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'Celestial Ash': Some assemblage is required

June 7, 2009 |  9:00 am

Mcmillen Dumpster divers, repurposers, scavengers, collectors, poets. The four artists in “Celestial Ash: Assemblages From Los Angeles” at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) might also be labeled alchemists for their ability to transform base matter into precious encounter. Each makes sculptural work — wall-mounted panels and boxes up to room-size installations — out of prosaic, obsolete castoffs: old watches, pencils, keys, bottles, greeting cards, jigsaw puzzles, bicycle wheels.

Guest curator Kristine McKenna, longtime chronicler of L.A.’s music and art scenes, says the artists — Exene Cervenka, Matjames, Michael C. McMillen and Gail Greenfield Randall — are all “quiet and introspective. They’re all deeply emotional. That’s what they bring to these materials that transforms them. They revere what these objects represent: the past, and a kind of America that’s rapidly disappearing. They treat the objects as holy relics, so that’s how we read them.”

The through line, McKenna says, is Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), the New York artist and filmmaker whose shadowbox assemblages housed a lifetime of dreams, memories and fixations. A single work by Cornell greets visitors to “Celestial Ash” and serves as the hub of the show. From its cracked and abraded white interior, a princely young man (Lorenzo de’Medici, from a Renaissance painting of “The Procession of the Magi”) gazes wistfully over his shoulder at us.

“Cornell’s work elicits such an emotional response,” says McKenna. “There’s such loneliness in it, and at the same time, an ecstasy, because he was so obsessed with women and seashells and all the things that ignited his imagination. His work represents both ends of the human experience — loss and ecstatic beauty.”

Like Cornell, the artists in the exhibition reorganize material reality along internal, poetic, often nostalgic lines. Though rooted in the past, their work is not necessarily melancholic. It elevates objects that have been disregarded and discarded with new value. According to McKenna, assemblage art could use the same kind of appreciative embrace. “Assemblage has always been sort of marginalized. It just kind of putters along. It’s a kind of art that never goes away, but it’s never on the cover of Artforum.”

At CAFAM until Sept. 13, it’s the main event.

Mcmillen2 Michael C. McMillen

McMillen’s installation, “The Asylum of Lost Thoughts,” is part theater (with mismatched chairs and a hanging screen) and part abandoned ward, its rusted bed frame bare but for a pair of cement pillows. The room is entered through two creaky doors that close behind you, thanks to a tinkling contraption involving pulleys, bicycle wheels and strings of old keys rising out of and falling back into metal buckets. For 30 years, McMillen’s work in sculpture, installation and film has scavenged equally through material and psychic residue, building on the legacy of a prior generation of California assemblage artists as well as his own early experience constructing props and miniature sets for movies. .

“The nucleus for this piece was visiting the dad of a friend of mine. He’s elderly and in the hospital. We were looking at the flat-screen TVs in front of every bed and my friend said, ‘It’s like they’re watching their lives play out before them.’

"The film [projected within the installation] is like a visual poem, a compendium of all kinds of strange images I’ve either made myself or collected, combined in a dreamlike sequence, one flowing into the other. It deals with time and the past, and by implication the future, and the interface between those states, which is always changing.

“Some of the films are educational films that have been deconstructed and combined with other films, like recombinant DNA, where strange new forms come out of old familiar ones. Some of the images in the film are images you might see in the room, so there’s a resonance between the two-dimensional space and the space you’re in.

“I’ve always been a collector of things, trying to recombine them into new things. It started when I was a little kid. I would patrol the alleys of Santa Monica, looking for stuff. A lifelong habit, I’m afraid. I’ve been fascinated by the way things go from A to Z, the history of their existence, how objects change. Maybe, without being too morbid, it’s a meditation on mortality, a contemplation of that.”

Cerv Exene Cervenka

Over the 30 years that Cervenka has toured with the band X, which she co-founded with John Doe, the singer kept journals. The journals evolved into picture books with fragments of poetry and keepsakes, which in turn gave rise to collages. Cervenka’s assemblages in the exhibition incorporate newspapers, dictionary pages, jigsaw puzzles, greeting cards, butterfly charts, Christian imagery, empty photo corners, blank labels and assorted small objects. Mounted on cardboard or canvas boards, the images often are misted or crusted with paint. They exude a sense of hope and faith, but also absence and nostalgia. After living in L.A. for more than 30 years, Cervenka moved to Missouri in 2007.

