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Review: Zadok Ben David at Shoshana Wayne Gallery

April 30, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Zadok

Zadok Ben David’s breathtaking “Blackfield” installation at Shoshana Wayne Gallery hinges on dualities that are by nature reductive and simplified; the work’s visceral power redeems it from lapsing into the simplistic. It is an emblematic landscape of extremes that presents a graphically stunning opposition between the Edenic and the ashen, promise and aftermath — and ultimately life and death.

The dark vision comes first. Entering the huge main gallery, you see an expansive 36-by-29-foot, cleanly edged field of fine, pale sand. Sprouting from this shallow ground are more than 12,000 small, paper-thin, precisely crafted plants, more or less evenly dispersed across the vast spread. The plants, derived from Victorian botanical illustrations and textbooks, are photo-etched on steel and painted black. As tiny as a 1/2-inch tall up to roughly 8 inches, the array of blossoms, sprigs and thistles all face forward in a striking fusion of two- and three-dimensional space, at once austere and spectacular.

As you walk around the perimeter of the piece, the duality reveals itself. The reverse side of each plant is painted in vibrant, even garish color — amped-up lime, cherry, grape — as unnaturally vivid as the flip sides are unnaturally stark. The juicy vitality of the view from this angle contrasts utterly with the other’s desiccated severity. Suddenly, we are part of a Technicolor garden, where moments before we stood in a cemetery.

Zadok2The installation compels movement down and around. Crouching, you can better discern the delicacy of the individual plant images, even as the view outward, across the expanse, grows denser. From midpoints along the sides of the installation, your vision can sweep across the varied crop and take in simultaneously the twinned faces. From any angle it’s easy to appreciate the theatrical artifice of the entire assembly of little cutout props.

By so dramatically scaling down the plants, Ben David scales up our own presence and sense of power. Looking down upon the landscape with a god’s-eye perspective, we are invested, symbolically, with godlike control, the potential to create or destroy, revere or dismiss. Viewing “Blackfield,” as I did, on Earth Day made its stewardship message all the more pronounced.

Admittedly, the distilled polarity of the piece verges on gimmickry, but its sheer optical splendor is irresistible. The same can’t be said of a group of Ben David’s smaller works in the side gallery. Though the same technical methods are at play, the effects are radically diminished.

Three plexi boxes with mirrored backs, wall-mounted at eye level, look like maquettes for the installation and feel like diluted versions of it. Each contains a few dozen of the steel cutout plants, black on one side, colored on the other, with the heavy-handed addition of a silvery shadow at the base of each stem.

In four other boxes, Ben David has mounted a single black, stainless-steel disk representing a tight close-up of a silhouetted, leafless tree. The images, whether read as moons, suns, earths or simply prescribed views, are vaguely lyrical but burdened too by the cheap illusionism of those little shadows or reflections at their base.

Reproductions of work from throughout the artist’s 30-year career show him to be regularly susceptible to the graphically grabby one-liner. What makes “Blackfield,” Ben David’s first solo venture in L.A., so indelible is its engagement with the body on the dual scales of the miniature and the gigantic, the way it harnesses the power of the small, multiplied.

Antony Gormley (from London, where Ben David has lived since the 1970s) employs a similar force in his “Fields” of thousands of small terra cotta humanoid figures with gaping holes for eyes. Others too, including Do-Ho Suh and Chris Burden (especially his military-themed installation of 50,000 nickels, each mounted with a matchstick) have exploited that power for disparate ends. Ben David’s wondrous installation makes us feel larger than we are but exactly as responsible as we need to be, to choose between miracle and catastrophe.

-- Leah Ollman

Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through May 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays. 

Top: Zadok Ben David's "Blackfield" installation; bottom: a closeup of the installation. Credit: Shoshana Wayne Gallery

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