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Holiday Trimmings 

Vallance, McCarthy, Besemer, Ott, Calabrese, more

Wednesday, Dec 22 1999

In spite of a beleaguering array of conflicts of interest (the artist is bringing me to Lapland as a guest lecturer in the spring, is a contributor to this magazine and produced about a quarter of the work in the show originally as commissioned illustrations for the Weekly), I am obliged to put my fullest endorsement behind perpetual expatriate Jeffrey Vallance‘s current show at RFG. “Anomalies and Paranormal Diagrams -- Heretical Theories,” while an unfocused hodgepodge of old and new material, is such good shit that it doesn’t matter. The show breaks down into three rough categories: the aforementioned illustrations of various Vegas casinos and Jagermeister logos, a salon-style barrage of 25 years of leftovers, and a series of diagrammatic works on paper that combine drawing and collage elements to explicate autobiographical incidents (the fund-raising poolside art show for Marion Barry‘s post-crack re-election campaign, the clandestine electric-switch-plate exhibition at LACMA in 1977, etc.) or paranormal phenomena (the Face on Mars’ uncanny similarity to the Shroud of Turin, etc.). The last are consistently excellent, drawing from Vallance‘s personal mythology as well as his role as a correspondent for the Fortean Times.

The artist has published a zine anthology of his recent writings in conjunction with the show, which the gallery is selling for a buck, and the entire exhibit is given a typical Vallance twist by the artist’s constant entourage of 15 students from his current teaching position at the University of Umea in Swedish Lapland. This unheralded field-trip-as-art-form led the Swedes from Disneyland to Forest Lawn in search of the quintessential California cultural experience, and was perhaps most typical of Vallance‘s recent expeditions into low-profile tweaking of social situations, and most reminiscent of his (for want of a better word) performance pieces.

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Nevertheless, the wildly cluttered salon-style wall of Anomalies “excavated from the extensive Vallance Archives” makes the show. Ranging from tossed-off marker sketches of Blinky the Friendly Hen to unexpected treasures like World’s Smallest Liberace Painting, or the odd-even-for-Jeffrey-Vallance Self-Portrait Atomic Bomb bronze from 1974, the Anomalies wall presents a microcosm of the restlessly inventive mind that draws no distinction between presenting the king of Tonga with X-large diving flippers and drawing the clown faces detected in the burns on the Shroud of Turin.

A similar slapdash genius animates Paul McCarthy‘s claustrophobic Tokyo SantaSanta’s Trees installation at Blum & Poe. Obviously thrown together from the documentation of the artist‘s 1996 performance Tokyo Santa (including the obligatory reliquary of moldering props) and a forest of rat-tainted, waterlogged cruise-ship Xmas trees, this offhand environment succeeds in spite of its slightness. Lining the tiny Broadway gallery are large, glossy documentary photos of the artist in a Santa suit indulging in a chocolate-syrup bacchanal. Hung near the ceiling and alternating between right-side up and upside down, the photos create a vertiginous crimson aurora over the stifling, mazelike throng of fake and damaged trees, curdling the benign yuletide cliches into a truly unnerving experience.

Lari Pittman has been enduring a critical drubbing in the New York press for what looks to me (at least from the online images included with Jerry Saltz’s review at www.artnet.commagazinefeaturessaltzsaltz12-3-99.html) like his best work in a decade. While it smacks of a backlash toward L.A. painting, this notion is belied by the announced inclusion of L.A. abstractionists Ingrid Calame and Linda Besemer for next year‘s Whitney Biennial. Besemer, known for her striped rectangles of solid paint draped over towel racks, is currently showing her most recent work at Angles Gallery in Santa Monica. They are certainly brightly colored and shiny, and the first couple of times they are surprising, and they seem to be addressing major structural painting concerns, but Besemer’s paintings in bulk are nevertheless unconvincing. In spite of an attempt to expand her vocabulary with a new “folded” presentation style, and small, thick rectangles that resemble licorice all-sorts, the artist seems to be content to churn out variations on her one trick. More interesting are the four small works by Linda Stark in Angles‘ next-door annex. Stark is known for a similar concern with paint’s materiality, molding 6-inch-square flame jobs and hairdos from solid oil. Rather than stick with this marketable formula, however, Stark‘s new work attempts to complexify the picture with peculiar and not-always-successful stylistic hybrids. Two of the paintings, Curtains and Jesus, are excellent, but the important question is whether artists are rewarded for taking risks to push their work down unexplored paths, or for doing three more in the teal blue and three more in the taupe.

