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
There are a couple of weeks left to visit Angles Gallery and see the better-curated but less sensational group show “Inventional,” which also contains one of Kersels’ more collectible compound sound-effects contraptions, Windlass, Digbox, Creaker(1999). Gathering together a Who’s Who of gizmo artists, “Inventional” is a good show that should have been great. Besides Kersels, it includes Fischli & Weiss, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Gregory Green, Tim Hawkinson, Tom Friedman, James Turrell, Nam June Paik and Agnes Denes. A star-studded roll call, with another seven less well-known participants rounding out the group of tinkerers.
The choices are inspired; the combination of showmanship and Yankee ingenuity that these artists share (even if they happen to be foreigners) sets them in a distinctive class of their own — one that makes for widespread popular appeal and its concomitant critical anxiety. But where an artist like Burden has made dozens of important works that would fulfill this curatorial promise, the logistics of commercial gallery shows as opposed to museum exhibits mean he is represented by a measly pen sketch for his transatlantic Three Ghost Shipsproject. A lithograph of a sketch for Nauman’s Eat Death neon sign stands in for the actual piece, which wouldn’t be most curators’ choice for demonstrating Nauman’s scientific bent in the first place. Fischli & Weiss, the Swiss oddballs whose Rube Goldberg physics-lesson video The Way Things Gowas one of the best artworks of the ’80s, are represented by a pretty but pretty vacant ink-jet print of double-exposed nature photography. Only two (and two of the best) works — Hawkinson’s odd-even-for-him Arbochron(1995) and Friedman’s visually hypnotic untitled record left from draining scores of black felt-tip markers, tips down, onto the surface of archival drawing paper — are not for sale. Of the rest, unsurprisingly, the most engaging works are from relative unknowns.
Jno (pronounced “John” — he’s from Denmark) Cook is a standout, with his utterly peculiar Rollodog(1992) leading off the show. A jury-rigged movie editor threaded with a four-second black-and-white film loop showing a puppy hurtling around a room is accessorized with a droll and perceptive frame-by-frame analysis of the dog’s behavior seeking evidence of complex cerebration. A refreshing emphasis on the role of prolonged and meticulous attention in true creative thinking, for artist and viewer alike. Also on display are a camera designed by Cook in 1978 to automatically photograph cockroaches, and, in the back room, a ridiculous 1999 toaster–computer monitor hybrid. Claudia Matzko offers up a freestanding laboratory-glass Tears Distillery, which evaporates and condenses potable water from a reservoir of saline in a gesture of economical poetry, and photographs of her larynx. In an odd bit of self-referential subversion, Xu Bing displays a VCR whose empty spaces are clogged with silkworm cocoons. Surprisingly, the VCR is functional; as it plays a tape of an overhead shot of itself when the worms were actually living inside, it creepily conflates ancient and contemporary Asian cultural technologies into an impossibly functioning monstrosity. Tom LaDuke’s splendid EBS(1999) transforms an intimate casting of the artist’s bent knee into a detailed postindustrial landscape model of an antenna-studded hillside.
In spite of insurance and market concerns, some of the big names also come through swimmingly. The slightness of Turrell’s untitled minimalist glass hologram, for instance, is atoned for by its sheer loveliness. Agnes Denes’ once irritatingly finicky mechanical-pencil diagrams on vellum have aged well. And Gregory Green’s functioning pirate radio station, WCBS Radio Caroline(named after the famous offshore English pirate radio ship of the swinging ’60s), while not much to look at, bridges the high art and techno-libertarian subcultural worlds with rare circumspection and respect.
“Inventional” winds up referring to a spectrum of very interesting art ideas but demonstrating only a few of them. Which isn’t so bad. It’s like an essay, or a blueprint for an ideal, unrealized museum show. It helps if you’re familiar with the artists’ more substantial works (imagine a large-scale show including Kersels’ earlier science-project work, maybe the piece that used the surface tension of a flame as a loudspeaker to blast “Hotel California,” alongside a dumpster-cobbled Hawkinson talking automaton, a functioning TV made from scratch by Chris Burden, maybe something by Dennis Oppenheim, Jean Tinguely or the Marrin Sisters — but hey, that’s me. Curator Nowell Karten should be given room to stretch his muscles), but even merely indicating the interrelatedness of their visions provides “Inventional” with a conceptual depth greater than the sum of its not inconsiderable artistic merits.
While it’s not technically in L.A., I am compelled to recommend a trip to the Phoenix area to visit the “Öyvind Fahlström: Complete Graphics and Multiples” show at Arizona State University in Tempe. Compelled because no more westerly venue has deemed this show, one of the best I’ve seen this year, worthy of hosting. Bummer. Fahlström, a Swede, is one of my favorite artists, and an unjustly overlooked ’60s icon, moving and shaking the worlds of Pop Art, concrete poetry, critical writing, experimental radio art, installation and performance along an arc of increasing formal ambition and radical political engagement up until his untimely death in 1976. Though a show of mostly two-dimensional work (the original modular fridge-magnet pieces, intended to disrupt the distance between the artist and viewer, are now strictly “hands off,” but the museum provides replicas to play with), Fahlström’s graphic skills were so prodigious as to make this survey a must-see in and of itself.