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
Notable throughout the work is Westermann‘s passion for his materials and his belief in good, honest workmanship. In the inscription for 30 Dust Pans (1972), he brags about handcrafting each pan’s handle without a lathe; in another, on a wood sculpture called Negate (1965), he exclaims: ”MAPLE -- I LOVE IT!“ He knows these materials intimately, and frequently configures them into puns, as in Imitation Knotty Pine (1966), a box made from knot-free pine that he‘s carefully inlaid with knots from elsewhere, or Walnut Box (1964), which is made from the wood of a walnut tree but also filled with unshelled walnuts.
While he worked in many media, it is Westermann’s woodwork that really stands out here. The pride he obviously took in a well-constructed box, a smoothly rounded edge or a flawless inlay is an all-American, Everyman sort of pride, and one can‘t help but feel a very wholesome admiration in response. The physical qualities of the wood, moreover, imbue the show with a lovely sense of warmth and accessibility. In a piece like Monument to Martha (1960), a tall, intricately decorated structure made in honor of the artist’s sister, the effect is disarming and inspires affection; in a more sinister piece like March or Die (1966), a strange assemblage of vaguely dangerous-looking contraptions in a shallow box, the wood suggests a sensuality that makes the work all the more chilling.
What emerges from these two exhibitions to distinguish Westermann from so many of his peers and predecessors is a resounding spirit of generosity. It appears in the materials themselves, as well as in the work‘s populist thematics and unassuming intentions. A large number of the objects on display were intended as gifts for friends, and bear warm personal inscriptions. (One of my favorites, on a pine box that is perfectly sized to contain three cans of varnish, reads: ”Dear Ed -- Not only may you borrow a can of varnish but you can keep these -- for your cabin in the desert.“) One senses that Westermann felt a similar generosity toward his viewers: He wanted his art to be understood in a direct and personal way. For all its cleverness, there’s little about it that‘s coy or smug; for all its technical sophistication, it’s never intimidating.
The cynic in me can‘t help but find it surprising that Westermann, afflicted as he was with this obvious big-heartedness, should have met with such success in the art world during his lifetime. Whatever the reason for that good fortune -- no doubt it has something to do with the work’s many other fine qualities -- it‘s notable that museum directors have largely let him rest for the 20 years since. These two exhibitions, however, are especially timely. With notions of patriotism and war taking on a pressing new dimension in American thought, and detached irony proving ever less satisfying an artistic strategy, we would do well to reacquaint ourselves with this wise old veteran.
H.C. WESTERMANN | At the GEFFEN CONTEMPORARY, 152 N. Central Ave., Little Tokyo | Through September 8