Darkness Falls, Abstraction Illuminates
Christine Nguyen at Michael Kohn Gallery
Salvador Dali used the term "handmade color photography" to describe using realist painting techniques to deliver surrealist imagery. At Michael Kohn Gallery, Christine Nguyen delivers a different kind of handmade color photography, also to surreal ends, but this time perhaps more in the abstract and graphic vein of a Joan Miro painting.
Nguyen's stock-in-trade are lyrical hand-drawn and painted negatives — works on Mylar or paper that are cut into strips, placed in an enlarger and used to expose photo paper in a darkroom before processing it. Other techniques — including what appear to be contact printing and photograms, dodging and burning, and color adjusting — combine with darkroom serendipity to result in what are basically color photographs but with distinctly drawn and gestural imagery. These are then mounted like tiles to create mural-size compositions.
The clear or light ground upon which Nguyen draws and paints goes bluish and greenish black in the prints, dark lines become white, colors switch to their complements, and the overall program shifts from what you might expect from a drawing in ink on paper to what it might look like if you could sketch with neon at night.
Nguyen's works recall a history of experiments in painting with light, from the 1949 Gjon Mili photo of Picasso using a penlight to delineate a centaur in thin air, to the more recent trend of light graffiti — an outgrowth of graffiti and rave culture.
In that regard, Nguyen's light-charged, highly animated photo-based works are undeniably post-rave and post-X in their aesthetics. Not unlike the post-psychedelic art that has resulted from the weaving of aesthetics derived from psychedelic experience into visual culture — so much so that now virtually everyone has had an immersion in psychedelic visuals, whether or not they ever actually used — Nguyen's work really only could have been made in this time. But it's also work that could only find its place in a world where it can resonate with the precedents of Symbolist and Surrealist painting, and Beatrix Potter stories, and dovetail with a contemporary consciousness as informed by the visions of Jules Verne, Gene Roddenberry and Ernest Callenbach as by Jacques Cousteau, the Hubble Space Telescope, endoscopic cameras and the sorts of micro-to-macro mindbenders popularized in spectacles ranging from Charles and Ray Eames' film Powers of 10 to the now-defunct Monsanto-sponsored Disneyland ride Journey Through Inner Space.
Nguyen's works conflate allusions and illusions of the deep sea, landscape, outer space and inner worlds, and are able to touch these referents in ways that can be quite literal, and also rather poetic and fanciful. A pen line becomes a bolt of lightning, a few arced brushstrokes transform into a neon rainbow, smudges become auroras. Other works on paper included in the exhibition are undeniably lovely, but it's these homespun otherworldly photo-based works that steal the show. Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., L.A., Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; thru March 1. (323) 658-8088 or www.kohngallery.com.
Daniel Richter at Regen Projects
Hamburg-based Daniel Richter melds the photographic and the hand-painted, with broad swaths of dark punctuated by electrified color. In a show that also includes some fine smaller works on paper, Richter's large oils on canvas dominate.
Raw and haunting, able to affect you on a level that seems primally hardwired, they also demand access to a full slate of acquired data and fresh software to fully process them. A brain unfamiliar with graffiti culture, solarized and infrared photography, night-vision technology, the perceptual effects of LSD and MDMA, or the simulations and derivations of all of the above filtered through popular culture, would be barely equipped to even make out much of the imagery in Richter's paintings. Yet the artist knows full well that few such aesthetic and semiotic innocents exist in today's world, at least the one he's participating in. He smartly meets the simultaneously astute and acutely skewed eye of a populace gorged on mediated visuals with something that seems numbly distant, but when you see it registers with a jitter like you've been jonesing for it lately. It's expressionism — not the bloated neo-expressionism of late-20th-century Americans looking to spice up their lives, or Europeans of the same period looking to work through the past, but an expressionism for 21st-century global citizens finding it as apt a tool for grappling with the messy present as it was for addressing anxieties at the dawn of the last century.
Whether in a scene conflating a political rally with a rock concert and the Sermon on the Mount, rioters caught in a searing glow, or a lineup of night-goggled, dog-faced paramilitary types looking like they're both posing for a portrait and falling into advance formation, almost everyone in Richter's paintings is some kind of hooligan or zombie. Yet there is in this work a dynamism and exuberance that challenges all that is ominous in its imagery. Managing mixed senses of agitation, dread, reverie and dashes of joy in a painting is no easy task. Goya and Ensor, each in his own way, managed to pull off such a feat; Richter updates both, and in the best works matches them as well. Equally difficult is the creation of work that is poignantly brutish, clumsy and even horrific, but that also registers formal sophistication and flashes of beauty. Here one might look to predecessors like Max Beckmann or Francis Bacon, with whom Richter should be counted as well. Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Dr., L.A., Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.; thru March 1. (310) 276-5424 or www.regenprojects.com.
Victor Man at Blum & Poe
More darkness falls at Blum & Poe, where, in Victor Man's first solo show in the United States, the artist sets a grayed palette, establishes a somber tone, and leaves viewers with a layered enigma. Man specializes in strained juxtapositions: arranging images, mostly appearing to be appropriated and presented in a variety of media, in proximities that tempt your eyes and mind to try to bridge the blank wall space between them, or setting up what seems a neat enough relationship between two or three images and then throwing it off by wedging in another. His other specialty is burying evidence — hanging a flag so that you have to take its partially exposed graphic and assume that it bears a skull and crossbones, rendering another painting in strokes too broad to handle its details, or printing pin-up images in black-on-black. Man's is a deciphering game that pits you between what you know, what you think you know, and what you want to think. While such gamesmanship can be tedious, the glints of connection between sexuality, power and sublimated violence that flash across your synapses while navigating the gallery help you realize that the game itself is the one clear metaphor of this exhibition. Blum & Poe, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; thru Feb. 23. (310) 836-2062 or www.blumandpoe.com.
Mel Bochner at Marc Selwyn Fine Art
Abstract painting concerned with geometric structure and color has been a shrinking industry for some time, as many have rejected its relevance today, while its champions too often fall into quoting the past rather than advancing its developments. The current exhibition of works from the '70s by Mel Bochner at Marc Selwyn gallery reminds us that such practice, while not explicit in terms of image or language, is nonetheless relational - profoundly challenging one's faculties to assess components and composition in context. It's a treat to see one of Bochner's wall drawings from the period re-created here, but the load of the show is carried by the small works on paper, especially the Soaring Studies foursome from 1979 and '80. Offering side-by-side viewing of Bochner's variation in application of color to the same composition of shapes within shapes so as to vary its rhythm and sense of movement exemplifies the inquiry underlying his practice. Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 101, L.A., Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 6 p.m.; thru March 1. (323) 933-9911 www.marcselwynfineart.com.
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