If you’re like me, the peculiar selectivity of the ’80s revival has been a source of considerable perplexity and annoyance. Overlooking complex cultural touchstones like Crime Story, Kate Bush, Q: The Winged Serpent and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS trilogy in favor of Rubik’s Cube, Reaganomics and The Breakfast Club, the ordained collective memory shrouds the awkward vital perversity of the era in Day-Glo bangles and Cosby sweaters.
Similarly, the official picture of the ’80s art world is flat and cartoonish, an embarrassing bubble of self-indulgence irrevocably linked to junk bonds, cocaine and the gutting of the National Endowment for the Arts. But just as Aerial and the Futureheads have re-ignited Kate Bush’s hipness quotient and PKD is suddenly everybody’s go-to guy for the looming information apocalypse, visual artists of the ’80s — unfairly lumped in (and dismissed) with the ham-fisted neo-expressionists, anal-retentive postmodernists and not-anal-retentive-enough performance artists that populate the awesomely bad ’80s of the imagination — are being rediscovered in all their subtlety and depth.
Case in point: “5 Stories High,” the current show filling Track 16’s expansive galleries with the image-clogged paintings and drawings of Georganne Deen, Llyn Foulkes, Manuel Ocampo and Raymond Pettibon, and the quixotic robotic sculptures of Alan Rath. Strictly speaking, their qualifications as high-’80s artists vary — Foulkes first began attracting attention in the ’60s, and Ocampo was a virtual unknown before his inclusion in 1992’s era-cauterizing “Helter Skelter” at MOCA. But they all share a subversive narrative pictorialism that was briefly in sync with the “New Image” Zeitgeist before being swept under the rug for most of the ’90s.
Rath, an MIT-educated electronics geek who somehow stumbled into the art world, at first seems to be the odd man out. His handcrafted circuitry overlaps somewhat with artists like Laurie Anderson or Tim Hawkinson, but essentially occupies a highly specialized niche of its own. Yet, like those artists, Rath treats the human/machine interface with tremendous inventiveness and humor. His trademark cathode-ray eyeballs — one of which is mounted high on T16’s wall like a surveillance camera — are our pathetically uncanny doppelgängers; doubly so in an institutional setting where their furtive eye movements echo the retinal twitching of the beleaguered gallery hopper. Elsewhere, Rath riffs on our culture’s most clichéd electronic emblems in his custom stereo sculptures, while his subwoofer & rubber-ball Throbbers and pheasant-feather-fluttering La La Za Za spiderbot possess a disturbing eroticism.
In this light, Rath’s grouping with the emotionally complex and fiercely sardonic figurative imagery of Deen, Foulkes, Ocampo and Pettibon makes perfect sense. Of these, the most fiercely sardonic would have to be Llyn Foulkes. As with all the artists included, Foulkes’ section comprises a small career retrospective — in this case, dating all the way back to 1963’s bravura Cow, a droll deployment of accomplished AbEx gestures across the titular bovine silhouette that trumps Warhol’s less successful piss-taking attempts from the same period, not least through the strength of the paint handling. Foulkes (along with Ocampo) is regarded with a certain trepidation by the mainstream art world, and the other major work included here gives a pretty fair indication why. O Pablo (1983) is a seething, scathing, phantasmagorical indictment of . . . something. From the bloody, semiturgid corpse (Pablo? Llyn?) dangling over the leading edge of this complex trompe l’oeil to the happy-face art-book-reading globule perched on a shipping crate addressed to Foulkes’ local dealer and exclaiming, “All aboard for L.A.!,” it’s pretty obvious that the artist is not content with his position in the order of things. His solution — an aggressive reordering in the microcosm of a single painting — is a triumph, albeit on its own hermetic terms.
