Roy Dowell’s timing is seriously out of wack. For more than three decades, as the art world has careened from poststudio praxis to neo-expressionist painting and back again, L.A.-based painter/collagist Dowell has been steadfastly mining a creative vein whose most conspicuous antecedents are the abstract-formalist vocabularies of early Modernism. A midcareer survey at Margo Leavin Gallery in 2006 demonstrated how much internal evolution had occurred within those parameters, absorbing and translating stylistic elements as universal as fragmented billboard advertising and as personal as the (reciprocal) influence of his longtime partner Lari Pittman. Chair of Otis’ graduate school for the past 20 years, Dowell is about as far inside the L.A. art world as you can get, and I have heard his elegant collages dismissed as “too safe” — the privileged, solipsistic exploration of an anachronistic aesthetic bubble, irrelevant no matter how gorgeous they might be.
Irrelevant to what? I wonder. Last I checked, the idea that art history was actually heading somewhere had been out of fashion since the mid-1970s. And ever since, art history has been, essentially, a quirky subset of the fashion industry. I’ve recently begun to think that all art is both spiritual and political — regardless of the artist’s intentions. In part, this is the result of every artwork’s schizophrenic duality — the spirituality deriving from the inescapable subjectivity of creative practice; the political from its manifestation in consensus reality.
Dowell’s work is political precisely in its adamant disavowal of fashionable talking points, and refreshing in its refusal of the plausible deniability of irony. The measure of an artist’s subjective accomplishment is tricky but can often be surmised from the complexity and power of their chosen language — and their fluency with it. Dowell’s latest body of work — 28 identically sized collages that incorporate a substantial amount of original painted material — display a virtuosic command of the language of modernist design, filtered through a curious handmade homeliness and verging-on-outsider graphic quality.
The adjacent project room holds a group of works that verge even closer to outsider territory, while deploying an inventory of pictographic symbols that fuse the archetypal and anecdotal realms. Drawing on an extended sojourn in northern Sweden, mixed-media trickster Jeffrey Vallance has appropriated the shamanistic object-making traditions of the indigenous Saami people in the form of a reindeer-skin “Troll-drum” decorated with a complex system of stick figures and abstract patterns, and supplemented by five elaborate preliminary drawings and interpretive legends.
As usual, Vallance’s always-engaging draftsmanship barely conceals a subversive confusion of the order of things — in this case the already highly incorrect borrowing of a colonized tribal culture’s sacred traditions is compounded by the seemingly irreverent inclusion of depictions of snowmobiles and helicopters. Closer inspection reveals imagery deriving not from Saami culture, or even “life in the arctic,” but instead referencing incidents from Vallance’s own life and career — the Royal Bat of Tonga, a Yeti, Blinky the Friendly Hen, and so on. Vallance’s gift is to somehow balance the personalization of this potent aboriginal iconography through such unlikely pop-cultural channels as Polynesian exotica and cryptozoology without a hint of exploitation or condescension.
A similar finesse characterizes Brian Tucker’s curatorial pairing of two of 20th-century America’s most intriguing artistic eccentrics at Pasadena City College’sart gallery as part of the biannual citywide Art + Ideas Festival. This year’s theme is “Origins,” and both Polish-born sculptor Stanislaw Szukalski and Pennsylvania native (and extraterrestrial-research pioneer) Richard Shaver are abundantly qualified for inclusion.
Szukalski — who made his home in Southern California from the 1940s until his death in 1987, and whose enthusiasts have included R. Crumb, the Church of Subgenius and Leonardo DiCaprio — is probably the better known of the two. His symbol-laden, futurism-inflected Art Deco sculptures and drawings are inseparable from his complex and idiosyncratic worldview, rooted in the science of Zermatism, which asserts that visual analysis of human physiognomy reveals each race’s degree of interbreeding with malevolent Yeti, as well as our common ancestry in post-deluge Polynesia — Easter Island to be specific.
