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
The centerpiece of this show focusing on one decade in the long career of Hans Burkhardt — the Basel-born expressionist who began his career in New York among friends like Arshile Gorky and Willem deKooning, moved to Los Angeles in 1937, and died here, at 89, in 1994 — is a painting from 1968. It’s covered in a mazelike composition of gray and black slashes strangely evocative of both early Piet Mondrian and early Frank Stella. But it is far more visceral and energized — brutishly and elegantly so — and what would otherwise be its somewhat even field of marks is punctuated, perhaps even rebuked, by human skulls stuck among the thick paint and other raw materials. Some of those skulls, gathered by Burkhardt during trips to Mexico, are quite small.
Titled My Lai, the painting calls to mind lines from an interview between CBS newsman Mike Wallace and Paul Meadlo, a soldier who participated in the My Lai massacre: “Q: There were children and babies? A: Yes.” Later paraphrased to “Q: And babies? A: And babies,” the words were overlaid atop a photo from My Lai in a poster produced by the Art Workers Coalition. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York pulled out of a plan to help distribute the poster, the AWC — a group of artist/activists — displayed it in an unauthorized protest in the MoMA gallery where Picasso’s Guernica was then housed.
Unlike that explicit and now iconic poster, you might not look at Burkhardt’s painting and specifically get My Lai without looking at the title, any more than you might look at Guernica and get Guernica, the Basque town bombed by Hitler’s and Mussolini’s air forces in support of Franco during the Spanish Civil War. But one might look at Burkhardt’s My Lai and flash on My Lai, or Guernica, or Auschwitz, or Dresden, or Hiroshima, or the Sand Creek Massacre, or Rwanda, and so on. Burkhardt had a knack for tapping into something timelessly human in its intertwining of the fragile and the brutal. His painting testifies to humanity’s curse to repeat its uniquely human combination of folly, cruelty and death.
Not all is dark in this exhibition. Some of the paintings are buoyant, even lyrical, and many flaunt Burkhardt’s nuanced sense of color. But nothing here lacks an edge. In his ability to mix exuberance, intensity and awe with solemnity and angst, Burkhardt seems almost to have channeled the spirits of Chaïm Soutine and James Ensor, and to have been both a kind of long-distance artistic kin to Francis Bacon and a prefigure of neoexpressionists like Anselm Kiefer.
Burkhardt was always an expressionist, whether delivering quasi-abstract crucifixion-like compositions — of which there are some amazing examples in this show — or painting flower children, or bouquets of flowers, or abstracting American flags and Lucky Strike logos. In the exhibition’s catalog, Jack Rutberg — who has represented Burkhardt, and now his estate, since 1973 — makes an argument against what seems an exclusion of the painter from the history of 20th-century Los Angeles art. One might quibble with some of the specifics of Rutberg’s argument as to how and why this has happened, but viewing this museum-worthy exhibition, as well as examining the broader range of Burkhardt’s six-decade oeuvre, one sees little room for doubt as to the need to reconsider Burkhardt’s place locally and internationally, and to accept that the noirish and manic ends of “Sunshine and Noir” and “Helter Skelter” formulations of Los Angeles art history might have roots running deeper and broader than Raymond Chandler, Ridley Scott and Charles Manson.
Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, 357 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; through Dec. 24. (323) 938-5222 or www.jackrutbergfinearts.com.
Imagine what the view might be like ascending from Hell, through purgatory, to Heaven in a glass elevator, and you get some idea of the premise behind Marco Brambilla’s Civilization (Megaplex), a high-def video projection that is the centerpiece of his exhibition at Christopher Grimes Gallery. Of course, the remaining question is just what you might see as you pass from one level to the next on such a journey, but Brambilla has filled in all the blanks — hundreds of them — with vignettes pulled from films ranging from the mainstream to the obscure.
Having worked in commercial film before redirecting his energy toward a gallery context, Brambilla clearly has both the access to and the knowledge of digital editing gear, and he puts it all to work here. Most of the segments comprising this incredible trip last only seconds. All are looped, then collaged together with the edges of each vignette blurred into the next. Though you’re cognizant of the loops and the fragmentation, the experience registers as seamless, unending action.