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Death-Stalking, Sleep-Walking, Barbarian Ninja Terminators 

Hand-painted movie posters from Ghana at the Fowler. Plus, Ivan Morley at Patrick Painter

Wednesday, Feb 28 2001

The press release for the Fowler Museum promised an intriguing triumvirate of powerhouse shows, exploring, from different angles, moviegoing as a cultural phenomenon. Particularly promising was ”Making Faces, Playing God: Identity and the Art of Transformational Makeup,“ a thoughtful-sounding examination of special-effects makeup, truly an underappreciated niche of contemporary visual arts. Unfortunately, what I’d hoped for -- a dazzling array of preliminary sketches, 3-D latex mock-ups, actual prosthetic foreheads, tools, time-lapse videos and historical artifacts -- turned out to be a rather stingy sequence of unremarkable before-and-after photographs, apparently illustrations for a Connecticut law professor‘s book. The second show, ”Marquee Madness: The Attack of the 50-Foot Poster,“ seems to have been curated by calling the studios and saying, ”Send over a bunch of your latest posters and promo buttons, and we’ll plaster them around our courtyard.“

To my immense relief, as I rounded the corner into the third and final show, ”Death-Stalking, Sleep-Walking, Barbarian Ninja Terminators: Hand Painted Movie Posters From Ghana,“ I was confronted with what -- all issues of cultural hegemony and condescension aside -- is the best painting exhibit I‘ve seen in a year. Assembled by L.A. gallerist Ernie Wolfe III, whose dedication to the fantastic figurative coffins of southeastern Ghana has already made an indelible impression on the L.A. art scene, ”Death-Stalking“ documents a short-lived and highly localized explosion of over-the-top Pop Art that thrived in the West African nation from the late ’80s through the mid-‘90s. Designed to draw crowds to gas-generator-powered public video screenings of Hollywood movies, the paintings were initially done on stitched-together flour sacks and would be tacked up in each town, then rolled up and stuffed in the back of a truck with the VCR and TV. By the end of the ’90s, new distribution networks and the wider availability of both video equipment and offset-printed posters had made the hand-painted poster obsolete. Already ephemeral, the works in this show would have vanished without a trace within another decade.

Based on a single promo photo, video-box cover or even verbal description, the paintings bear only a tenuous relationship to the actual film depicted -- happily so: With titles like Critters 3, Beauty of the Barbarian and Return of the Swamp Thing, and a proclivity toward the oeuvre of Jean-Claude Van Damme, the posters are frequently the superior artwork. Given, as a springboard, the unfamiliar, tradition-free medium of canvas and the license to depict traditionally taboo subject matter, a generation of Ghanaian artists responded with an outpouring of almost overwhelming psychological material, depicted in wildly inventive and often startling visual vocabulary. Riddled with sexuality, violence and supernatural imagery, the paintings possess the immediacy of great sensationalist advertising. But the details -- the distortions in perspective and physiognomy; the obsessive overdepiction of impossible musculature, weaponry and costumes; the often fragmented but inexplicably right composition -- elevate these works far beyond the staid, committee-approved design of conventional promotion.

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While some of the work is admittedly reminiscent of Outsider aesthetics, it just as often conjures mainstream Pop masters such as Chicago‘s Jim Nutt and L.A.’s Jim Shaw. Informed by a wealth of anthropological significance -- the free-wheeling absorption and transformation of what is arguably colonialist propaganda into a functioning contemporary mythology, for example, or the reconfiguring of the language of 20th-century Western painting (profoundly influenced by the European exposure to African traditional arts) into a vital, distinctly African hybrid -- it is first and finally the unadulterated visual pleasure that makes this exhibit so rewarding.

