By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
12 Divas assembles the work of a dozen Los Angeles women who are more or less regarded as “mentors and heroes” in the L.A. art community, and while the element of celebration and acknowledgement is certainly at the forefront of the show’s curatorial impetus, the undeniable subtext is a critique of the sexist art world the artists had to survive in order to become such exemplary role models. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that women artists receive fewer rewards on all fronts — financial, critical, academic — than their equally or less-gifted male counterparts. Women generally have to cobble together a career out of second-string galleries, university museum-catalog essays, and an endless conveyor belt (they don’t call it a tenure track for nothin’) of short-term and part-time teaching appointments. Which is why a show collecting artists of this level of accomplishment is happening not at MOCA, but at the tucked-away Molly Barnes Gallery in Santa Monica.
The outstanding work in this exhibition comes from artists working in the traditional media of painting and ceramics. Phyllis Green’s always sumptuous clay pods (upholstery optional) are well-represented by four examples of her distinctive hybrid of decorative romanticism and psychedelic biomorphic creepiness. Karen Carson surprises by debuting a piece from her excellent new series of landscape light boxes. Waterfall (2000) extends the backlit barroom Americana of her most recent solo show further into the backwoods of pop culture, flattening and stretching Painter of Light™ Thomas Kincaid to an agitated transparency and a literally luminous reinvention of landscape painting. Also included are a pair of her elaborate paintings/assemblages utilizing narrow rectangular shards of mirror and strips of molding arranged into dynamic lightning bolts invoking fundamental polarities (in this case Here/Thereand Up/Down). Helen Pashgian’s translucent blue-epoxy squares bring an almost glass-art sexiness to the light-and-space minimalism her pieces recall.
The main gallery has a strong grouping of Carole Caroompas’ work from 1996 through ’97. This work gets better every time I see it, its aggressive countercultural posture, frenzied pop appropriations and baroque confectionery optics giving way to a complex compositional playfulness and almost paranoic conceptual net of obscure reference. Lita Albuquerque’s vivid new sculptural works drench conceptualist land-art fussiness in precious fine-art minerals such as gold leaf and pure dry pigment, with the eye-boggling light and color effects of the materials clearly outweighing the geographical, mathematical and narrative portions of the work.
Most of the women in this show came of age in the early 1970s — a period when lines were being drawn in the art world. After the expansiveness of the previous decade, newly minted factions of nonmainstream art activity began to codify and police their territories with the zeal of the righteous bureaucrat. Feminist art was one such category, and while some excellent work came out of the doctrinaire literalism that dominated the genre, many women artists were alienated by the requirement that their art should first and foremost declare its allegiances. The backlash in subsequent decades did little to heal the sectarianism, and video and performance artists (a.k.a. New deGenerates), Conceptualists and Identity Politicians remain cautious about those with whom they are associated. Which may explain the various shortcomings of 12 Divas.
Eleanor Antin’s Stanley & Patricia: One Thing Leads to Another (1995) and Alexis Smith’s Chordlerism (1978) are slight works that neither surprise nor do justice to their respective creators’ important oeuvres. This criticism ought to extend to the short video anthology of Rachel Rosenthal’s performance work. The video is so savvily edited, though, that several hours’ worth of performances are rendered into a fast-paced condensed cream of angst, entertaining with alternate bursts of rage and surreal humor. Likewise, Connie Zehr’s InkJet-printed documentation of one of her Zen-like floor installations of sand sidesteps its seeming stinginess. Zehr appears to be serious about her recent shift in media, despite the relatively blatant saleability of the photographs. Patssi Valdez’s single canvas, Autumn (2000), while a charming and brightly colored domestic scene, seems meager and out of place, unfortunately reinforcing the whiff of tokenism conveyed by her status as only-diva-of-color. While curator Dextra Frankel makes no claims to comprehensiveness, one of the most obvious absentees is Betye Saar, the African-American assemblage doyen of L.A.
Far to the southeast, at the Watts Towers Arts Center, Saar’s generational influence is explored alongside that of many others, in an exhibit of young black artists who have passed through the many post-secondary art programs in this neck of the woods. Fresh Cut Afros, curated by WTAC director Mark Greenfield, collects the work of 10 emerging and established artists — some locals still attending or recently graduated from MFA programs, some long relocated to foreign climes after briefly studying in the Southland. While, as with 12 Divas, the ostensible curatorial premise is positive — in this case, the need to awaken the African-American community to the recent abundance of art that is rooted in both the black experience and in contemporary academic art practice — the exhibits also share an inferential critique of the surrounding culture. Unlike 12 Divas, a good chunk of Fresh Cut Afrosexplicitly addresses the qualitative conditions of its own exclusion — that is, racism.