Photo by Tony Cuhna
Painting in L.A. has reached a sort of impasse. Recent shows of old work by Billy Al Bengston and new work by Joe Goode have taken much of the wind out of the sails of their contemporary inferiors. The most convincing painting on view in the city right now may well be the 1950s work of a dead New Yorker; Ralph Humphrey’s more serene, minimalist work makes up the first of two shows at Daniel Weinberg’s 6150-adjacent gallery. Steve Roden, the most idiosyncratic abstract painter to emerge from L.A. in the ’90s, has a show of new work opening — at the jennyjoygallery in San Francisco. It’s not that there’s no local painting worth examining, but the immeasurable disservice wrought by premature hype has made risk-taking and surprises hard qualities to come by.
Ingrid Calame’s show is a little misleadingly titled “Paintings,” as it consists, apart from a small piece in the back room, of a single approximately 6-foot-square enamel on aluminum dominating the brilliantly lit gallery at Karyn Lovegrove. Calame again deploys her winning strategy of tracing and compiling stains into a dense psychedelic filigree of fractal lace — swarming across the surface, always threatening to coalesce into perspectival illusionism, but never quite collapsing in all the right places at once. The carefully rendered arrangements of chance-determined outlines are, in general, a sly inversion of the dogma of gestural painting — the idea that the dripped, splashed, scribbled or slashed pigments of a Pollock or a Kline convey deep, unfiltered truths about the artist and the world. By appropriating the shapes of spills clearly expressive of nothing more than a leaky transmission and emphatically putting her rational mind to work on composing them into a froth of superficiality, Calame appoints herself coroner, tracing chalk outlines around the collapsed paradigms and spent jizz of 20th-century modernism. It’s been something of a problem, however, that Calame’s work depends heavily on modernist tropes for its success, and her abandonment of her more interesting installations of traced stains on huge sheets of Mylar for more salable, easel-size, decorator-colored enamel paintings seemed sadly premature. But as her star has continued to rise following her appearance in this year’s Whitney Biennial, her work has again grown more expansive, and her palette seems to be getting nicely out of control. Ironically, Calame might be wise to take a cue from Pollock, who knew too well how quickly an original strategy can become a shtick.
The same arguments apply more or less to the work of Michelle Fierro, whose languid Cy Twombly routines use the scrapings from paint-studio floors and palettes to disrupt the intentionality ascribed to Mr. T’s romantic encrustations. Four years ago, in a review of her last solo painting show in L.A., I commented on Fierro’s seemingly self-conscious occupation (along with Monique Prieto, Laura Owens and Casey Cook) of an exhausted niche of painting history. Analogous to the rut in which contemporary academic art theory’s wheels have been spinning — lo, these 20 years past — Fierro’s canvases appeared to be positing a similar repeat ’n’ deplete entropic loop for the preverbal, polysensual language of abstract painting. While I flat-out disagree with this position, it is certainly worthy of consideration. As I pointed out, though, it begs the question “What next?” What’s next appears to be more of the same. Fierro’s “Babels Tower,” at Roberts & Tilton, could be the exact same show, for all I can tell, which speaks well of Fierro’s convictions, if not her curiosity. On a strictly formal level, these are okay knockoffs of early-’60s Twombly. But the air of defeat and hint of preachiness that emanate from these works make them hard to be in the same room with.
Sharing space with Steven Hull’s new work is also a dicey proposition. His previous show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, imperceptibly structured around an ’80s LP by gloomy electropop diva John Foxx, was somewhat difficult. Adding his own twist to a pastiche of the aforementioned necrophilial gimmicks — the application of wads of artificial flowers to the painting surface — Hull’s “Metal Beat” exhibit evinced just enough visual acumen to make you think he might seriously be trying to make pretty abstract paintings, and in several instances succeeding. His new show of acrylics amplifies this dissonance by coupling a group of chaotic but dazzling fluorescent stripe paintings with a batch of flower paintings that give new meaning to the word godawful. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense: The new work makes it clear that Hull, at least in part, is trying to inflict something horrific on his audience. His discovery of black, in particular, has produced a color scheme that I can remember being frightened of in junior high, an out-of-the-tube headbanger attempt at elegiac high drama more correctly associated with the huffing, as opposed to the application, of paint. The stripe paintings, reminiscent of Ed Moses, are less challenging, but provide substantial optical pleasure â when displayed stacked in front of one another: a familiar sight to anyone with more paintings than wall space, but translated here into an intentional formula that adds a needed complexity to the work. Hull has previously shown that he has a gift for making sumptuous objects — the catalog for his Al Green tribute curatorial “I’m Still in Love With You” is testament to that. But his own paintings, along with some of his choices as curator of RFG’s Project Wall last year (specifically the godawful dolly-head canvases by Tom “Last Exit: Painting” Lawson), suggest a striving for an arrested adolescent awkwardness, a wrongness that sounds good on paper but is difficult to pull off on canvas without it reeking of condescension. Honest flirtation with ugliness is neither easy nor reputable. Just ask Julian Schnabel. These tongue-in-cheek academic approaches to art-making end up little more than museum-quality duck blinds, a sort of camouflage against critical scrutiny by authorities such as myself, as well as by less distanced practitioners of painting craft. I’m willing to take a bullet for Art as much as the next critic, but they’re going to have to come up with better decoys to lure me in.