”Death-Stalking, Sleep-Walking, Barbarian Ninja Terminators“ is up through July, but you have only the rest of this weekend to see my other current favorite painting show, Ivan Morley‘s ”Selections From a True Tale, Brazilian T-Shirt and Dig“ at Patrick Painter Inc. This is a peculiar show for Painter, whose track record on painting (apart from the recent excellent George Condo show) and local emerging artists has been bleak. Morley, a recent graduate from Art Center’s MFA program, is, moreover, both unfashionably engaged with his craft and inclined to a dangerously unmarketable heterogeneity of styles in his paintings. Although never straying from easel-painting scale, the works are divided roughly into works painted on the back of (sometimes patterned) sheets of glass and works on canvas that incorporate oil, batik, leaf, dye, embroidery and commercially produced patches. Similarly, about half the works depict readily recognizable imagery, while the rest hover just this side of pure abstraction.

The title of the show derives from Morley‘s practice of creating a series of paintings using peculiar anecdotes as a jumping-off point -- ”Dig,“ for instance, refers to the DWP’s accidental discovery of a forgotten 19th-century red-light district, and the subsequent archeological excavation. The resulting works depict unearthed bottles of Darby‘s Prophylactic Fluid and iconic renderings of a taped-off hole in the ground. The ”True Tale“ series is based on the story of Virginian Peter Biggs, who made a fortune when the cats he shipped from L.A. to rat-infested San Francisco were lost at sea and he collected the insurance. The latter sequence begins with a series of illustrations of caged cats toppling overboard, rendered with Victorian fussiness except for their vessel’s sails -- strangely flat, abstract squares of color. In the next group of paintings these squares become increasingly dominant, verging on contemporary Los Angeles abstraction, but Morley shifts gears with the final ”True Tale“ painting, a pixilated reverse-glass rendering of an atomizer bottle of Mr. Biggs‘ favorite perfume that segues neatly into the laudanum tinctures of the exhumed brothel. The works on glass are particularly dense, with imagery emerging fitfully -- if at all -- from a seething broth of psychedelic patterning, an effect used most powerfully in the two ”T-Shirt“ paintings, supposedly based on an image of a Brazilian girl. The works on canvas are punctuated with puzzling intrusions of needlework and tie-dye washes. Areas of detailed landscape turn out to have been created using the elaborate wax-repellant technique of batik dying, and anything depicting wood grain is treated with obsessive attention and lots of paint. The combination of quixotic visual bricolage, retinal overload and frontier mythology recalls the early days of San Francisco’s 1960s psychedelic subculture, which was similarly rooted in the improbable conflation of Wild West narrative conventions with the aesthetics of the blown mind.

Morley‘s project oscillates between the figurative and the abstract, high art and humble craft, the decorative and the conceptual, narrative convention and the pulverization of content, and he carries it off with consistent visual aplomb. Patrick Painter’s east gallery is given over to a vinyl-letter display of the artist‘s anecdotal sources, in a seeming attempt to convey a frisson of postmodern distance. Luckily, the strategy fails to undermine Morley’s uncommon immersion in his undertaking, or to seriously compete with his equating of the mythology of the West -- our last great physical frontier -- with the still unplumbed depths of the artistic imagination.

NOTES: While at the Fowler, be sure to allow time for the copiously rewarding, intelligently thought-out ”Body Politics: The Female Image in Luba Art and the Sculpture of Alison Saar,“ which pairs the Los Angeles artist‘s assemblage-based sculptures of female forms with similarly themed Central African royal emblems. Through May 13.

At 8 p.m. on March 3, artist and former Weekly art writer Marina Rosenfeld inaugurates a month of Saturday-evening performances at Goldman Tevis gallery in Chinatown. Her ”madscene“ consists of a DJ-style mixing of artist-made acetate recordings. The series will continue with performances by Cindy Bernard with Joseph Hammer, Meg Cranston and others.

Also opening Saturday is ”MacGyver,“ a show at Crazy Space, in the 18th St. Arts Complex, predicated on the funniest curatorial premise (courtesy Mary Leigh Cherry, acting for the Phoenix Foundation) I’ve heard in a long time: seven artists given seven hours, various household materials and Swiss Army knives to create artworks in the inimitable style of the 1980s ABC prime-time secret-agent character played by Richard Dean Anderson. Amazing what you can do with duct tape.

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