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Art Review: "Linguistic Turn" at Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art

August 24, 2010 |  5:00 am

Russell Baldwin

“Linguistic Turn” is among the freshest and funniest shows of the season—not just the summer doldrums of dime-a-dozen group shows, but the whole year. It’s also a terrific addendum to the John Baldessari survey at LACMA, giving visitors a rare glimpse of the atmosphere in which Southern California’s most famous Conceptual artist flourished. In a celebrity culture increasingly obsessed with stars and increasingly ignorant of any kind of surrounding context, that’s downright radical.

To walk into the main gallery at Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art is to feel as if you have stepped into a photograph from a high-end design magazine from about 50 years ago.

Nancy BuchananThe palette, predominantly black and white, is cool. The look—sleek, minimal and restrained—is tasteful. And what each of the 16 artists does in this limited format is wild—a nervy mixture of hilarious irreverence and mind-bending high-jinx that reawakens any literate person’s awareness of the role communication plays in civilizing animals like us. In this delightfully intelligent exhibition, laughter is a joking matter and a whole lot more.

Russell Baldwin’s pair of language-based works from the mid-1970s sets the tone. The first is a framed glass panel into which has been sandblasted “This is a unique work especially created by Russell Baldwin to be placed above a simple sofa covered in white-on-white linen fabric woven in a sculpted geometric pattern.” In the gallery, that is just what has been done: a comfy sofa, flanked by matching end tables and lamps, sits beneath the glass panel.

Baldwin’s second piece consists of four rectangular canvases hung in a grid. On each is painted part of the phrase: “This work of art is so [expletive deleted] good that it was sold immediately.” Each panel also sports a snapshot of the four panels together.

Both of Baldwin’s pieces begin with the wisdom that works of art have lives outside the artist’s studio, in the homes of the people who use them. It doesn’t take a great leap to imagine someone hanging the sandblasted piece over a plaid sofa, a desk or a table. Or the four parts of the other piece going to four different collectors, their reunion in the future a mere possibility.

Merwin BellinStory telling is alive and well in the show’s multilayered, endlessly fascinating standouts. Nancy Buchanan’s “Wolfwoman”  is a wicked little whimsy that is entertaining, playful and pointed. Sol LeWitt’s pair of notebook pages, covered with instructions for making and installing a wall drawing, is a through-the-looking-glass game of infinite regress that pushes rationality to the breaking point. It gives concise form to the profound differences between experiencing things in the flesh and reading about them in books while also demonstrating that every once in a while seeing things in the mind’s-eye is even more powerful than seeing them in reality.

Other wonderful conundrums are set up by John Knight’s detailed dissection of standardized spaces and their incidental differences; Doug Edge’s industrial-strength doorstop that talks back to viewers; Merwin Bellin’s playful mockery of insider knowledge; Lawrence Weiner’s miniature demonstration of the differences between words and objects; and Phel Steinmetz’s photograph that makes a place for comedy in art and in life.

That’s a lesson lost on a lot of the art from the 1970s, not to mention the present.

--David Pagel

Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, 8568 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 815-1100, through Sept. 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Images: Russell Baldwin, Untitled, 1977, sand-blasted glass in metal frame; Nancy Buchanan, Wolfwoman, 1977, (detail) black-and-white photograph; and Merwin Bellin Untitled (Just a Friend), 1973, paper collage. All courtesy of Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art