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Sue Spaid: Used & Amused

EVERYONE IN THE LOS ANGELES ART COMMUNITY HAS at least a passing familiarity with Sue Spaid. It's been five years since the pioneer alternative commercial gallerist (and a rare example of a younger woman as such) closed the doors on her space at 7454Þ Beverly Blvd. and joined the international jet set, freelancing as a curator and writer (for, among other publications, the Weekly). More than a notable figure in recent L.A. art history, she cut a larger-than-life figure (and was unafraid to swathe it in the most lurid Op upholstery), constantly agitating for a livelier, funnier and more colorful art scene, especially at the grassroots level.

Sue's departure from the L.A. art scene marked a perhaps uncoincidental surge in its predictability. Much as this sounds like an obituary, Sue is far from dead. In fact, she's been back in town curating a typically audacious tribute to herself at Jan Baum Gallery. "Used & Amused" "explores the active/passive muse's place in the production of works exemplary of an artist's signature," according to its press release. More succinctly, it documents the collaborative creation of a half-ironic contemporary pop persona, with contributions from Dave Muller, Antonio Gomez-Bueno, and Robert Cavolina, whose Last Day for Art is a "surgically repaired" portrait of Sue-as-odalisque and was last seen at her gallery's closing ceremonies. Unfortunately, Jan Baum's video equipment was on the fritz, so I missed the videos by Lynne Berman/Kathy Chenoweth and Alysse Stepanian, but it was the curatorial absence of one particular video that leapt to my attention.

Martin Durazo's 1998 Suck It Up was such an authentic pornographic send-up of the art world as to be indistinguishable from actual tedious low-budget porn. It did, however, briefly feature Sue Spaid as a member of a museum board lamenting the lack of young talent in Los Angeles. It's not surprising that this softwood suck-'n'-fuck fest was not showcased in the demure context of Jan Baum's gallery, but its absence makes for an incomplete image of the Sue Spaid experience. Likewise, Suck It Up gives a lopsided view of Mr. Durazo's oeuvre. Having just deinstalled one of his trademark aquarium pieces at Acuna-Hanson Gallery in Chinatown, Durazo has engaged in a campaign for busiest bee in the L.A. alternative hive. Most spectacularly, he has created a large installation/performance set at Cherry, a young living-room/garage space east of Lincoln and just south of Venice Boulevard on Glencoe.

FOR PROGRESS, DURAZO DIVIDED THE FORMER garage space into compartments using thin sheets of Styrofoam as walls. He stocked each chamber with an array of props: bottles of colored water, rubber tubing, clippings from fashion magazines, a medical sling counterweighted by a sack of clear red fluid, incense, cushions, etc. The evening of the show's opening, Durazo sealed off the open side of the warren, with himself inside the near cubicle. Monitored by a pair of surveillance cameras, the yellow-rain-suit-clad artist progressed from one end of the structure to the other, cutting XXXL glory holes in the foam dividing walls for passage, stopping to perform futile (but neither humorless nor ugly) rituals with his collections of colored waters, finally emerging from the far end to join the opening in progress. During the performance, the audience was unable to see Durazo directly, clustering instead around a pair of monitors feeding off the surveillance cameras. Once Durazo emerged, they were free to re-create his journey in reverse, as are all visitors to Cherry through March 5 (weekends only). Also on view are the two videotapes of the performance, and a number of smaller photos, drawings and sculptures, including the cherry-red-aquarium-and-bucket-wishing-well assemblage Dreams Become True.

Durazo's recent wall arrangements of aquaria have been ambitious pieces, continuing a series of sculptural works that combine the utopian Modernist formalism of Mondrian et al. (towers and grids of aquariums, selectively filled with brightly tinted liquids) with the visceral narrative repellence of Paul McCarthy (needles, cigarettes, jars of petroleum jelly, inflatable sex dolls). These latter are usually arranged into little tableaux or displays, some of them complex little assemblages unto themselves, others heartbreakingly simple, like the lone scuzzy elephant figurine isolated in a tank with the merest film of tar-pit scum. The purity of the luminous geometric compositions is further degraded by the adhesion of various generically anti-social stickers, and the use of air pumps to blow streams of bubbles through scummy red/gold layers of oil and water. While self-consciously acknowledging previous aquarium art (particularly Koons and Hirst), Durazo's increasingly flexible and extensive vocabulary is evolving into a singular and progressive vision.

ACROSS TOWN AT THE ARMORY IN PASADENA YOU'LL find the real reason for Sue Spaid's return visit. Taking a break from her gig as curator at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Spaid has curated a midcareer retrospective of photographic and video works by longtime L.A. artist Eileen Cowin. "Still (and all)" collects Cowin's work from 1971 to 1998, including shimmering gum bichromate prints from the early years, a set of droll Duane Michals­like wordplay photo/text pieces, two video installations and several large-scale nonlinear narratives made up of series of staged photos. These last works are Cowin's most masterful, dealing with weighty and ominous narrative content (I'll Give You Something To Cry About, 1998, is permeated with a diffused sense of domestic violence just out of the time frame) with an unusually light hand for this genre. Besides her gift for addressing emotionally charged content with sidelong finesse, Cowin's work is also marked by her idiosyncratic sense of humor, particularly in the aforementioned "homonym" photos and the splendid One Night Stand (1977-78), which belies its first impression as a mere sordid lament to reveal a weird surrealist streak -- also witnessed by her ahead-of-the-curve 1980s interest in Magritte -- reminiscent of strange Irish novelists such as Flann O'Brien. Frankly, I'd never seen Cowin's work, and one of the best things about this kind of retrospective is the freshness with which it allows one to review the tides of influence through an artistic era.

More Durazo: If you see the Cowin show this Satur-day (February 5), you have a couple of hours after the Armory's 5 o'clock closing to grab a bite and make it over to the artist-run space he co-directs with Robert Miller at 8720Þ W. Pico near Robertson, which will be hosting a reception from 7 to 9 for artist Tom Schirtz, whose new work consists of taxonomic deconstructions of paper-sample catalogs. Maybe you could ask for a screening of that missing video.

USED & AMUSED | At JAN BAUM GALLERY | 170 S. La Brea Ave. | (323) 932-0170 | Through February 26

PROGRESS | At CHERRY | 2411 Glencoe Ave., Venice I (310) 880-2790 | Through March 5

STILL (AND ALL) | At ARMORY CENTER FOR THE ARTS | 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena | (626) 792-5101 | Through March 19

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