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Art review: Andrea Bowers at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

July 9, 2010 | 11:00 am
Andrea Bowers 007 An imposing pair of new landscape works and seven small figure drawings by Andrea Bowers speak in smart, blunt and compelling terms about a fundamental trait of American experience. The progressive promise of a better life, especially for the next generation, has been central to myth and reality from the arrival of the Mayflower to the slogan of hope that drove the last presidential campaign. Bowers' absorbing, multidimensional exhibition, "Political Landscape," shows how powerful -- and fraught -- that trait can be.

"No Olvidado (Not Forgotten)" is an immense drawing, 10 feet tall and nearly 100 feet wide, made on more than 20 sheets of paper that wrap three walls. Initially it recalls the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, listing row after row of names. The drawing indeed memorializes, but what it remembers is the tragic loss encountered in a different struggle.

The names record men, women and children who died trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. They're entwined with a representation of chain link fencing, topped by coils of razor wire. On the floor in the center of the gallery, a stack of color posters shows the dry, cracked red soil of Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, Calif., just north of Mexicali, where dead  immigrants whose names are unknown are often buried in unmarked graves.

Incongruously, Bowers' drawings are streaked with dappled sunlight. The template for its invisible but suggested landscape is not the harsh, arid desert where the crossings take place but a Claude Monet painting of his sumptuous waterlily garden. Both are actual places transformed through art into sites of contemplation.
Andrea Bowers 006 Bowers' drawing was made by covering blank sheets with vinyl cutouts of chain-link, razor-wire and letters, then applying silvery graphite over them. When the vinyl mask was peeled off, both the fence and the names assumed the discrepant tactility of negative spaces.

For the names, absent people assume a ghostly physicality. The fence is a ghost made tangible. Borders between nations are of course imaginary constructs, born not of nature but of law, history and the exercise of power. Bowers' deft representation is unsentimental yet moving.

The small figure drawings are based on photographs taken at a May political rally, when as many as 60,000 immigrants and their supporters joined a lively march through downtown L.A. Each drawing shows a single figure carrying a sign or, in two cases, wearing a shirt with a written logo. (The sweatshirt of a middle-aged man wrapped in an American flag is emblazoned "Mexico," while a young girl's T-shirt says "My parents are not criminals.") Bowers skillfully renders them isolated at the margins of the sketchpad-size sheets, surrounded by empty expanse.

A marvelous correspondence emerges between the incisive signs held up (or worn) by the drawings' protagonists and the drawings as themselves a type of handmade sign. Anonymous voices in a crowd merge with the artist's singular voice.

Andrea Bowers 003 In a second gallery, a 16-minute single-channel video ponders the situation of a University of Utah student, 27, who committed a creative act of non-violent civil disobedience in December 2008 by bidding at a federal auction of oil and gas drilling leases, which he had no intention of paying for. "The United States v. Tim DeChristopher" alternates shots of the bleakly beautiful, wintry landscape with an interview on his motives and the moral implications of his heroic action.

The auction, rushed into place in the closing weeks of the Bush administration, was later invalidated for irregularities by the Obama administration. DeChristopher remains in legal jeopardy, having successfully bid $1.7 million for 22,500 acres of land around Arches and Canyonlands parks. Several unsuccessful bids also drove up costs for other lease-buyers. A federal court case is scheduled for September.

Bowers' video simply lets DeChristopher speak. His calm clarity is impressive. The work is less a dissertation on brutal petroleum politics than on the ethical power of peaceful civil disobedience.

The interview is cut with shots of the artist striding toward us across the contested landscape, snow crunching underfoot. She finally stops to write on a small, hand-held chalkboard, which she holds up to fill the frame. Shades of the May immigration drawings, each sign declares the parcel number of the natural landscape cited in the auction. Bowers constructs an oddly jarring disruption out in the boundary-free wilderness, jolting a man-made conflict into focus.

-- Christopher Knight

Follow me @twitter.com/KnightLAT

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 6006 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 837-2117, through July 31. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.vielmetter.com

Photos: Andrea Bowers, "No Olvidado (Not Forgotten)," 2010, graphite on paper; "Study from May Day March," 2010, graphite on paper; "United States v. Tim DeChristopher," 2010, single-channel video; Credit: Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

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