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Pierre and the Lion 

Out of the Bois d'Amour and into the fire-ravaged Griffith Park

Thursday, May 27 2010

Once upon a time a boy named Pierre went into the woods ... actually he first went to the San Fernando Valley — it wasn't until much later that he made it to the woods, although clearly it was worth the wait. The Pierre in question is Pierre Picot, an artist with a quintessential L.A. pedigree — UCLA undergrad in the '60s, CalArts student in the '70s, and a lengthy teaching stint at Art Center — but who was actually born in France and emigrated here at the tender age of 12. His relationship with Art Center ended on a sour note (as relationships with Art Center often seem to) a few years ago, and by a string of coincidences, he wound up teaching at the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in Brittany, right next to the Bois d'Amour forest, where Paul Gauguin invented modern art. That's when he went into the woods.

When he emerged, Picot had embarked on a series of landscapes — ink on paper and oil on canvas — that have carried him along for the last four years, and make up half of his new show at Tom Jancar's Chinatown gallery. It's Picot's first solo exhibition at a commercial gallery in many years. Though he crops up regularly in group shows and has been featured at venues like Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts, his profile has been restrained compared to the a-go-go '80s, when he was part of L.A.'s contingent of neo-Expressionists, exhibiting alongside the likes of Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Robert Longo. "I was doing the right stuff at the right time — it was sort of punky New Imagery. For five years it was like fwishhhht!" Picot makes the sound of an ascending bottle rocket. "But I hated the art world. I quit the art world and my gallery — Jan Baum — in 1985."

For a dropout, Picot has maintained a respectable — though distinctly patchwork — level of visibility through teaching, writing, curating, editing and publishing his own art magazine, as well as quirky side projects like his live collaborative portrait sessions with Francesco Siqueiros and Paul "Not Dark" Bob. When Bob's studio burned down in 2006, Picot and Siqueiros curated a smoky, singed retrospective from the remains at Robert Berman Gallery. Collaboration is a regular theme in Picot's work — the other half of his Jancar show consists of excerpts from a projected 1,000-page series of infinitely inventive 11-by-9½–inch ink drawings titled Ecstatic Manifestations of the Physical Universe — many of them brushed over collaged photocopied images of women's faces from the back pages of the L.A. Weekly.

click to enlarge PIERRE PICOT, OIL ON CANVAS (2010)
  • PIERRE PICOT, OIL ON CANVAS (2010)

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One subset of this ambitious project is the focus of the show: a group of approximately 30 collaborations with other artists, ranging from Picot's former studio neighbor Chas Garabedian to recent USC grad Maya Lujan (Jancar's gallery assistant and co-curator of Picot's exhibit). The playful experimentalism of Picot's solo Manifestations is amplified by the indeterminacy of the collaborative process, and the seriality of the format and media — as well as Picot's flair for graphic design — is cheerfully undermined in search of terra incognita.

Yet, as much as this selection of Manifestations encompasses strategies and practices dear to my heart — diaristic serial graphic design and collaboration, to be specific — it's Picot's large-scale landscape drawings that stand out here. "I saw a Van Gogh exhibit," recalls the artist, "and was amazed at the landscape drawings — how he had one style of mark for wheat, another kind of mark for rocks, another kind of mark for clouds, and so on. It brought into question the idea that an artist has to develop just one style."

Armed with this insight, and his sojourn in the Bois d'Amour — augmented upon his return with a period of daily sketching in a section of Griffith Park gutted by the 2007 fire — Picot has produced a series of tumultuously fantastic topographies that resemble Durer woodcuts reconfigured through a digital sampler.

