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Review: Steve Lambert at Charlie James Gallery

May 15, 2009 | 11:00 am

Steve

Steve Lambert gained considerable notoriety eight days after last November’s elections when he collaborated with a group called the Yes Men in publishing a politically progressive hoax edition of the New York Times, its banner headline declaring “Iraq War Ends.” The debut Los Angeles solo show for the New York-based artist at Charlie James Gallery includes video documentation of that work, as well as well-traveled intersections between art and advertising.

The fake but thoroughly convincing newspaper, complete with an accompanying website that remains live, was dated in the future: July 4, 2009. Like James Ensor, the 19th century Belgian visionary artist who painted an enormous canvas showing Christ entering Brussels a year after he finished the work, the newspaper embodied hope.

Lambert-install-6 In addition to the Iraq “news,” the 14-page edition included fake stories about the nation embarking on a plan to build a “sane economy,” the indictment of President Bush on charges of treason and a mea culpa and pledge to quit writing from multiple-Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist Thomas J. Friedman, who “admits” to having been “fundamentally wrong” on the war. The fake column is among his best.

These made-up stories had punch partly because, in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the actual newspaper had published many pieces by reporter Judith Miller that later proved false. Lambert and his cohort concocted a kind of unbroken (if enlarged) loop, then cleverly continued the fiction in responses to credulous newsmen covering their hoax: No reporters seemed inclined to question their outlandish claim that 1.2 million copies of the faux paper had been distributed in New York and Los Angeles. (Imagine the cost! The pranksters made about 80,000 copies.) The short documentary video at the gallery is slyly, even scarily instructive.

Most of the show consists of fabricated commercial signs with flashing lightbulbs, giving the space a carnival (or used-car lot) flair. Lambert’s nine cheeky advertisements promise “Money Laundered,” offer “Everything You Want — Right Now” and invite visitors to “Park and Spend.” The work’s intense cynicism about consumption is glum and ultimately misplaced, although the refusal to exempt art from the process is at least ingenuous.

The strongest element of the exhibition is the group of signs commercially painted on the gallery’s storefront window at the artist’s behest. They give the art space the look of a discount emporium — a witty frame for the once-bullish art market’s currently bearish hibernation.

Loosely recalling Claes Oldenburg’s landmark Pop extravaganza “The Store,” from 1961, the commercial come-on in soon-to-be-washed-out paint on glass replaces absolute cynicism with healthy skepticism. The best one visually yells, “Limited Time Offer — this art won’t last!,” a warning that can be read in a variety of productive ways.

— Christopher Knight

Charlie James Gallery, 975 Chung King Road, Chinatown, (213) 687-0844. Through June 6. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.

Top: Steve Lambert's "Everything You Want, Right Now!"; bottom: "Money Laundered." Credit: Charlie James Gallery

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