (1904-1948) retrospective at MOCA ranks high among the latter. It’s difficult to imagine any artist today attaining Gorky’s level of prominence after operating for so many years in the shadow of others. He spent his most of his adult life working through Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Miro, de Chirico and other modernist masters. Thus, in two thirds of this show, we see him wrestling with those influences without ever really coming into his own. Then, somewhere around 1940, eight years before he committed suicide after a series of physical and emotional blows, he broke free, retaining a penchant for Surrealism, the impulse that ultimately defined him. We talk about artists walking a line between abstraction and representation, but Gorky really walked that walk. His biomorphic shapes allude to things we know – like bodies and sex organs – but they never allow us to settle on any specific associations. His bulges, blobs and orbs, connected by spidery lines, float in a netherworld, issuing sensations that never rise to the level of facts. His colors are similarly ambiguous. He often used bright hues, but the colors in his strongest works, particularly those from the Betrothal series that came toward the end, are so murky they’re difficult to name without a string of hyphens. That they glowed in the museum’s dim light like mystical visions attest to his skills as a colorist. It is often said that Gorky presaged Abstract Expressionism, and indeed, you can see plenty of evidence; but whether he would have actually gone there given his allegiance to Surrealism remains open to debate.
Alberto Burri (1915-1995), the Italian Arte Povera hero, not only went there – he did so presciently, foretelling things to come. Like Gorky, who experienced the Turkish genocide firsthand in Armenia, Burri was traumatized by war. He served as a doctor in the Italian army until he was captured by the British in North Africa and sent to a POW camp in Texas. He spent three years there before being shipped back to Italy. He settled in Rome. There, disillusioned by the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield, he renounced medicine and reinvented himself as an artist, scavenging whatever materials he could from a ruined city. His early pieces consisted of burlap sacks that were crudely stitched together and splattered with scorched, gangrenous looking paint. Widely hailed as raw analogues of his war experience, the saccos catapulted him to international fame, setting the tone for a career defined by remarkable inventions that would later become (at least in the popular imagination) more closely associated with others, particularly Robert Rauschenberg.
Rauschenberg, as it happened, acquired the ideas for his combines from Burri whose studio he visited in 1953. Thus, if we look at Burri’s saccos and see echoes of Rauschenberg, it’s only because the emerging New York art establishment, from 1960 until quite recently, discounted everything not stamped “Made in U.S.A.” Combustione: Alberto Burri and America at the Santa Monica Museum of Art sets the record straight. It showcases not only Burri’s earliest work, but also what came after, when he began dividing his time between Europe and LA.
From LA, Burri made frequent trips to Death Valley, and he translated those experiences into memetic “equivalents”: displays of cracked paint on fiberboard that look like they were lifted whole from the valley floor. (These predate Andy Goldsworthy’s clay wall works by decades.) For me, Burri’s most electrifying works are his combustiones, accretions of plastic singed with a blowtorch. The signature piece from this period, Nero Plastica L.A., looks like a chunk of molten obsidian that accrued and cooled inside a wooden frame. I stared at it for a long, long time, wondering what led him to create such a thing. Then I read a quote from the Italian critic, Giulio Carlo. Writing in 1960, he called Burri’s practice “a sort of trompe l’oeil in reverse, in which it is not painting which simulates reality, but reality that simulates painting.”
I’d also place into the life-altering column Steve Roden’s retrospective In Between at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. If you knew nothing of Roden, you’d probably peg him as a stoned-out hippie working in a remote cabin. His combination of quavering lines, symbolist iconography, obscure smatterings of text, small expressionistic gestures, radical mash-ups of crazy perspective and alien topographies can only be categorized one way: visionary.
In point of fact, Roden is a highly educated, scientifically minded artist who lives in a neat, well-ordered designer house in Pasadena. Nevertheless it’s difficult not to think of him as something of a savant. Howard N. Fox, the show’s curator, points to one organizing principle: the artist’s translation of musical scores and non-musical sounds into mathematical formulas that help generate the bare bones of each picture. Out of that you might expect something neat, linear or symmetrical – or at the very least, something comprehensible. What we get are free-form improvisations built layer-upon-layer that seem to be guided by an unfailing compositional instinct. Problem is, when you view these iterative paintings close-up, they reveal some rather ham-fisted paint handling. Oddly, this doesn’t seem to detract from the experience. Instead, I found myself marveling at how Roden apportions the opposing impulses of logic and reason, intuition and happenstance – fashioning his synthesis into works that dangle the prospect of great meaning but yield none.
By contrast, you’d be hard-pressed to find a painter of greater virtuosity and vision than John Millei. He has two shows at Ace Gallery: one of his multi-part Maritime series in Los Angeles and another of pictures based on Picasso’s Portrait de femme (Dora Maar) at the gallery’s Beverly Hills branch. The Maritime, White Squall and For Surfing paintings – 62 canvases in all – represent an astonishing reassertion of the vitality of the Abstract Expressionist impulse. They include a monumentally scaled, realistically painted image of an 18th century sailing vessel; highly abstract pictures of masts and rigging; and dark seascapes composed of electrically bright serpentine wave forms, painted in both color and black-and-white. Millei uses still photographs and films as references, and the scale and impact of his works reflect both an art-historical and cinematic orientation. While each series aspires to heroic status, his White Squall paintings most fully achieve it by capturing the blinding disorientation of a ship engulfed in a storm.