Of course, this is giving the artists the benefit of the doubt. It’s clear that many of the young painters turning out quirky riffs on color fields and stripes are only parenthetically aware of the art-historical connotations their paintings allege, and are in fact merely engaged in exploiting market niches pioneered by more canny daubers. The results can be surprisingly refreshing. Greg Rose, whose show is at Richard Heller Gallery, for example, makes work that looks like Laura Owens’ if she knew how to paint. Meticulously taped-off areas of beautifully shaped and subtly colored oil and alkyd paint float on monochrome canvas panels in vaguely Japanese, vaguely finish-fetish L.A. landscape clusters. While these overtly elegant compositions seem cut from the whole cloth of the fabulous ’90s L.A. painting renaissance, they also seem devoid of the presumption that they possess some redeemingly important critical subtext that ameliorates their slightness as historically significant art objects. So they’re better. Much better.
Salomón Huerta, careening between his inclusion in the Whitney and his upcoming New York show with Gagosian, has assembled a transitional show at Patricia Faure that attempts to put aside the androgynous back-of-the-buzzed-head portraiture that got him so much attention in the first place. In a shift that echoes Cathy Opie’s, Huerta has turned his attention to Southern California suburban architecture. Depicted in acidic colors, flooded with an impersonal and vaguely threatening light, and devoid of figures, Huerta’s landscapes convey a sense of alienation that recalls Alex Katz or Edward Hopper — if he’d got stuck in Hollywood painting sets for 40 years. (A more faithful take on Hopper can be found in the glowing, intimate paintings of bus shelters and vending machines by UCLA grad student Robert Olsen on view at Susanne Vielmetter.) It’s hard to see anyone swooning over these relatively confrontational works the way so many did over the tantalizing portraits, which is probably for the best, as Huerta’s work could use a bit of simmering.
One artist whose work has benefited from simmering is Russell Crotty, whose last couple of shows at Dan Bernier seemed derailed from his early momentum. Crotty’s ballpoint drawings, made live from his astronomical observations, worked well when confined to compartmental grids, but their power was dissipated in the large-scale drawings and books they came to occupy. In a striking installation at Shoshona Wayne, however, Crotty has hit on the perfect solution — he has mapped his oversize star drawings onto huge globes, reconnecting the essential geekishness of his process to its scientific implications, and tapping into the overlooked arena of planetarium display aesthetics to boot. Comeback of the year. For actual paintings that are as pleasantly surprising, one has to look further afield. I have to admit a fondness for the almost Outsider naval battle-scapes of Hiroshi Sugito, who, in his current show at Marc Foxx, delivers a full complement of his endearingly fevered tableaux, plus a pair of what appear to be full-figure female portraits that wouldn’t seem out of place, scale aside, in the Prinzhorn Collection. An otherwise run-of-the-mill gallery-stable sampler at Angles called “Painting Show” includes a handful of exciting “military enamel on aluminum” paintings by Tom LaDuke that flicker between hazy abstractions and wryly observed L.A. landscapes, suggesting a way out of the dead-end of cartoons about abstraction that neither insults our intelligence nor deprives us of the pleasures painting still has to offer.
INGRID CALAME | MICHELLE FIERRO |HIROSHI SUGITO | All at 6150 Wilshire Blvd.l Through November 11 ROBERT OLSEN | Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5363 Wilshire Blvd. | Through November 11 RALPH HUMPHREY: EARLY PAINTINGS (1957–1967) | Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd. Through December 31 PAINTING SHOW | Angles Gallery, 2230 Main St. | Through November 11
RUSSELL CROTTY | Through December 9 l GREG ROSE | Through November 25 STEVEN HULL Through November 25 I SALOMÓN HUERTA | Through November 25 All at Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica STEVE RODEN | Jennyjoygallery, 49 Geary St., No. 410, San Francisco Through December 2
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