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PST, A to Z: ‘Speaking in Tongues’ at Armory Center for the Arts

December 28, 2011 |  1:00 pm

Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

Wallace Berman, "Untitled #126"
I admit that before seeing “Speaking in Tongues: Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken, 1961-1976” at the Armory Center for the Arts I didn’t really “get” Berman’s work, and was not a fan of Heinecken’s. Both are important but under-known Los Angeles artists. Berman’s collages, mail art and his influential journal Semina, always seemed too insular, like missives from an idiosyncratic world to which I had no point of entry. Heinecken’s cut-and-pasted, “revised” magazines and pornographic source materials on the other hand always struck me as smart but sexist.

Showing their work in relation to each other, “Speaking in Tongues” succeeds, not only in giving Berman and Heinecken their due, but in providing much-needed context. The two artists were friends, and the show smartly intersperses their works in a generative, running conversation. Ricocheting back and forth between the two, we see that though they used strategies of appropriation and pastiche differently, their work marked the emergence of a postmodern aesthetic in Los Angeles that runs rampant to this day.

Both Berman and Heinecken were fascinated by the mainstream media and the flood of images, messages and desires it unleashed on a daily basis. Eschewing traditional art media, their work was entirely based on the manipulation of found imagery. Berman’s work was the more diffuse of the two, dealing in very broad terms with the coupling and uncoupling of meaning and image. He was interested in kabbalah — an esoteric strain of Judaism — and often incorporated Hebrew letters into his work. A signature piece, “Radio/Aether,” dated from 1966-1974, is an alphabet of sorts, a grid composed of repeated images of a hand holding a transistor radio. Each radio is accompanied by a Hebrew character and adorned with a different media image — a skull and crucifix, a tree, a pair of women’s legs, a galaxy, a horse, etc. It’s a format Berman returned to over and over again, and the grids are almost cinematic, or rather, a visual version of flipping through stations on the radio.

Robert Heinecken, "Blue Chip Stamp Girl"Heinecken also had a narrative bent to his work, although his preoccupations were less sweeping, more focused. In particular, he was interested in juxtaposing consumer magazine spreads with pornographic imagery of women, which is where I always ran into problems with his work. His use of cutouts and cropping always seemed uncomfortably close to violence or dissection, and while I understood that the images were intended as suppressed, illicit desires bubbling up through the gloss of consumerism, it seemed cliché (and a bit juvenile) that it was always the exposed bodies of women that functioned in this way. Of course, this is how images of women still operate — in mainstream media, women are sex. But unlike Berman’s questioning of all such linkages, Heinecken’s work seemed to reinforce rather than trouble this connection.

It still does, but seen through the lens of Berman’s linguistic experiments, Heinecken’s work now comes across as the more pointed and interesting of the two. In the multi-panel works “Cream Six” and “Different Strokes” both from 1970, sequential, negative images from porn films overlap to create multiple layers of time sandwiched on top of one another. The results both thwart desire — you can never quite make out exactly who is doing what to whom — and inspire it: In scanning the surface for clues — an elbow here, a more illicit body part there — the viewer animates the panels. They imply both a cinematic narrative and its freezing, presenting multiple moments, all at once.

Heinecken also collapses time in the series “Are You Rea,” from 1964-68, in which he shone a light through magazine pages, using them like photographic negatives to print images of the front and back of the page simultaneously. Two realities that are normally experienced in sequence are suddenly a single image. Faces and bodies, again, mostly of women, intersect with food, interiors, and various commercial slogans. Mysterious and ghostly — the prints are reversed white on black like negatives — they’re X-ray snapshots into the diseased body of "Mad Men"-era consumerism.

Finally, there’s the powerfully disturbing image of a Cambodian soldier holding the severed heads of two Viet Cong that Heinecken clipped from Life magazine and superimposed on ads for beauty products. The resulting images approach the cogency of Martha Rosler’s photo collage series, “Bringing the War Home,” in which she inserted images of soldiers in Vietnam and Iraq into home magazine spreads to highlight the contrast between a luxurious way of life and the violence that makes it possible.

Heinecken had similar political aims, and he sometimes engaged in a kind of guerrilla media warfare, altering whole magazines and leaving them in doctor’s waiting rooms or putting them back on the newsstand like little ideological mines. In this sense the media was his true medium, although not in the celebrity-obsessed manner of Andy Warhol. A wall text in the exhibition sums up his attitude: “I like to go into something, shake it up, and disappear,” he said. That may have been what happened to Berman and Heinecken the first time around, but no longer.

-- Sharon Mizota

Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (626) 792-5101, through Jan. 22. Closed Mondays. www.armoryarts.org

Photos, from top: Wallace Berman, "Untitled #126," 1964-76. Single negative photographic image. From the estate of Wallace Berman and Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Robert Heinecken, "Blue Chip Stamp Girl," 1965. Gelatin silver print. From the Robert Heinecken Estate, Chicago.

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