Swatches of ropes, rigging, netting and cables are clearly visible, but the overall effect is of a complete white-out in which gravity and spatial relationships are suspended. Viewing them makes feels like walking up to the edge of an abyss. Less apocalyptic, but no less awe-inspiring, are the Maritime paintings that place us on deck and inside the hulls of these same vessels. The views are of jagged lines and blindingly bright spaces and yawning expanses of darkness. Millei paints them in swift, fluid strokes, some thin, some thick, alternating between glossy, dark, metallic sheens and matte-white and silvery finishes that roam from heavy impasto to nearly translucent . The raw, unfinished quality of these lines and their visual complexity do more than just demonstrate Millei’s painterly skill.
As Donald Kuspit wrote in a recent 18,000-word essay on Artnet, Millei builds a new chapel in the religion of art from fragments of past art the way medieval cathedrals were built from the ruins of pagan temples…Turning known artistic territory into a terra incognita of abstraction, he restores art’s existential mystery.”
German sculptor Ewerdt Hilgemann’s solo U.S. debut, Panta Rhei, at Samuel Freeman creates frisson through an altogether different means: he converts the raw, inert mass of stainless steel forms into an experience of specular light by literally imploding them. To demonstrate, Freeman shows me a video of the artist working in his studio. With an impish twinkle in his eye, Hilgemann explains how he begins with basic forms: triangles, squares and oblong rectangles that he builds from sheet metal and buffs to a seamless, high gloss. Some are small enough to fit on a pedestal; others approximate the size of human figures. To these he welds a pneumatic valve which, when hooked to a generator, sucks the air out of each object with a loud boom.
Their kicked-in, hollowed-out look feels like a perceptual trick whose impact is compounded by the way they simultaneously reflect and refract light. No, they don’t produce the giddy, hall-of-mirrors effect of say, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, but on a vastly smaller scale, they come proportionally close. They evoke the glossy sheen of minimalism while simultaneously issuing a poke in the eye to its purist orthodoxies. Donald Judd’s gleaming boxes: deflated!
Heather Gwen Martin’s super-saturated paintings at Luis De Jesus feel, at first, like an attack on the senses, but their ultimate destination is the psyche where surrealist-inspired images behave like visions in a fever dream. Part biomorphic, part animated cartoon, Martin’s pictures recall Gorky’s in the way her forms play at being representational, but allude to nothing specific. In his catalog essay for the show, painter Kim MacConnell cites many precedents for Martin’s work. They include, in addition to Gorky, a host of other surrealists and abstractionists, including the late, great John Altoon, who, like Martin, threw cartooning into his mix.
But there’s another aspect to this work that’s equally important: color. Sometimes color is content, and in the case of Martin, whose day job involves coloring cartoons with computers, the use of preternaturally bright hues to background animated forms – or to simply define geometric volumes — dovetails with surrealist notions of how reality can be bent. That, as MacConnell notes, may not be fashionable, but with deep roots in art history, both local and global, Martin’s work has enough weight and whimsy to open a line of inquiry that has been closed for too long.
I concluded my LA tour at the Hammer with a view of contemporary selections that included a lot of well-known suspects, the most memorable being Kara Walker, Mark Bradford, Llyn Foulkes and Nayland Blake. Bradford, for me, was the main draw, but it was Walker who tore my head off. The bait-switch text of her multi-panel installation, Every Painting Is a Dead Nigger Waiting to Be Born, shows how belief systems can be peeled back to reveal racism in disguise. Ditto for Nayland Blake’s epic rant, Scum. It does to the male gender what Walker does to race, piling up clichés with enough force to reveal the source of their power. Llyn Foulkes’ painting, Lucky Adam, from 1985, drains the glory from war by drenching the subject’s head in a bloody red comb-over that is positively gruesome. It’s not an atypical painting for Foulkes; but to categorize him would be a disservice. To wit: If you haven’t seen “The Machine”, a collection of instruments that Foulkes operates as a one-man band, you haven’t lived.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Cover detail: John Millei, "For Surfing # 3", 2001-02, oil and gesso on canvas,138 x 80"
Cover detail: John Millei, "For Surfing # 3", 2001-02, oil and gesso on canvas,138 x 80"
Alberto Burri: Combustione: @ Santa Monica Museum of Art through December 18, 2010
John Millei: Maritime @ Ace Gallery Los Angeles through November 15, 2010
Steve Roden: In between, a 20-Year Survey, Armory Center for the Arts, through Jan. 9; 2011
Selections from the Hammer Contemporary Collection, The Hammer Museum, through January 30, 2010.
Heather Gwen Martin, Recreational Systems @ Luis De Jesus Gallery through October 16, 2010
Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective closed @ MOCA Grand Ave. September 20, 2010.