Speaking of hermits, Hermosa Beach’s premier pictographic monk has rarely been as succinctly summarized in an exhibition. Raymond Pettibon’s familiar iconic punk hybrids of literary and illustrational allusions have been the most successful of the “5 Stories” oeuvres at penetrating the mainstream, yet their presentation here — an encyclopedic array encompassing everything from a vitrineful of Black Flag and Tripping Corpse xerography to an actual oil on canvas — brings them full circle to their DIY roots, mainly by the remarkable (and slightly bizarre) textual additions the artist made to many of the works in the days before the show’s opening, as well as the gallery’s publication of a numbered zine-style catalog of the drawings unique to the show.
While Foulkes and Pettibon have maintained a healthy distance from the art world’s social whirl, Manuel Ocampo has absented himself entirely, moving from L.A. to Spain a decade ago, then repatriating to his hometown of Manila. At the height of his exposure — probably the swastika censorship debacle at Dokumenta in 1992 — Ocampo was willfully misunderstood as a sort of exotic faux-naive huckster. The selection of his work here — ranging from the distressed colonialism of Porco Dio (1992) to his untitled 2006 Guston-meets-Big-Daddy-Roth monochrome — makes it clear that his work deserves to be considered in the same breath as German anti-painters like Kippenberger, Oehlen and Bauch.
Less easy to categorize is the work of Georganne Deen, whose heady mixtures of fashion, children’s books, underground comix, typography, intoxicants, art history and intimations of abuse are served up with an off-kilter formal beauty and a restlessly innovative visual vocabulary. Formally, the works here range from the sweetly perverse Lowbrowism of Darling (1995) to the envelope-shredding Muther’s Thunderball Plutonium-Like Blue Hormones (1998–2002), which does for blue what Scorsese’s Taxi Driver did for red. Deploying a wide spectrum of decorative strategies, along with the frequently disturbing psychological content of her texts and images across a complex and highly evolved experimental narrative structure, Deen’s work is both highly accessible and profoundly challenging, a bittersweet confection whose currency has never been stronger.
Encircling a frilly pink queen-size bed and lit from above by blue stained-glass wagon wheels, Deen’s painting installation also alludes to the kind of grandiose opulence that characterized much of ’80s exhibitionism. To get a proper blast of the kind of threadbare but heroic elegance that ruled the day, it’s worth a trip back to the original scene of the crime — downtown. Former Chinatown impresario INMO has finally opened his new gallery in the former Billy’s Grill and Coffee Shop in the historic nickel-adjacent “Million Dollar Hotel” Rosslyn, stripping the expansive chamber of everything but the lunch counter, leaving an exquisite architectural palimpsest of brickwork, plaster and fragmentary decorative details. For his second show, he’s collected a dazzling retrospective of Roger Herman’s enormous woodcuts, dating back to 1982. Herman’s relationship to narrative imagery is ostentatiously ambiguous, with appropriations ranging from art-historical references (the two enormous 1991 Chardin-derived Memento Mori) to autobiographical (Mutter  from a snapshot of the artist’s mother) to verging-on-arbitrary (1989’s deadpan Auditorium).
These rough-hewn icons — chiseled from plywood and hand-transferred onto paper or cheap stretched fabric — are treated with a liberating equivalency, as occasions for formal experimentation. Minimally figurative, they still assert the primacy and autonomy of the image as a vehicle of pre-verbal information, independent of both the artist’s conceptual intentions and interpretive critical reception. Nevertheless, the most recent work — a grid of a dozen smaller (as in 5-foot-square) prints with repetitions and variations on images of ships, castles, mountains, the face of a prepubescent boy and a bleak apartment complex — edges toward a kind of hopscotch sequential narrative that is both gorgeous and melancholy. Ultimately, the best of the ’80s never really went away — it just dug itself in, mutating into new forms that have returned to give the people what they want, whether they like it or not.
5 Stories High | Track 16 | Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bldg. C1, Santa Monica | Through April 1
Roger Herman Woodcuts: 1982–2002 | INMO, 114 W. Fifth St., downtown | Saturday-Tuesday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. | Through April 18