Thursday, June 21, 2007


Ellie and I made one of our periodic forays into the gallery scene on Wednesday, and came upon some current shows that seemed to warrant a few words of commentary.

First stop, the expansive (and expensive!) Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, where we found an installation by Chris Burden, whose work will be familiar to anyone even vaguely familiar with the Southern California art world: who could forget his crucifixion on the rear end of a Volkswagen, his shots fired at a jetliner landing (or taking off?) at LAX, his crawling naked through a bed of broken glass? It gives pause, these days, to observe his recently-abandoned tenure as Chair of the prestigious Art Department at UCLA, and to find him enshrined in this established mecca of the currently superheated art market.

Still, there he is, with “Yin Yang,” an installation that consists of two machines from the artist’s personal collection of strange and exotic exemplars of vehicular transportation—a sleek, low-slung1973 Lotus Europa racer and a klutzy, rusting old bulldozer, an International T6 Crawler.

(The above is obviously a promotional rather than an installation shot, shamelessly purloined from the gallery's website.) Yin Yang indeed. The one is the symbol of speed, precision design and engineering, superlative performance, streamlining; the other, a slug of the mechanical world, is slow, plodding, heavy on its tracks. (Both, incidentally, seem to be rudely leaking oil on the polished gallery floor.) On the walls alongside of each, Burden has tacked up a series of large scale, roughly made photographs depicting the vehicles and their (be it said, kindly though, from one who shares that seemingly inevitable spread, now rather more stocky) artist-owner with various expressions of bemusement on his face—and one with the contrasting figure of a man young enough to be his son.

I see both these vehicle as Burden: the once sleek, once fast-paced, once young body; and the older, more plodding, stockier version, slightly the worse for wear, and slower in performance. I see this piece to be in good part about the physical human body and the aging process, and I share viscerally in the pathos of it. It's the yin and yang of life itself.

And I must say I liked the simplicity of this statement. There will be those who ask whether this simple juxtaposition is enough to justify its exhibition in one of our major galleries, but I had fun with the show. Aside from the deeper and more disturbing implications, Burden’s boyish fascination with all things transportational will appeal to anyone who has ever loved a train set; and the film in the adjacent gallery, “Metropolis,” suggests that there are wider cultural issues at issue. The film documents another, earlier installation, this one a complex, miniaturized citiscape with dozens of toy cars speeding along roller-coaster highways and multi-car trams darting endlessly along their tracks. It’s a bewildering—and hypnotic—evocation of the edgy hum of mechanical urban thoroughfare, reminding us of the impossibly fast-paced, barely organized structures of our city lives, at once a critique and a celebration of the power of the machine.

It's also, in its network of nerves and pulsing circulation, another powerful metaphor for the human body.

On to Regen Projects, and the current work of a contemporary of Burden’s, Charles Ray. Ray is another artist who established his reputation with edgy, sometimes disorienting or discomforting work involving, often, like Burden, his own body—and another who joined, in a sense, the ranks of the academy as a faculty member at UCLA. He offers an exhibition every bit as simple, on the surface, as Burden’s pair of vehicles: “Hinoki,” Ray’s single—singular—object in the gallery space is a massive rotting tree trunk.

Well, not quite. It’s the recreation of a massive, rotting tree trunk, one spotted by Ray along Highway 1 on California’s Central Coast.

(Photo: courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, photographer Joshua White)

Wishing to celebrate and breathe life back into this noble carcass which spoke so eloquently about time, entropy, and the forces of nature, the artist had casts made of its various parts and shipped them off to Japan for recreation in “hinoki” wood—Japanese cypress—by Yuboku Mukoyoshi, a master carver who specializes in Buddhist temples and sculptures. The work took the master and a team of assistants more than five years to complete, and the resulting object is a marvel of craftsmanship.

The eye is drawn first, of course, to the huge overall shape of the thing, and to its evocation of the original object of Ray’s interest. But it’s the paradoxical details that draw the eye next: the dovetail joints left visible, the marks of the chain-saw that carved up the tree and the chisels of the carvers—all those things that contradict the initial impression and set the mind off in an irresolvable spin between reality and illusion, object and artifact, nature and art. The viewer is seduced by the compulsion to keep looking further and for greater detail, exploring the pits and flaws of both surfaces and interiors, caverns and canyons--and by the nearly irresistible urge to touch, to feel the shapes and the texture of the wood, to somehow surrender to its massive, in some way humbling power. While very different in appearance from Burden’s vehicles, this awesome “sculpture”—I’m tempted to use the word in quotation marks, even though that is precisely what it is—shares the mature artist’s fascination with the aging “body” and the marks that time leaves on both its surfaces and its inner core.

Okay, two exhibitions well worth a visit. And, once in the neighborhood of Regen Projects, don’t miss the elegant paintings of Helen Lundeberg at Louis Stern.

This early 20th century California artist, wife of Lorser Feitelson and at least his equal as a painter, created wonderfully simple, mysterious, austere architectures in her work which tease the brain into finding the exits and entrances of her deceptively flat spaces. For the meditative mind, a special treat, as are the spectacular, late-career abstract expressionist paintings of Norman Bluhm around the corner at Manny Silverman Gallery. It’s amazing to see how the culture of street art and graffiti found its way into the exuberantly colorful vision of a painter who earned his chops many years before those whipper-snappers came along.

Also of note, on Beverly Boulevard at Crescent Heights: at Michael Kohn Gallery, a wonderfully-paired exhibition of the work of Carl Andre and John McLaughlin. The exchange of rhymes and the rhythmic echoes in the subdued palette and geometric shapes of these two artists creates a quietly lyrical ensemble, and the artists they serve usefully to inform and enrich each other. And, at df2 gallery, an interesting and challenging exhibit by three contemporary Chinese artists who "address notions of isolation and communication through the artist's placement of their own bodies in physically extreme conditions." I'm still thinking about this one, and may get back to it. Curiously, it's where Chris Burden and Charles Ray both started out...

1 comment:

Carly said...

re: Chris Burden's unforgettable work. Haven't seen the show. From your description I will be sure not to go. I don't want to clutter my mind with more art done like advertising. The promotional yin yang is nothing more than a cliched icon adapted to a comparison, modeled on the before and after advertising concept, There is no tension of opposites in the trite idea, therefore there is nothing of interest in the "side by side" as it's called in the ad world. In fact, there is no comparison of a lotus and bulldozer in any respect, when one stops to think about it. We should not be tempted to make art out of something which is not, just because we are in a gallery - which prompts us to do so. Chris is obviously one of those artists who attempts to "speak" to his materialist, consumer audience through ad-like promotional presentations of material things. If toy trains is the connection, it's a ride through nostalgia. Perhaps the installation belongs in a cultural history museum. If the purpose of art is only to build enthusiasm - for things and ideas about culture, in this case, culture of speed and outmoded slow, hard work, then I shall remember to include the whole mess as something to shove out of my mind when meditating.

re: the tree trunk man. The whole idea seems to be that man can build nature better than the original material. This idea flies in the face of Zen. i would prefer to have seen the original log, for that is where the beauty lies. But, then, who in a corrupt society would marvel at the amount of expenditure expended to recreate beauty - in a more sterile way. For man is superior to anything nature and time can create. Guess I'll miss this one too. Not recommended for Zen Buddhists, who's eyes might suffer and hearts grow sore at the spectacle of empty adornment. Time better spent in a simple tea ceremony.

re: Feitelson. This artist reminds me of a Dalinian quote about abstract art. "It's about nothing."