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Wilderness Tips 

From Karen Carson, Kristin Calabrese, Steven Criqui, Charlie White, Tamara Fites, Mark Housley, more

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001

First off, I‘d like to recommend that you visit Newspace before the current show, a group exhibit called ”LA, CA“ and curated by Gallery 207’s Dimitri Vorvolakos, closes this weekend. The exhibit, one of the summer‘s several alternatives to the Hammer’s ”SNAPSHOT“ survey of young L.A. artists, stands up more or less as well as any of the others but is dominated by Shirley Tse and Ashley Thorner‘s exuberant collaborative sculpture (UN)DE. A giddy cross between ”It’s a Small World“ architecture and the typographical concrete poetry of the late ‘60s, (UN)DE is a modular sculpture re-configured from its hundreds of brightly colored cut-foam children’s-toy components with each installation. The yellow, pink and blue agglomeration of soft preschool signage is constellated into a fluorescent Legoland version of Angkor Wat with connective toothpicks. A cartoon construction carved from the curdled plastic leftovers of yesterday‘s pedagogical semiology, (UN)DE stands as a primer in post-ironic complexity.

Another artist who has parlayed typography into topology is Karen Carson, whose new solo show of light boxes and painted banners opened at Rosamund Felsen Gallery on July 14. The typological content is limited here to the title piece, Making the Seen, and a handful of substantially witty word-based works in the project room. Otherwise, ”Making the Seen“ is given over to Carson’s energetic and cranially convoluted interrogations of that perennial painting subject, the landscape. Carson‘s clip-art-like silhouettes of heraldic banners unfurl in wildly careening odalisques in a shallow pictorial space that seems like a foot or two deep, while the gesturally economical romantic landscapes contoured across the ”surfaces“ of these banners extend to the horizon line. The paintings are assembled on vinyl advertising banners -- flat, rectangular planes held to two dimensions by regularly inserted brass grommets along the edge.

While these simultaneous models of space suggest a complex, arguably cool interest in the aesthetics of topological mathematics, they also convey humanity. The notions of space and semiotics that underlie Carson’s work aren‘t just topics for dry dissection by self-important academics, but observable descriptions of human perceptual mechanisms, and are therefore continuous with all human experience, for better or worse -- certainly not divisible from the joyous formal chops exhibited both in these banners and in the light-box landscapes in the second gallery.

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The light boxes, debuted in Carson’s last solo show at RFG, further blur the boundary between ooh-la-la French landscape painting‘s American cachet and the blue-collar roadhouse aesthetics of ad signage. Presented in a dim artificial twilight, Carson’s tinkling waterfalls and raging forest fires radiate a bruised stained-glass luminosity that manages a skeptical spiritual recovery of the history of both painting and the popular American romanticist spin on Nature, evoking a familiar, distinctively late-night, beer-soaked sublime. Made from hundreds of overlapping bits of translucent adhesive vinyl, the hypnotically fluorescing scenery demands the same level of contemplation as a fabulous sunset or a serious painting. To further promote this mode of viewing, Carson has provided chairs, potted palms and Oriental rugs in a rough approximation of the 19th-century Parisian exotica of painters‘ studio-salons. In this way, she undercuts the ”seen it -- got it -- next“ art-viewing style of contemporary gallery hopping (a tendency she is already broaching with her use of advertising vernacular), and allows the pictorial and painterly subtleties of the work to unfold.

Another of the alternate ”SNAPSHOT“s is ”Rogue Wave,“ a group show of 11 local artists chosen by L.A. Louver’s Peter Goulds and Kimberly Davis. Ranging from newcomers like Gajin Fujita to early-‘90s standbys like Sharon Ryan and Carlos Mollura, ”Rogue Wave“’s best work also, surprisingly, turns on the representation of landscape. The small south gallery houses three large photos by Charlie White, whose elaborately constructed scenes of monstrous mayhem look like stills from a very expensive horrorsci-fi--genre film whose director‘s taste for documentarian detail somehow remained miraculously intact. White is one of the recent photographers to up the ante in the exploration of photography’s digitally renegotiated relationship to reality, engaging pop culture both by trading in the fantasticism, sensationalism and narrative content of the post-Alien blockbuster, and, on a subtler level, with the underacknowledged (but overpaid) fine-art accomplishments of the special-effects industry. The familiarity of these shooting locations and (human) characters also touches on the curious dislocation Angelenos experience when seeing downtown‘s Second Street tunnel depicted in the mass media as existing simultaneously everywhere on Earth. This gives the works a curiously pleasurable provincial patina, odder still when you consider that White hasn’t yet had a solo show in L.A. (though Santa Barbara‘s Contemporary Arts Forum recognized the work’s appeal two years ago).

