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Art reviews: James Richards and Frances Trombly at Shoshana Wayne

November 25, 2011 |  7:00 am

James Richards 234
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.

In one case, a two-panel work repeats the identical (or nearly identical) motif in both paintings. A scribble isn't necessarily random, mindless or unplanned. The pair evokes Robert Rauschenberg's famous 1957 conundrum of artistic authenticity, "Factum I" and "Factum II."

Richards also shows two sculptures, both unpainted, that opt for the standard Minimalist box -- albeit here composed of stacks of manufactured plastic crates. They are held upright and in bondage to one another with white cord and brightly colored yarn. Less compelling than the richly evocative paintings, the sculptures have potential but as yet feel underdeveloped.

Also at Shoshana Wayne, Miami-based artist Frances Trombly engages in a related but quite different rumination on painting in a fine solo debut. Five works simultaneously occupy multiple states -- as unpainted canvases, found sculptures, unusable furniture and meticulous crafts -- but they are united in a subtle reverence for the artistic production of the individual hand and mind over the machine.

Three-Seater-Bench 2
Drawing on precedents from a wide range of artists and designers -- Robert Ryman, Florence Knoll, John McCracken, Kazimir Malevich, Anni Albers and more -- they court a virtual reality that is at the least disconcerting. Take a pair of square canvases that stand next to one another on small wood blocks and lean against the wall, or two larger ones of different sizes that rest against each other, face to face. Bridging the zones of sculpture and painting, they occupy a hybrid space.

So do their materials. A bar-code label on exposed stretcher bars suggests they were commercially manufactured. Look closely, though, and the canvas weave is irregular -- not the kind of fabric produced on an industrial loom but the kind woven by hand. A simple cross-weave suddenly breaks into a herringbone pattern, later morphing into a subtle but jaunty series of stripes, here and there enlivened by the thread's loose ends. The differences between patterns are visible mostly through the play of ambient light falling across ordinary off-white cotton thread, which here functions almost like drawing.

Trombly ups the ante in the show's strongest piece, a sculpture composed of a canvas that leans nonchalantly against a classic Knoll bench. At least, it appears to be a Knoll bench.

The object is the right size and shape, and it has the requisite chrome legs and frame; but the tufted leather upholstery has been replaced by cotton canvas, handwoven by the artist in a manner identical to the adjacent painting's surface. The painting suddenly becomes analogous to domestic furniture.

As an ensemble, the off-white furniture-painting-sculpture assumes the peculiar look of a contemplative Giorgio Morandi still life merged with a Pop soft-sculpture by Claes Oldenburg -- a simulation of many things except for its own quirky self. Virtuality, it turns out, isn't just the province of digital imaging.

Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through Dec. 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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Photos: James RIchards' "Untitled (#234)," 2011, mixed media; Frances Trombly, "Three Seater Bench and Painting," 2011, mixed media. Credit: Shoshana Wayne Gallery