As more than a few bumper stickers and rock lyrics have proved over the years, virtuous politics don't guarantee good poetics. But at Susanne Vielmetter, artist Andrea Bowers manages to pull off an impressive blend of clear political urgency, agency and poignancy with a pair of ambitious works. The first, which envelops you as soon as you enter the gallery, is "No Olvidado (Not Forgotten)," a room-wrapping graphite drawing comprising 23 large sheets and roughly 10 feet tall and 100 feet wide. Spanning the drawings is an incomplete — and sadly, it would seem, inexhaustive — list of names memorializing would-be immigrants who died crossing the border between Mexico and the U.S. At the center of the room sits a stack of posters picturing the soil of Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California, not far from Mexicali. The placement of the neat stack suggests a formality that runs contrary to indignity of unmarked graves in the cemetery, where anonymous dead immigrants are routinely buried. The work is immersive, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that it clearly references, but while Maya Lin's design takes one down into a cut in the earth, leaving the ground plane of the National Mall uninterrupted, Bowers' imagery confronts you with the obstruction of a razor-wire-topped chain-link fence that forms the backdrop for all those names. Whereas Lin's design for the VVM faced, among many criticisms, the allegation that it suggested a huge scar upon the land, Bowers' design unabashedly embraces an ugly mark to talk about another kind of ugliness; an affront to the beauty of wide-open space doubles as an affront to human dignity.
Wide-open space plays equally into Bowers' video, projected in the next room, plainly titled "The United States v. Tim DeChristopher" after the case of a Utah student who deliberately bid at auction, with no intent to pay, on land parcels near Arches National Park and Labyrinth Canyon. By ruining the auction and exploiting the timing protocols that would be required to place the massive chunks of land back on the block, DeChristopher prevented the parcels from falling into the hands of oilmen during the final days of the Bush White House, allowing for the incoming Obama administration to review and invalidate the auction. Interview footage of DeChristopher, who goes to trial in September and faces up to 10 years in prison for his actions, is interspliced with views of breathtaking, snow-dusted, rugged landscapes. In each of the latter, an individual far in the distance walks toward the camera until we recognize that it is Bowers, who then writes on a pad and holds up the makeshift sign indicating the number of the parcel she has just traversed. It's a simple device, but it works, turning the kind of revered landscape imagery that once bolstered Westward expansion and the parcelization of the frontier into a tool of realization. Even once you get the formula, it's hard not to continue repeating the same sense of disbelief each time that grand vista is reduced in the end to a parcel number that would have been tagged and bagged had DeChristopher not been so valiantly mischievous. Catch it while you can. The show closes Saturday. A special closing party with DeChristopher as honored guest takes place Saturday night, with works by several Los Angeles artists for sale to raise funds for his legal defense.
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 6006 Washington Blvd., Culver City; 11 a.m.–6 p.m., through July 31. Closing party starts Saturday at 6 p.m. (310) 837-2117, vielmetter.com.