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Great Walls 

Chinatown revisited

Wednesday, Jan 23 2002

After the initial burst of attention surrounding the influx of young, hip, mostly artist-run galleries on and around Chinatown’s pedestrian-only Chung King Road, there was a sense that the scene would quickly taper off into a comfortable commercial rut, or peter out altogether. Happily, neither of these scenarios seems to be playing itself out, and a year and a half down the line, new and surprising shows, spaces and special events continue to crop up regularly.

The latest addition to the neighborhood is the Annex, an offshoot of New York‘s Alleged Galleries. The second show in this project space that also houses a makeshift bookstore features Stephen Powers, one of the recent spate of sign-paintergraffiti artists to hit the big time. Although the narrative threads between the well-crafted individual panels are a little difficult to follow due to the slight awkwardness of the installation, it’s worth navigating the knee-high tables full of zines to sort it all out.

Diannepruess gallery has undergone a distinctly Lynchian transformation for its current show, “Take Back the Night” by Dave Deany. Its floor has been elevated with a platform of rustic boards leaking black light from below; its windows have been frosted over with blue spray paint; and the exhibition space is dominated by a lumpy, hissing floor sculpture of a mud pool (Untitled Floor Jazz, 2002) that reads like a terribly misguided furniture item from the Natural History Museum gift shop. Fleshing out this mutant zendo environment are three equally fucked-up paintings: an owl, a seascape, and a gnarly, overstuffed picture of a tree.

The gallery itself has been recently engaged in a number of admirably DIY projects, including the printing of an improbably massive artist‘s book by Robbie Kinberg entitled The First First Person, consisting of a boxful of 5-by-7-inch cards, each bearing a sketchy drawing of angels or circus freaks and an aphorism like “You’re not the first person to not be able to kill a dying bug though you‘ve killed countless healthy ones” or “You’re not the first person to imagine god in a helicopter.” Funnier still is the gallery‘s fledgling record label, which, since November, has been issuing CDs in editions of 50 of music recorded in its basement. The deliberately abject artifacts are generic, individually burned CDRs with whatever scant information deemed relevant typewritten haphazardly on the standard-issue jewel-case insert.

Lord Mori Gallery is playing host to a grab bag of works from New Zealand in a group show entitled “The Tomorrow People” (after a ’70s cult BBC kids‘ show), curated by Joyce Campbell and Tessa Laird. While their game attempt to wrest some overarching coherence from the near-random mix falls short, the individual works are good enough that it doesn’t matter. Gavin Hipkins‘ curtains of uncut snapshot rolls alternate between domestic detail and Internet porn, with an interesting disruptive effect on the narrative impulse that such a sequence of images invariably provokes. Saskia Leek’s pathos-laden little paintings of sad bunnies are simultaneously creepy and endearing, in just the right proportions to seem uncalculated. The two best pieces in the show revolve around cover versions of pop songs: Ronnie Van Hout‘s video of himself in a monkey mask getting drunk on New Year’s Eve to someone‘s distorted reworking of Neil Diamond’s “I Am I Said,” and Violet Faigan‘s oddly customized stereo system that plays picture discs of the artist’s rendition of Brian Wilson‘s “In My Room.”

Acuna-Hansen Gallery, on Bernard Street, across Hill by the freeway exit, is also making a strong showing in the witty-slacker department, with a group show curated by recent soloist Carlee Fernandez, whose Ilsa-Koch-visits-the-zoo taxidermy hybrids created a bit of a stir. The group show “Adjective Noun Verb,” featuring works by Eric Rosciam, Roman de Salvo and Tom Skelly, contains a lot of visual punning, much of it about wood. A gorgeous burl is transformed into a miniature hearth hanging from generic swag-lamp hardware; a yardstick is partially ground into sawdust and the sawdust quantified with measuring spoons; a sawhorse is given a leg up by another, miniature sawhorse. Elsewhere, a bag of Oreos is reconfigured so that all the “stuff” is contained in a single teetering cookie, and an unscratched lottery ticket is laminated -- a permanently dangling carrot that, like the Oreo sculpture, is offered in a low-priced unlimited edition.