Among other Zermatistic discoveries, Szukalski deduced the structure of Protong, the original petroglyphic language from which all other languages derive, by way of Polish. A highly accomplished draftsman, Szukalski created more than 40,000 illustrations of his various theories, filling 39 plaster binders.One of the highlights of “Mantong and Protong” is a gridlike assemblage of the original spines from these binders, their former contents indexed in red Protong inscriptions (mixed with other pictorial shorthand systems) alongside more conventional English labels. In contrast, Shaver’s detailed three-page typescript explication of Mantong – his discovered original proto-language — reads like a Donald Barthelme short story but offers little visual reward. For that, we must set our sights lower — to the rocks beneath our feet.
Shaver, who died in 1975, became notorious in science-fiction circles in 1945, when Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer published I Remember Lemuria! — Shaver’s “nonfiction” account of the ancient civilizations that built giant subterranean cities before fleeing our solar radiation for another planet, leaving behind the degenerate Deros who now live in the underground ruins, occasionally kidnapping and torturing surface dwellers, as well as projecting voices into our heads with their ray machines. Palmer continued publishing accounts of “The Shaver Mystery” until 1948, but discussion of the Deros revelations continues to the present day.
In his later years, Shaver began finding evidence of hitherto unsuspected antediluvian races of Mer-people and Amazons left in the form of multiple-register holographic rock-pictures, which revealed themselves through intense scrutiny of cross sections cut from “rock books.” Lacking the original projection technology, he translated the complex layers of imagery, text and symbols as best he could, painting the garbled, fragmentary scenes onto cardboard and masonite with paints, dyes and soap flakes — several examples of which are included in Tucker’s concise but thorough exploration of the art and cosmologies of these two fringe-dwellers.
Oppositional eccentricity as a creative strategy doesn’t seem to work in the art world anymore — Dowell’s sumptuous compositional exercises ruffle more insider feathers than whatever rehashed nonprovocations pass for novelty this week. Vallance and Tucker succeed on the basis of their ability to insinuate otherness without making overt threats. It’s been more than a century since Alfred Jarry was able to scandalize Bohemian Paris by opening his play Ubu Roi with the nonsense poop-word “Merdre!” It’s almost 35 years since namesake experimental garage band Pere Ubu set out to bring some dissemblance of Jarry’s absurdist science of ’pataphysics into the nascent mass medium of punk rock, and only now are they getting around to directly addressing the absinthe-addled dwarf’s literary legacy.
Long Live Pere Ubu! teams front man David Thomas with gravel-voiced Sarah Jane Morris of The Communards in a musical-theater adaptation of Jarry’s signature play — an actual touring production that includes animations by the Brothers Quay — with music allegedly composed by an overheated roomful of obsolete computers channeling the dead Frenchman, then recorded through “junk-o-phones” made from rewired speakers and sheets of glass. Drawing from most of the stylistic history of the band, Long Live recalls their early-’80s association with the British-based avant-garde Brecht/Weil populism of the Rock in Opposition crowd, with a wheezing, clattering dance-hall exuberance underscoring the mosquito-like theremin solos and devolved Shakespearian story line.
And it works — because back in the day, Thomas picked Rock & Roll over New Genres. In spite of a couple of concerted efforts, Pere Ubu never saw much chart action. The main difference between Rock and Art is that Rock is a mass medium, the parameters of which are continually shifting — now more than ever in the a-go-go digital era. And though artists like Thomas have to operate outside the zone of anointed haute-cultural significance, at least they still have the ability to puzzle, surprise and piss off people who don’t have $200,000 to blow on an MFA.
ROY DOWELL: NEW WORKS ON PAPER
JEFFREY VALLANCE: LAPLAND SHAMAN DRUM
Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., L.A.
MANTONG AND PROTONG: RICHARD SHAVER AND STANISLAW SZUKALSKI
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Pasadena City College Art Gallery, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
All through Nov. 14
LONG LIVE PERE UBU!
Available for purchase or download from Hearpen hearpen.com/hr149.html