Cobbled together from a vocabulary of visual styles, ranging from Chinese shan shui painting to Cubism — and incorporating an array of techniques, including stippling, meticulous brushwork, stenciling and surrealist decalcomania — Picot's landscapes ought to collapse into a jumble of incomprehensible fragments. Instead, they are so pictorially coherent that Picot has been able to push further — destabilizing traditional perspective and gravitational logic, garbling the horizon — while retaining an immersive spatial illusionism and improbable symbolic consistency. Much of this strength would seem to result from the fact that the works are monochromatic, in black ink on uniform rectangular lengths of paper. But in translating his montage technique to oil paint — represented here by a single enormous 10-by-10–foot canvas — he manages to keep his balance while incorporating a whole new range of art-historical allusions and experiments in color and surface technique, resulting in the most challenging and innovative landscape painting to come out of L.A. since Constance Mallinson's impossible, vertiginous mash-ups of the early '90s.

It was at a nearby Chinatown gallery — the lamented High Energy Constructs — that I first encountered Picot's work, in an omnibus "boat-themed show curated by painters Brad Eberhard and Raffi Kalenderian (in which I also had a piece). It was there that I also learned that Eberhard and Kalenderian had a band — a ragged, unclassifiable, high-energy construct of its own, called Wounded Lion. WL turned out to be a pretty amazing group. Visually, they present an almost unparsable variation on the standard rock & roll lineup — with former lumberjack Eberhard's towering sincerity and Kalenderian's shamanic seizures and tambourine solos bracketed by Hawaiian-shirted renaissance-geek Jun Ohnuki's frantic musical multitasking, token hotty Shant (brother of) Kalenderian, and a succession of exploding percussionists. Musically, they offer a ramshackle pre- and post-punk synthesis — mixing influences as diverse as Swell Maps, The Clean, ? and the Mysterians, and Creedence Clearwater Revival — that can, in spite or because of its heart-on-sleeve record geekery, get the art girls up and dancing.

After a couple of years gigging and a handful of singles, their eponymous full-length debut has just been released on In the Red, and it's a humdinger! Opening with a pair of their most choogleriffic VU-style workouts — crowd-pleasers "Hungry?" and "Creatures in the Cave" — Wounded Lion thunders along for an admirably concise half-hour like a glam steamroller built from a kit with a couple cylinders missing. The band's willful DIY idiosyncrasy is evident in the production — vocals are tinny or overdriven, overdubs are conspicuously spliced, most of the guitars are, indeed, in the red — but is most evident in the songwriting, which apart from two Kalenderianisms and a cover of Wild Man Fischer's "Omar Walk," is the work of Eberhard.

Live, enigmatic-sounding fragments of Eberhard's lyrics emerge sporadically from WL's wall of fur, and I'm pleased to report that they remain utterly inexplicable: "Got a friend named Carol Cloud and she's coming to your town," he intones on my favorite cha-cha-cha stomper (titled — wait for it — "Carol Cloud"). "She's filled with dust, she's filled with rain — Carol Cloud is her name!" This puzzling anthropomorphic wordplay crops up elsewhere, most notably in "Ryan Belt of Orion," whose protagonist never quite hooks up with the titular astronomic entity or his counterpart Jan Van Allen Belt.

The epitome of Eberhard's gnomic poetics' seamless marriage to the band's mutant garage-isms is probably the magnificent "Pony People," an anthemic rallying call for centaur fetishists to unite. Its middle eight is burnt to a crisp by Ohnuki's radioactive organ solo, and its WTF lyrical odyssey climaxes with the assertion "When you see the ass of a horse and the torso of a man, you'll know that I'm on the scene and I'm firing arrows into targets, into rabbits, into the sky," before dissolving into a chant of "Arrows, Eros, arrows, Eros ..." It's one of those artistic confluences you can't wrap your head around no matter how often you revisit it, which is the only qualification for heavy rotation on my playlist.

"Pierre Picot" & "Pierre Picot collaborations with ..."
Through June 12 | Jancar Gallery | 961 Chung King Road, L.A. | (213) 625-2522 | jancargallery.com

Wounded Lion
intheredrecords.com | myspace.com/wlion

  • Out of the Bois d'Amour and into the fire-ravaged Griffith Park

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