“To me, assemblage is like this incredible puzzle I love to solve over and over again. I like taking disparate elements and combining them into one focused piece. I’m not really a trained artist, so I don’t have a lot to draw from in terms of what makes sense in art. I don’t do these things consciously, so I can’t go back and interpret them on a conscious level.

“I use stuff I’ve collected over 30 years — found objects. I amassed so much of that that I started combining them into collages. My motivation was really just to have fun, and then it became more intense, a necessary thing. It’s something I depend on for my sanity. It’s like organizing the outskirts of my brain. It’s a very meditative thing. It’s all about the past, re-creating the past, reinterpreting the past. That’s all it is for me, anyway.”

Matjames Matjames

Born in Lexington, Ky., Matjames grew up in Charlottesville, N.Y., and later lived in New Orleans, where he worked in a salvage yard. After Hurricane Katrina stranded him and destroyed much of his work, he moved to L.A., where he worked for an architectural salvage company until he was recently laid off. His artwork enshrines old, everyday objects such as rulers, Scrabble tiles, postage stamps, fountain pens, photographs, wooden matches and wishbones into tight assemblages that hang on the wall like portraits. Small objects wrapped in thread refer to African fetishes. “Piece to Be Explored,” with its multiple compartments and lens-walled doors, brings to mind a dollhouse crossed with a religious reliquary.

“I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. It was like a ghost town. Everything that was ever brought to the town stayed there. In the alleys behind the houses there were trash heaps in little piles. I’d dig through them and bring things home, and at an early age started putting things together. They were more my playthings than toys were.

“People have their grandparents’ tea sets in their cabinets and hold them in high regard. But why can’t other objects be held in that same regard? I find a pencil on the ground and I bring it home. What could have been written by that pencil? It might have been a school kid’s pencil, or it could have been Einstein’s. There’s an energy to each thing. It carries a history, a haunting.

“I’ve always been drawn to things of the past. Everything seemed to make more sense, and there was also so much more pride in the way things were made. The inside of a case might have been etched. Now everything is stamped or silkscreened or computer generated. Computers freak me out. Even telephones are complicated for me.”

Gail Gail Greenfield Randall

Randall fills the shelves of her shadowboxes with found objects and personal keepsakes: sea urchin spines, a miniature Bible, old medicine bottles, polished stones, small rusty bells. References to the sea and the sky abound, as do images of birds and women. Emblems of expansiveness and freedom trace back to the artist’s grandmother, whose death impelled Randall, until then a painter, to make a lasting shift to assemblage.

“I always did a sort of assemblage, but didn’t call it an art form. I did it as a lifestyle. I always collected things of interest and put them together in certain ways. My grandmother had a drawer that had dividers and each of the compartments held a little treasure, like seashells, a pocket watch, a piece of my mother’s hair tied with ribbon. I just loved it. I was always drawn to that type of arrangement. When she passed away, I started making assemblages, using some of the materials I’ve collected over the years and objects that had belonged to her. I found the form not just therapeutic but incredibly satisfying, so I stayed with it.

“I’m really a Luddite, and the narrative thread that runs through [the works] is nostalgic, holding on to a time when things were made beautifully. I’m drawn to anything that isn’t mass-produced. I get my things from flea markets and word of mouth. I’m given a lot of wonderful objects that have been sitting in people’s garages and attics. I’m also not above a good dumpster dive.

“There’s something about capturing a time that is by nature nostalgic. Anything that you encapsulate doesn’t have the feeling of going forward. It has the feeling of being put on ice. It holds that moment. It’s a snapshot of a time.”

-- Leah Ollman

Craft and Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays; noon-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. $5; $3, students and seniors; free, children younger than 12. Free on Sundays (through the end of 2009) and on the first Wednesday of every month. (323) 937-4230

Photos, from top to bottom: Michael C. McMillen's "The Asylum of Lost Thoughts" (top two photos); credit: Michael C. Millen. Exene Cervenka's "Cynthia Moth"; credit: Craft and Folk Art Museum. Matjames' "Back Home"; credit: Ed Glendinning/Craft and Folk Art Museum. Gail Greenfield Randall's "Bones & Steel"; credit: Gail Greenfield Randall.

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