Steven Criqui‘s oil-paint touched-up inkjet print of Consumer’s Liquor is an endearingly awkward version of the same territory, its lo-fi intermedia quirks skewering the unspoken consumerist agenda of ”state-of-the-art“ fetishism (the difference between a creative bus-shelter ad and a backlit Jeff Wall Cibachrome, a Diana Thater installation and Animal Planet on a $5 color TV from the as-is yard). Like Criqui‘s earlier, somewhat generic ’90s L.A. abstractionist paintings of Hot Fudge Olitskis and other tried-and-true confections, this untitled work has a powerful decorative presence. Showing a tiled-together photographic printout of vernacular Los Angeles architecture consumed in painted flames, Criqui overplays his debt to Ed Ruscha, but seems to be heading into more bracingly uncertain terrain.

Kristin Calabrese‘s odd large-scale paintings of depopulated room interiors combine an unsettling, slightly creepy dose of the pathetic fallacy -- landscape-as-reflection-of-human-emotions -- with a feverish formal compression, as if she were trying to fit too much into the frame, causing everything to crumple slightly. Luck of the Draw is no exception, intensifying its almost Cubist distortion of space with its depiction of actually collapsing physical space -- what appears to be a cheap single apartment with a caved-in kitchen roof, torn wallpaper and assorted debris. Similarly, the little talking-to-the-camera phrases that float on Calabrese’s surfaces -- little messages stuck on walls, or altered tuna-fish can labels, reading ”I‘m Not Over You“ or ”Why Are You So Crazy?“ -- are echoed in the refined domestic touches: a bowl of green apples on a table; a vase of tulips; a fresh loaf of bread; a drawerful of spices that suggest anything but dereliction, or even a squatter. While I could have done without the artist’s other piece -- a giant purple triangle with flowers in the middle -- Luck of the Draw reconfirms Calabrese‘s promise as one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic young painters in L.A.

Tamara Fites’ installation takes the pathetic fallacy to another dimension, creating obsessively detailed environments that act as three-dimensional multisensory narratives of subjective human psychologies, usually off the beaten track. I Love Pompeii, Fites‘ work in Louver’s open-air ”skyroom,“ is no exception, spinning an ambiguous story about an armchair archaeologist-entomologist whose isolation is tangible in the looped video of unintelligible signals from the outside, and in the pathetically cocooned figures -- reminiscent of the plaster casts of evaporated volcano victims from Pompeii -- that occupy the space. As usual, the bleak, frayed pathos of Fites‘ assemblage is transformed by the depth of attention paid to its composition. The baroque white-trash narrative filigrees that open on closer and closer inspection offer the patient observer a wealth of formal pleasures resting just beneath the surface.

One of the people Fites thanks for their help is her friend Mark Housley, whose own small solo show opened upstairs at Patricia Correia Gallery on July 18. Housley’s exhibit, titled ”The Chamber of the Trembling Unicorn,“ consists of a handful of rough-hewn oil paintings and a spindly rose-bush sculpture made of wax. These works take the landscape-as-metaphor to a mythological level, piecing together cryptic, surrealist elegies from images of flowers, beds and tombs. The urgency of their screw-studded surfaces and Day-Glo color schemes doesn‘t compromise the haunting stillness of the imagery. Housley’s earlier paintings were more cluttered, and more reliant on a particular set of accepted lowbrow visual strategies. By depopulating his paintings‘ dreamlike space and pursuing the unlikely de Chirico--on-E melancholia-a-go-go of his new work, Housley has found his voice in the wilderness.

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