Monday, November 30, 2009

Have Mercy, O Color Wheel of Destruction!

Here's a shot I took in last week's painting class. Heather, the model, is posed as early 20th century LA evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson - the class is doing a collaborative suite of paintings that will be presented as a gallery show alongside the Echo Park Film Center Young Filmmakers' new musical on the life of Sister Aimee -- one week at WLAC (opening Tues Dec 08) then a week at an Eastside gallery location whose address and name I don't know yet. Sister Aimee: The Musical! will premiere at The Downtown Independent Theater, 251 S. Main St, Los Angeles, CA 90012, on Saturday Dec 5th. Doors 3:30 pm, screening 4 pm, Q & A with filmmakers and reception to follow.

The most amazing thing about the session was that Heather (who is also a realtor and costume designer, and volunteered to do an Yves Klein Anthropometrie-style body paintings on the roll of bond paper I was priming) had just been baptized the previous Sunday in a Pentecostal church in the Valley, and her mother had had a dream the week before of her daughter standing in robes on a platform, preaching to a crowd. The Lord works in mysterious ways!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Monkey Do

In Diana Zlotnick's bedroom, I was surprised to to find that the video of primate mating rituals on the TV was in fact an artwork by Rachel Mayeri, whom I knew from the MJT and Super Super 8 Festival. In Primate Cinema she restages a primatologist's field video of baboon behavior using upscale hipsters in a Chinatown bar. It is priceless, and perfect. For her Project Series #39 show at Pomona (Rebecca McGrew's long-standing outpost of curatorial awesomeness), I wrote a short essay touching on a number of my favorite topics, including Death, the monkey paintings of Desmond Morris protégé Congo, and Jackson Pollock's claim of "being" nature.

"As far back as ancient Egypt, art has been seen as an immortalizing agent – overseen by the priesthood, Egyptian craftsmen of the Pharaonic eras followed rigid iconographic formulae designed to maximize the possibility of a favorable judgment in the underworld, where the heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather. Chief interrogator and court reporter at this most consequential measurement was the God Thoth – usually depicted as an Ibis-headed man, but in this case taking the form of a Cynocephalus baboon.

The choice of an ape as avatar for the inventor of writing and measurement – in some accounts Thoth is even said to have given birth to himself by uttering his own name – is puzzling, in that one of the primary differences between our species and the less spectacularly dominant primates is the absence of symbolic language. Particularly relevant to the intersection of apes and art is the function that Count Korzybski – the independent scholar who developed the controversial theory of General Semantics – referred to as “time-binding” – the exponential accretion of knowledge and culture over successive generations of human society.

Even before Jean Jacques Rousseau and the advent of Romantic Primitivism, apes were depicted in art as analogous figures for humans before the Fall: unaware of Death, Time, History, or Causality. Now I’m no professional ethologist, but it seems to me that the ideas of those who study animal behavior – specifically primates in the field – had, by the late 1960s, arrived (after a long and circuitous route through the Deus-ex-machina experimental design models of white-coated laboratory-bound Skinnerians) at a similar lost-Eden archetype. This is the version of primatology – the early revelations about Jane Goodall’s playful, gentle tribe of chimpanzees – that captured and continues to dominate the public imagination, and is the fulcrum about which Rachel Mayeri’s incisive Primate Cinema videos and workshops hinge.

Of course this saccharine trope of the hot-tubbin’ free-lovin’ Bonobo is inaccurate..."

Read the rest of The Art of Biology: Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema and the Legacy of Monkey Painting here, then order the catalog (with copious illustrations and additional essays) from the PCMoAMAC here.

Images: Anon. Thoth as Baboon, King Tut's sarcophagus; Congo painting; Chardin The Monkey Painter; not actually a frame from Mayeri's Primate Cinema: Baboon Friends

Rachel Mayeri's Primate Cinema Project Series exhibition is on view through december 20th, 2009.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Three Closed Art Shows and a CD

If I were an on-the-ball sort of person I'd have gotten this posted in time so that my online readers might avail themselves of the 3 day window of opportunity between publication and the deinstallation of the shows. But I am not an on-the-ball sort of person. At least as far as getting things posted in time so that my online readers might avail themselves of 3 day windows of opportunity between publication and the deinstallation of shows is concerned. I suppose I'm on the ball in other ways. And you can still get the Pere Ubu CD.

"Roy Dowell’s timing is seriously out of wack. For more than three decades, as the art world has careened from poststudio praxis to neo-expressionist painting and back again, L.A.-based painter/collagist Dowell has been steadfastly mining a creative vein whose most conspicuous antecedents are the abstract-formalist vocabularies of early Modernism. A midcareer survey at Margo Leavin Gallery in 2006 demonstrated how much internal evolution had occurred within those parameters, absorbing and translating stylistic elements as universal as fragmented billboard advertising and as personal as the (reciprocal) influence of his longtime partner Lari Pittman. Chair of Otis’ graduate school for the past 20 years, Dowell is about as far inside the L.A. art world as you can get, and I have heard his elegant collages dismissed as “too safe” — the privileged, solipsistic exploration of an anachronistic aesthetic bubble, irrelevant no matter how gorgeous they might be...

The adjacent project room holds a group of works that verge even closer to outsider territory, while deploying an inventory of pictographic symbols that fuse the archetypal and anecdotal realms. Drawing on an extended sojourn in northern Sweden, mixed-media trickster Jeffrey Vallance has appropriated the shamanistic object-making traditions of the indigenous Saami people in the form of a reindeer-skin “Troll-drum” decorated with a complex system of stick figures and abstract patterns, and supplemented by five elaborate preliminary drawings and interpretive legends...

