The work in New York artist Sarah Braman’s first solo show in Los Angeles, at International Art Objects (formerly China Art Objects), confronts viewers with one of the great existential questions of contemporary abstraction: Is it a painting? Or is it wood with paint on it? Is it a sculpture? Or is it scrap wood?
If we consider a painting to be an object in which paint and wood (or, in the case of one of Braman’s works, cardboard) are mysteriously synthesized, whether by effort, skill or accident, into an object of energetic resonance clearly in excess of the sum of its parts, only one of the four contenders in this show leans toward qualifying: an unaccountably lively piece called “Tuesday,” in which a thin wash of blue on one panel balances nimbly against several darker patches of blue on an adjoining panel.
The show’s four sculptures — large-scale plywood and Plexiglas cubes that tip and tilt across the floor with little apparent interference from gravity — fare somewhat better, filling the space of each room with a degree, at least, of companionable bulk.
Elad Lassry has received a lot of attention in recent years for his engagingly odd photographic work, which blends a keen instinct for the language of images — the kooky and awkward as well as the luscious — with a calculated disregard for traditional photographic boundaries of the sort that keep the activity of taking pictures cordoned off from the activity of appropriating them. (He does both, indiscriminately.)
In his second exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, it’s clear that he’s angling to get past photography into the more fashionable territory of the multi-disciplinarian, and is evidently being given the resources to do so.
He’s moved the gallery’s walls around, replaced roughly half of the photographs with drawings (of whose authorship isn’t clear), and thrown in a strikingly inconsequential sculpture. Just before the show’s opening, he orchestrated a performance in which members of the New York City Ballet tottered en pointe around a number of big rolling sculptures painted the color of Easter eggs — a lackluster endeavor that left one longing for a choreographer.
Despite a press release filled with illustrious nonsense — Lassry “anchors tangible artworks in an elusive experience to which direct access can no longer be granted,” we are told — the production falls so flat as to risk calling into question even the appeal of the earlier work.
The recent decision at the Orange County Museum of Art to organize the first full retrospective of paintings by John McLaughlin (1898-1976), which is very good news indeed, happens to coincide with an ambitious exhibition at Blum & Poe chronicling a pivotal revolution in modern Japanese art. Anyone interested in McLaughlin -- among America's great 20th century artists and the first in Southern California -- should make a point of seeing the Culver City gallery's revealing "Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha" (to April 14). It was organized by independent curator Mika Yoshitake.
Mono-ha, roughly translated as "School of Things," is hardly known in the United States. But the art, which is mostly sculptural, transforms a profound Japanese aesthetic into a contemporary idiom that was also essential to the Californian's earlier work. McLaughlin lived in Japan, China and India for many years before moving to L.A. in 1946 and starting to paint, and he bought and sold Japanese prints for much of his life.
Mono-ha is characterized by artists making worldly refinements rather than withdrawing into tradition's cloistered realm. Materials are ordinary or industrial -- dirt, water, stone, paper; steel, lumber, concrete and glass. Nature and industry often collide. For the generation following World War II's devastating blow to national identity, the friction is unsurprising. By the '60s, the stresses of explosive reconstruction were felt.
Digital technology may not have killed off collage, but software like Photoshop has made the art of cut-and-pasted paper look very last century. At Mark Moore Gallery, Ali Smith’s new paintings gaze back at collage with fondness and purpose.
With their rough edges, fractured compositions and unpredictable scale-shifts, the L.A. artist paints energetic pictures whose wild swipes and slashes are not expressive — in any way, shape or form. Rather than standing in as authentic emblems of inner turmoil or heartfelt emotions, the whiplash gestures in Smith’s paintings take on lives of their own.
Each of Smith’s oils on canvas is an exuberant ruin, a cartoon train-wreck of a composition that combines the unselfconsciousness of doodles with the deliberate kick of carefully wrought images.
There’s enough art in Tam Van Tran’s exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects to fill three solo shows, and each would be as stimulating and emotionally satisfying as the best exhibitions out there. Quantity and quality dovetail in “Adornment of Basic Space,” giving visitors a wide range of deeply engaging experiences.
Clay and paper are the main ingredients Tran uses to make his paintings and sculptures. To some, he adds recycled beer bottles, chlorophyll and algae, along with thousands of staples.
These unusual materials function formally, adding color, texture and density to Tran’s organically elegant abstractions. They also add meaning, linking his flexible fusions of mismatched media to the environment they are a part of and to the cycle of life, which no one escapes.
Sorting the flash from the substance in the work of a prestigiously educated and excessively hyped young painter such as Rosson Crow is an ambiguous business. Her first L.A. solo show, at Honor Fraser in 2008, leaned mostly toward flash — big canvases, a blaring neon palette, heaps of stylishly graffiti-inflected activity buzzing across the surface of the picture plane — complicated by glimpses of what looked to be a soundly developing painterly intelligence.
In this, her second L.A. solo show (after shows in Paris, London, New York and elsewhere), that ratio appears to have been reversed. She’s kept the big canvases but drained all the color, leaving a moody, atmospheric range of pre-Technicolor gray. She’s exchanged the jumbled, vaguely sordid interior scenes for a loosely abstracted urban milieu: landscapes of a scale suggesting the sites of rallies, marches, and ticker-tape parades, though devoid of figures and most identifiable detail.