Bergamot Station is hosting a number of shows that recall Pittman’s wide influence. Each One as She May, at Mark Moore, is Sabina Ott‘s second L.A. solo show since relocating to St. Louis to teach. As with Pittman, Ott’s visibility in Los Angeles in the ‘90s resulted in many pale imitations, but her true legacy is her own continually evolving work. Overwhelmingly luscious encaustics of extreme visual complexity, Ott’s surfaces continue to get more heavily encrusted with forms. In addition to the incised decorative patterns, flowers and typography, areas of shaped wax rolls jut forward four or five inches from the surface of the canvas. While this new work inspires some of the same reservations regarding eye candy that her L.A. stuff did, there is something compulsive at play that, in combination with the artist‘s roots in aconceptualism (she often cites Gertrude Stein as an important influence), carries it into another realm.

From the opposite end of the art-world spectrum, the triple show of Don Ed Hardy, David L. Forbes and Eric White at Track 16 is strangely satisfying. Outsiders of the post--Robert Williams school, the three artists have filled the gallery with what, for the La Luz de Jesus crowd, are quite large works. While some of the serial-killer content and gratuitous decoration remain discomfiting, the shift in scale and technical chops brings Pittman’s style to mind, and the work stands up.

Speaking of conceptually rooted painters riffing on early Modernist prose geniuses at Bergamot Station, Steve Roden‘s show in the Guard Shack presents a floorful of the artist’s usual exquisitely drafted diagrams, in this case deriving by some unseen jerry-rigged ideational system from James Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake. Roden, also an accomplished audio artist who recorded a mini-CD of improvisations on an Eames plywood leg splint, has provided the exhibition with a soundtrack. Playing on speakers mounted on the exterior of the shack, the sound is that of James Joyce reading his own book, but processed beyond intelligibility. Combined with the frustration of being unable to get close enough to examine the detailed drawings on the floor, this generates a quirky analogue for the legendary impenetrability of Joyce’s magnum opus.

One of the most improbable overnight success stories for a young L.A. painter has just unfolded at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. Until recently, the gallery‘s presence in the Los Angeles art community has been an imperious one, with few surprises. Previously deigning to exhibit only the most blue-chip of local Daddy-o’s (Ed Ruscha, Chris Burden and Frank Gehry), Gagosian has abruptly shifted gears, playing host to a Dave Muller “Three Day Weekend” as part of Terry Myers‘ “Standing Still and Walking in Los Angeles” in August, and now to a solo debut from recent UCLA painting graduate Kristin Calabrese. Calabrese paints large (essentially to scale) images of empty urban domestic spaces, alternating between a bleak black-and-white palette and a fully saturated, almost operatic color scheme. The kitchens, rec rooms and hallways are utterly contemporary, but painted with a degree of tactile engagement absent from much of the slick work that is touted as topical. Calabrese’s work also displays a refreshing willingness to dabble in the impurities of narrative emotional content, evoking the sparse melancholy of Morandi on the one hand, and the white-trash desperation of those banned wood-panel-and-green-shag Calvin Klein ads on the other. With three of the large canvases pre-purchased by the Saatchi Collection, Calabrese‘s show is pretty much a guaranteed winner out of the gate. The truly surprising thing is that an artist whose work is so unlike both currently fashionable L.A. painting models and the generally icky tastes of the Saatchis (Currin, Peyton, Yuskavage) can be swept up and anointed as the next big thing, and actually merit it.

Finally, I can’t close without sending kudos to the public-art geniuses who live at the corner of Muirfield Road and Third Street. While I have often gazed in awe at the arc of Michelangelo Davids studding the lawn, the residents have outdone themselves with a Christmasmillennium upgrade that has to be seen to be believed.

  • Vallance, McCarthy, Besemer, Ott, Calabrese, more

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