A similar finesse characterizes Brian Tucker’s curatorial pairing of two of 20th-century America’s most intriguing artistic eccentrics at Pasadena City College’sart gallery as part of the biannual citywide Art + Ideas Festival. This year’s theme is “Origins,” and both Polish-born sculptor Stanislaw Szukalski and Pennsylvania native (and extraterrestrial-research pioneer) Richard Shaver are abundantly qualified for inclusion...

Oppositional eccentricity as a creative strategy doesn’t seem to work in the art world anymore — Dowell’s sumptuous compositional exercises ruffle more insider feathers than whatever rehashed nonprovocations pass for novelty this week. Vallance and Tucker succeed on the basis of their ability to insinuate otherness without making overt threats. It’s been more than a century since Alfred Jarry was able to scandalize Bohemian Paris by opening his play Ubu Roi with the nonsense poop-word “Merdre!” It’s almost 35 years since namesake experimental garage band Pere Ubu set out to bring some dissemblance of Jarry’s absurdist science of ’pataphysics into the nascent mass medium of punk rock, and only now are they getting around to directly addressing the absinthe-addled dwarf’s literary legacy..."

Click here to read the rest of Outside In: Two crackpots, a couple of borderline cases and one regular sort of fellow.

The shows online: Vallance & Dowell; Shaver & Szukalski

Purchase or download Long Live Pere Ubu here.

Images: Dowell Untitled (#978); Vallance Lapp Magic Drum; Szukalski Plaster Binder Spines (detail); Shaver Rock Painting cover for 'The Hidden World'; Quay Brothers & Pere Ubu March of Greed

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Swamp Godd Oracle

"Charles Burchfield — an Ohio native who spent most of his career in Buffalo and environs — is best known for his midperiod landscape watercolors: nostalgic Depression-era views of dilapidated small-town architecture or already-crumbling industrial infrastructure in the style that came to be known as American Scene Painting or Regionalism. Its main proponents were Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, and it has generally (if unfairly) been regarded in retrospect as a reactionary retreat into academic realism after the initial impact of the European Modernists after the 1913 Armory show in New York. Fans of this phase of Burchfield’s artistic evolution won’t be disappointed in this show; there are a dozen strong examples, including several, such as the nearly-abstract monochrome Night (undated), in which the balance between his nervous vision and the prosaic naturalism of his chosen style tips waaay to the dark side.

If Burchfields’s career had ended there, it would have been one kind of story. Because in spite of his popular and critical success as an illustrative painter of scrap-metal yards and snowbound factory towns, he had started out painting loose, swooping, color-saturated mystical scenes of nature built largely from an abstract symbolic alphabet of his own device. At the tender age of 24 Burchfield concocted more than 200 of what he referred to as “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts”— simple, biomorphic abstract forms defined by the interplay of dark and light, each one representing a specific emotional state: “Aimless Brooding,” for example, or “Dangerous Brooding,” “Morbid Brooding,” or “Imbecility.” Smells like teen spirit!

This remarkable (and long-lost) pictographic lexicon amounts to a singular declaration of American Modernism, and it’s where guest curator Robert “Culvert-through-the-BVM” Gober chooses to begin exploring Burchfield’s oeuvre. Using his invented abstract vocabulary, Burchfield grappled with what appears to have been a tremendous angst load, transforming his units of brooding and melancholy into components of a seething, psychedelic landscape whose pervasive vitality overwhelmed any petty motivations of self-pity. Instead, Burchfield’s self-indulgence took a different turn. Between 1916 and 1918 he produced hundreds of watercolors — half his lifelong output — each one teeming with symbolic portent, decorative inventiveness and a dreamlike animism where the ominously anthropomorphic or blankly inert architecture of human civilization appears to be in a cosmic struggle with the wildly vibrating energies of the natural world. The Insect Chorus (1917), for example, affords only a background glimpse of the stylized gables of a house almost entirely engulfed in arabesque clouds of foliage, which, in turn, mutate indiscernibly into layered graphic patterns representing the songs of crickets, cicadas and katydids.

It’s not surprising that when arch-Modernist Alfred Barr chose Burchfield for the first solo exhibition at New York’s newly founded Museum of Modern Art in 1930, it wasn’t the contemporaneous work — moody Hopper-esque street scapes like Winter Twilight (1930) — that he included but rather a selection of 27 of these exuberant, intricately coded, synaesthesia-induced fever-dreams from more than a decade earlier. Yet in spite of this belated institutional endorsement, Burchfield continued to hew his path through the decidedly unmystical Regionalist swamp — as Gober details in drolly titled chronological galleries titled “Wallpaper and Marriage” (referring to Burchfield’s lengthy 1920s stint as a wallpaper designer), “Public Acclaim or The Great Depression” and “War and Doubt.” If Burchfield had died in 1942, we would be left with a narrative arc describing a troubled, gifted youth overcoming profound psychological demons and reining in the extravagances of his talent to become an accomplished, well-adjusted, contributing member of society (while coincidentally abandoning introspective European-style Modernism for a meticulously crafted, socially responsible, populist pictorialism.) But Burchfield didn’t die. Burchfield went a little crazy."

Read the rest of American Dreaming: Charles Burchfield’s Imagination; Bridled and Otherwise here

More info on the Heat Waves in a Swamp exhibition here.

Images: Sun and Rocks 1918-50; The Insect Chorus 1917; Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring) 1950 - all watercolors