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Art review: Micaela Amateau Amato, Joseph Kohnke and Jonathan Seliger at Angles

October 14, 2010 |  6:30 pm

If the twisted, multifarious braid of today's art world could be loosened, it would divide into perhaps a half-dozen dominant strands, three of which are exemplified in concurrent solo shows at Angles. There's DIY resourcefulness, shot through with sociopolitical implications (Joseph Kohnke); there's schooled cleverness on the topic of consumerism/art commodification (Jonathan Seliger); and there's soulful exploration of the human condition, through timeless figurative means (Micaela Amateau Amato). Each elicits a wholly different response from both heart and mind; together they test -- and largely reward --the elasticity of taste.

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Kohnke's materially humble, conceptually brilliant installation starts churning as soon as a visitor steps into its gallery. Motors activate more than 40 small oil derricks crafted out of white plastic cutlery: Knife blades comprise the bobbing heads of these tiny industrial beasts; fork tines anchor them to the benches and eating surface of the worn wooden picnic table they diligently mine. The plasticware, a petroleum-based product, drills as if for its own survival, steadily, relentlessly attempting to close the loop. Throwaway utensils enable the picnic while sullying its setting -- convenience's flip side is, to put it mildly, a grotesque environmental, economic and political hassle. Kohnke's work has all the charm of a mechanical toy, one that whispers a death threat. Titling it "Smart & Final," after the store where he bought the utensils, Kohnke throws two more loaded adjectives onto the heap of ideas and issues his incisive piece generates.

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Seliger's sculptures are a conceptual tease, but they reek of art-world insularity and are far less gratifying. Each of the four works faithfully reproduces a shopping bag from a high-end designer (Gucci, Burberry, Hermés, Jason Wu), oversized, in bronze. A slick coating of automotive enamel enhances their pricey shine. The objects stand on pedestals like offerings at a shrine to luxury, giving knowing winks to two generations of artworks (from Warhol's Brillo Boxes to Koons' stainless steel statuary) that remake familiar products as some form or another of societal or art historical critique. Untouchably perfect, referencing fashion but mostly succumbing to it, Seliger’s work exhausts itself after issuing its single illusionistic punch line.

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Amato's work, filling Angles' largest gallery, ushers us back to raw experience -- ecstasy, despair, exhaustion, pain, dignity, persistence. Both her cast glass heads and glazed ceramic figures -- collectively titled "Exiles & Nomads" -- have a presence that verges on the visceral. Each hints at a distant reference point, from ancient, triumphal statuary to foreign reports of torture, but Amato avoids illustrative specificity in favor of a more universal resonance. She identifies strongly with her heritage as a Sephardic Jew, and that history's legacy of displacement, complexity and contradiction, but Amato presents these figures (mostly identifiable as women) as our collective ancestors, characters in our common plight.

The ceramics are smaller than life, partial figures with arms raised in appeal or heads tipped back, bodies bent, leaning, compressed. Amato treats their white base coat as a raw canvas, splashing and staining it with colored glazes -- jade, persimmon, mauve, coral, cherry, brass, tar. One wears a cap of blood red and tresses of orange, gold, black and green. Their drenched, dripping skins evoke a rich vitality but at least as persuasively, tragic disunity. By contrast, the cast glass heads exude a serene stillness. That mysterious dignity, however, seems born also of hybridity and a stubborn will to endure. In tints redolent of sea foam, amber and wax, the faces gaze forward with what looks like wisdom and feels like real, primal strength.

– Leah Ollman

Angles Gallery, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 396-5019, through Oct. 30. Closed Sunday and Monday.
http://www.anglesgallery.com/

Images: Joseph Kohnke's Smart & Final, 2008 (top), Jonathan Seliger's Hansom, 2008 and Micaela Amateau Amato's Ceramic figure with bent body-pink face, 2009 (bottom.) Courtesy of Angles Gallery.

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