Between 1973 and 1975, John Divola made an exploratory group of black and white photographs that built on the deadpan anonymity of Ed Ruscha's photo books while also scuffing up their pop-culture sheen. Divola's "Vandalism Series," shot mostly in abandoned houses, oozes the poetic mixture of lament and curiosity amid collapse that speaks of their conflicted moment in American history.
Like Divola's slightly later yet better-known "Zuma Series," examples of which are in the Museum of Contemporary Art's current show, "Under the Big Black Sun," the artist took spray paint to ruined walls to explore a question dating back to camera work's earliest years: What is the relationship between painting and photography? The 67 prints at LAXART, which become steadily more involving as you work your way through the show, keep complicating the question, here updated to absorb abstract painting.
Silver paint echoes photographic silver printing, the dominant mode until color photographs moved into the foreground in the 1960s. Divola uses it to draw on walls, subtly announcing the light reflections that animate all photographic processes, and sometimes juxtaposing it with light-absorbent black marks. In some of the most compelling works, he shoots into corners formed by walls and floor or ceiling, emphasizing three-dimensional volumes that get flattened out by paint marks riding the surface.
Remember "the male gaze," the much-discussed feminist theory of asymmetrical power in gender relations between the viewer and the viewed? Zackary Drucker, an L.A. photographer, video and performance artist, and Amos Mac, New York publisher of the 'zine "Original Plumbing," toss an elegant monkey wrench into all that in a suite of 25 photographs -- and one doormat -- at Luis de Jesus Gallery.
Drucker is a male-to-female transsexual; Mac is a female-to-male transsexual. In these photographs, whose gaze is which is very much up for grabs.
The photographs were made during a winter visit to Drucker's childhood home outside Syracuse, N.Y. Looking very much like Candy Darling 2.0, the next generation of the late-great-Warhol-superstar, she poses at home and in youthful haunts in a pseudo-fashion spread.
Some pictures are disturbing and poignant, like a gray stroll through a snowy cemetery. Others, including a high school sports field with a now-silenced scoreboard no longer keeping track, make you smile. And still others, including Drucker sprawled on a bathroom floor or, naked, atop a dining table, conjure resonant sources high and low, ranging from art-star Cindy Sherman to tabloid-queen Anna Nicole Smith.
Sharing an open, coloristic aesthetic born from common roots in CalArts' music school, these two younger groups demonstrated how a palette squeezed from multiple genres and cultures is obscuring jazz's always-changing foundations.
The quartet Slumgum (a term for beehive residue) opened with a relaxed set keynoted by Jon Armstrong's warm tenor sax. The drums and bass of Trevor Anderies and Dave Tranchina switched from pushy groove to breezy scatter while Rory Cowal, on a house piano wildly cartooned by East Village artist Kenny Scharf, hinted at Vienna and India, Spain and Coltrane.
Slumgum switched moods -- pastoral, cheerful, meditative, romantic -- yet retained a casual group identity formed by years of collaboration, and maintained a web-like hold on the audience. It could play anywhere.
During much of her celebrated career as a ballerina, which included performing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Colonel W. de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe, Yvonne Mounsey never imagined one day becoming a teacher.
“I was a dreamer and only wanted to dance. I thought of teaching as just saying ‘first position’ over and over again,” she says.
But working with George Balanchine during her decade as a dancer with New York City Ballet prompted Mounsey to rethink the vicissitudes of teaching. “Balanchine made you do this footwork that was about precision and attack, and I’d been in the company a couple of years before I got it,” she recalls. “He said to me one day, ‘Now you know what to do with your feet,' and I saw all those little details that went into my getting the footwork, with the heel coming forward and the toe going back.”
Discovering that teaching “came naturally,” Mounsey went on to co-found the Santa Monica-based Westside School of Ballet and pre-professional Westside Ballet company in 1967. For 39 years she has staged an annual production of “The Nutcracker." And she has also successfully channeled the Balanchine aesthetic of musicality and precision in her training of generations of students, many of whom continued on to professional careers in a number of ballet companies.
“Yvonne really brings the Balanchine technique and spirit to Westside Ballet,” says Rachel Schwartz, 16, who has studied at the school for 11 years. “It’s the way she teaches footwork, the way her hands curve. She’ll say, ‘This is the way Balanchine did it,’ and it’s so amazing to learn from her since she had firsthand experience with him.”
In 1910 a California company produced a tourist postcard showing a flatbed railroad car rumbling across the sun-drenched Golden State, hauling just two strawberries. Each fruit was roughly the size of a pachyderm. The picture is an early example of what soon became a flood of promotional images that cast the place as an exotic but industrious region of unimaginable wonders.
Mars always needs women, but early 20th century California needed to attract people too. A picture of gargantuan strawberries might not be taken literally by the postcard's bemused recipient, but the enticing enthusiasm of its message was clear.
Although the "big berries" pitch today appears quaint, it was hardly unprecedented. Not by a long shot. About 125 years before, similar representations were made in Ecuador.