While all these works might seem like facetious one-liners of the type that clog so many galleries, they’re somehow less obnoxious than last year‘s batch, more genuinely engaged in the world, and funnier. Maybe the clearest illustration of this is Rosciam’s piece, Backwash Flowers, which consists merely of a half-dozen 2-liter plastic soda bottles with their tops cut off, and just enough of their original contents resting in their dimpled bottoms to depict a cluster of candy-colored flower shapes. Sure, it couldn‘t have taken more than half an hour, and there isn’t much of a concept involved, but nobody‘s claiming otherwise. I’m glad Rosciam did it and I got to see it, which is more than I can say about most art.

For example: the dueling dullnesses currently occupying Goldman Tevis and China Art Objects, two shows of staggeringly lackluster retro formalism that attempt to mask their inadequacies with embarrassing claims to conceptual grandeur. David Hughes‘ piles of hinges, Lycra cysts and plexi-bound sketchbook pages are “mediation(s) on the interior system that informs the sculpture’s creation,” which encourage the viewer to “trust his or her immediate impulse to touch, move, read or ignore what they encounter.” Well, I tried each and recommend the last. Morgan Fisher‘s nondescript stochastically generated monochrome paintings are accompanied by elaborate rationalizations that I at first took for parody, but that appear to be claiming the paintings’ 40-year-old riffs on compositional sabotage to be innovative artistic strategies. This is borne out by Fisher‘s citation of Ken Noland and Frank Stella as “recent” painting. Give it up, dudes. Conceptual this ain’t. Both galleries, which are arguably the most high-profile of the Chinatown spaces, have had excellent shows, but they‘re going to have to take up the slack as the competition continues to heat up.

The dark horse of the Chung King herd is the Black Dragon Society, one of the earliest galleries to establish a beachhead in the district. Only a year ago, you’d have been lucky to find the doors open on a weekday, and even then the contents would most likely have been some loosey-goosey Aryan paintings in the vein of guiding spirit Roger Herman. Recently, though, the gallery grew an actual office space, got some front-desk help and made some unpredictable curatorial choices, resulting in a sudden surge in its hipster cachet.

The current Black Dragon show is a fine slice of idiosyncratic UCLA-style sculpture by one “Jedediah Caesar.” A skeletal painted wooden Desert Racer with dysfunctional square “wheels” brushes against a fetishistic aboriginal aesthetic that is a major taboo in academic art circles. In a similarly indigenous vein, Loop consists of sea sponges saturated in brightly hued paint a la Yves Klein, then strung together into an oversize lei. Peaked Out and Built is the largest piece in the show, a vaguely whale-shaped form roughly assembled from cubes of spongy polyurethane foam. A rack of leather belts inlaid with quirky landscapey photos, a bread-stick tree and a paper-doily alphabet mandala cement the impression of a Tim Hawkinson without the labor intensity. In lieu of a recording studio, Black Dragon‘s basement holds a sampler of oddball paintings by Herman and others. Particularly strange are the bargain-priced pornographic thrift-store pictures by Steve Canaday.

Contrary to many predictions, the Chinatown galleries appear to have weathered the first, somewhat overwhelming wave of hype to emerge stronger and more adventurous than ever. New projects range from mysterious subterranean electronics courses in the elusive C-Space to surprisingly savvy participation from the local community, like the exhibit “Inspiring Lines -- Chinese American Pioneers in the Commercial Arts” at LMAN Studio. The Annex will exhibit a collection of Sonic Youth ephemera to coincide with the noise band’s “All Tomorrow‘s Parties” extravaganza at UCLA in March. Chinatown’s greatest strength may well be that you can actually hang out there, see much good art, grab a plate o‘ shrimp and a beer, then, as likely as not, stumble across some unadvertised screening, workshop or performance. You still have to drive home, but it’s the closest thing to a community that L.A. has conjured up in decades.

  • Chinatown revisited

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