Stanya Kahn is the sort of performer who has only to walk down the street to be riveting — as proven repeatedly in the numerous video works of recent years that feature her mostly doing just that: wandering the streets of L.A. in a Viking hat and a bloody nose, carrying a wedge of fake Swiss cheese in “Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out” of 2006; hobbling down urban streets and desert dirt roads on crutches, her head wrapped in bandages, in “It’s Cool, I’m Good” of 2010.
In “Lookin’ Good, Feelin’ Good,” one of four videos in her second solo show at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, we find her strutting through town in a giant foam penis costume: talking on her cellphone, high-fiving strangers, ordering a hot dog at Wienerschnitzel. The effect is as bizarrely amusing as ever.
More intriguing, however — and no less entertaining — is the departure she makes in the other three videos, removing herself entirely as a character and focusing on what is clearly a highly developed instinct for the visual language of video (one often overshadowed by her charismatic presence) on the activation of inanimate objects.
“Happy Song for You,” a vividly peculiar impressionistic short made last year in collaboration with artist Lynn Foulkes, appears to have served as the launching point for a looser and more richly imaginative exploration of objects.
"Requiem for the Sun: The Art of the Mono-ha," at Blum & Poe, explores a rich sliver of 20th century Japanese art that, though little known this side of the Pacific, provides an illuminating counterpoint to Western traditions of Minimalism and Land Art.
Mono-ha, which translates roughly as "school of things," was the name given to a loose group of artists — there are 10 in the show — working in Japan in the socially tumultuous period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The work, formulated largely in reaction to Western Modernism, is elemental and rigorously spare, favoring the careful arrangement of found objects over the crafting of raw materials. Of the nearly three dozen sculptures in the show, none involves more than two or three elements, composed with exquisite deliberation: a 14-foot steel pipe stuffed with cotton (by Katsuro Yoshida); a pair of black, lacquered steel containers filled so precisely with water that the liquid surface is indistinguishable from the lacquered sides (by Nobuo Sekine); a raw chunk of granite, 5 feet square, that sits like a weightless trinket in a huge paper envelope (by Susumu Koshimizu). (Because of the originally ephemeral nature of the work, the majority of the pieces in the show are artist-sanctioned re-creations.)
The arrangements draw upon the unique physicality of each material, playing up contrasts and dialectical relationships — light and heavy; solid and hollow; hard and soft; organic and industrial — with a precision that gives them the feel of 3-D koans. Like the American Minimalists, the Mona-ha artists often employed these materials in such a way as to call attention to a work’s surroundings, emphasizing its effect on the space it occupied.
In a canonical work by Lee Ufan, the Korean-born artist who became the movement’s central theoretician, a large stone rests on a plate of glass that’s been shattered by its weight. In Kishio Suga’s “Infinite Situation II (steps),” a gallery stairwell has been filled with sand and graded into a smooth, even incline — a gesture that gently but decisively eradicates the function of the architecture, underscoring the tenuousness of the relationship between the built and the natural environment.
The materials and references densely layered in Daniel Pitin’s recent paintings at Mihai Nicodim are beyond excavation, and the work is all the richer for feeling just out of reach. Pitin, born and based in Prague, embeds printed matter — ads, scraps of books and newspaper — into his canvases and occasionally writes cryptic snippets across them.
He paints in inky dilutions and viscous crusts, cloudy grays, scorched blacks and seeping yellows. A recognizable subject anchors each painting — a beekeeper standing among his boxes, a woman sitting on the edge of a bed — but suggestion often overtakes description. Narratives elude definition. All the while, the surfaces feel viscerally immediate.
Pitin invokes the past, in part, through television and film stills that he incorporates into his paintings and sequences that he uses as raw material for his own videos.
From its title to its sprightly array of modestly scaled works, “Seven Young Los Angeles Painters I Like,” at George Lawson, exudes refreshing honesty. There is no real agenda in play, but an aesthetic consensus forms around the sufficiency of paint on a flat surface. However self-evident that sounds, it’s a quietly invigorating experience to look at two dozen paintings by emerging artists who subscribe to “old media” and make it new.
One of the painters currently studies at UCLA; the rest earned (or worked toward) their MFAs there, at Claremont Graduate University, California College of the Arts, Otis and the University of Tennessee. Each might be privately ambitious, but none succumbs to the grandstanding arrogance so common these days among young artists eager to set themselves apart from the pack.
Jacob Melchi paints delightfully restless geometric abstractions that tamper with spatial logic. Nano Rubio stages mixed marriages of tight linear patterns and thick, fleshy swaths, permeable and opaque, fluid and solid. Among the rest — Jonathan Apgar, Christopher Kuhn and Anne McCaddon — Sarah Awad stands out for her images of monuments and ruins redolent with the tenuousness of memory, and Rema Ghuloum for “Light, 15th and Harrison at 3pm,” a potent little canvas of warm greenish-gold abutting deep aqua and dark blue-violet, the record — and evocation — of a radiant moment.
-- Leah Ollman
George Lawson Gallery, 8564 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 837-6900, through March 17. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays. www.georgelawsongallery.com
Image: Jacob Melchi, "Diamond 1." Credit: From George Lawson Gallery