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a large and engrossing new show includes four big canvases painted in 1783 by Vicente Albán. Just a few of the 181 rarely traveled works assembled for "Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World," Albán's paintings overflow with arresting super-abundance. Guavas are as big as your head. Plantains swell to the size of baseball bats. Pineapples are gigantic and, yes, strawberries are big enough to make a meal for the whole family.
Not unlike the modern postcard, these colonial canvases were surely designed to reach the folks back home -- meaning, in this case, Spain or elsewhere in Europe. Since an 18th century European would need to be told what exotic South American wonder he was ogling, an elaborately painted cartouche contains an alphabetized key labeling each fruit. In good Enlightenment-era fashion, natural history and precise classification were prized.
Over the last 20 years, Los Angeles artist James Richards has turned scribbles into a legible conversation about the abstract depth available from painterly surfaces. Unlike the elegant cursive of, say, the late Cy Twombly, his seems less concerned with epic musings and more interested in getting down into art's fundamental weeds.
Nine new paintings at Shoshana Wayne Gallery continue to unravel the usually solid surface of a canvas. Richards tacks a continuous length of string to a painting's stretcher bars. It zigs and zags across the rectangle, like an aerial view of a road map -- or perhaps a medical book's diagram of ganglia, nerve endings or other bodily tissue, all hugely magnified. Oscillating telescopic and microscopic views fuse with a painting's ordinary material surface.
Here and there the string is interwoven with colored yarns or strips of fuzzy chenille, adding variegated textures. They merge with lines thickly painted atop the string, lines sometimes spreading wide to create abstract shapes. Because the open weave leaves considerable space, the string, yarn and paint cast shadows on the wall behind the painting, complicating the spatial logic.
Charlayne Woodard’s manner is so disarmingly anecdotal in her effervescent solo show, “The Night Watcher,” that it takes a moment to realize that this isn’t our best girlfriend sharing confidences from the stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre but a performer whose luminous talent exceeds her limited stardom.
She begins with a tale involving another gifted African American actress, the more famous Alfre Woodard (no relation), who called her up out of the blue to get Woodard and her husband to consider adopting a mixed-race baby that was about to be delivered at a Los Angeles hospital. This would seem to be an unusual thing to urge on a colleague, but it seems that many people have had a similar desire to put Woodard’s nurturing skills to good use.
“The Night Watcher” can be seen as one woman’s defense of remaining childless. But it’s really about the many ways in which maternal love can be shown in a world badly in need of more guiding hands. Given a tastefully simple production by veteran director Daniel Sullivan on a stage with a simple chair and just the right number of suggestive background projections, this modest offering touched me with its generosity, gentle humor and grace.
A stupendous spinner of sorrowful songs, Henryk Górecki left us with all we could possibly need to mourn him. So Saturday night, a year after his death, the new music series Jacaranda was at no loss for material with which to remember the wondrous Polish composer whose sad but transcendent Third Symphony became an international sensation in the 1990s.
Still, it wasn’t just a haunting melancholy that made Górecki great. It was his vitality. A living heartbeat is palpable in every measure he wrote, no matter how slowly the music moved. He was also funny -– wacky, even. And extraordinarily physical. He had a resonant keyboard technique that could make any piano sound twice as large as it was.
Uniting pop with new music is not new. Everyone does it. In happening arts centers such as Brooklyn, virtuous young musicians insist that Minimalism and anything that iTunes happens to be promoting that week must get along. Wired urbanites making nice is always nice. But soupy Radiohead arrangements are another matter.
Curiously in laid-back Los Angeles, a new music edge refuses to soften. At Beyond Baroque, the literary and arts center in Venice, there was a venturesome, exhilarating mash-up of extra-hard-edged European Modernism and Postmodernism with anarchic punk rock on Friday night. Players who spoke sweetly to an eager audience crowded in a funky small room (hey, it’s still L.A.) were as unhesitant when the music wanted obscenities.
Founded last year by a contagiously excitable and ambitious young conductor, Christopher Rountree, the modern music collective wild Up is busy remaking the concept of classical music for a 20-something set. Rountree has ideas but demonstrates less ideology. “We play it as long as we love it” is the wild Up motto.
There are bound to be folks who prefer Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” to his “Much Ado About Nothing” and “As You Like It,” just as there are undoubtedly those who’d rather watch repeats of “Three’s Company” than “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” I can’t count any of these people as friends, but I know they’re out there.
That’s a subtle hint that my response to the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production of “The Comedy of Errors,” now at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through Nov. 27, may be tainted by my preference for character-based comedy over situational farce. The play, modeled on a Roman comedy by Plautus, is a gag machine of mistaken identity involving identical twin brothers separated at sea in a freak shipwreck that divided a family neatly in twain.
The spirit of this British touring production, in keeping with the Globe’s relaxed, audience-friendly style, is loose-limbed and winking. No argument there. The confusion wrought when one twin turns up in Ephesus, where the other prosperously resides, encourages a frolicsome attitude. Director Rebecca Gatward, however, daringly takes this one step further, adding her own layer of horseplay to the comedy.