In the late 1980s, the abstract painter David Lloyd found himself where others wanted to be. Margo Leavin, who showed John Baldessari, Donald Judd and Alexis Smith, was his art dealer.
In the art world -- or, to be more specific, the business of art -- to land a respected gallery is essential to be perceived as an artist of merit, build a collector base, grow in stature and draw reviews, the ink that doesn't simply evaluate work but acknowledges that an artist and their pieces exist at all.
In the 1980s, in a world in which galleries were in or out (and still are) thanks to a hierarchy as strict as an 18th century debutante's bloodlines, the Margo Leavin Gallery was definitely in. Lloyd was on his way. By the early 1990s, he began to enter the collections of LACMA, the Orange County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. And he was selling out his gallery shows. Multiple shows. Even today, he laughs thinking about his younger self getting those checks and remembering the wonder of it.
And then, in the mid-90s, a funny thing happened. Lloyd walked away.
He had become less and less interested in abstraction, which is what he was making and his dealer was selling.
"I wanted to make narrative. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to talk about reality and I felt like abstraction was defining me," he quietly says, today.
He began to include figurative and surrealistic elements in his work, but when his dealer visited his studio and saw Lloyd's new direction, they balked.
But Lloyd, whose parents had worked in the Peace Corps when he was a youth and who had grown up watching ideas rolled into practice, had begun the only journey that could sustain a life in the studio for him.
"When you're a young artist that's not selling well you actually don't feel pressure, but if you're literally selling out shows the pressure is on to replicate work....I felt very confined by that, [so] I walked away from a very prestigious gallery that was making me money," he says. "To this day, people come up to me and say, 'Are you insane?'"
Though Lloyd never stopped working and still showed, he gradually ceased to exist in the caste system of influential galleries and critics, as he explored physics, science, religion in his work.
His current show of new work, "Two Electric Desires," at gallery|km in Santa Monica through tomorrow, threatens the viewer's knowable, safe world. He does so by steadfastly refusing to wrap up his subject in one familiar construct, instead combining elements of the known and unknown, the concrete and the ephemeral, to tear down our false sense of security.
"These works are about a highly dystopic reality that we don't want to see," says Jacqueline Miro, a New York curator and editor, who placed Lloyd in Swell, a survey show of East and West Coast artists that took over three New York galleries several years ago and has been following his work since.
Although the series returns the artist to the use of shapes -- influenced by Frank Stella and Russian Constructivism -- that drove success for Lloyd in the 80s and 90s, his decision to combine it with other visual elements leads to something else entirely.
The work consists of collage and painting on large, geometrically-shaped panels that hint at octagons, shields and other recognizable objects. Lloyd divides them into sections, where he puts images of sails, surfers, a dead shark or a squatting, machine-gun toting male defying the camera.
In counterpoint to Abstract Expressionism's spontaneity and heat, Hard-edge -- the California-bred approach rising in the 1960s that uses distinct blocks of color with abrupt edges -- removed ambiguity and the messiness of the human condition. But Lloyd's deployment of it as an intervention on the shapes of real life produces a brutal effect. Its machine-like coolness intermingled with softened, familiar shapes throws us off, disconcerts, and distances itself from a warmth or, more accurately, a reassurance we crave as humans.
In Two Electric Desires, a seven-foot high panel loosely shaped as a shield, Lloyd coldly interrupts images of relaxed flowing surfers so abstractisized they could perhaps be dancing or waving, by inserting wide blocks of solid geometric color borrowed from Hard-edge.
The eight-foot-wide, bird-like wing-span panel for The Warrior contrasts with the subject, a machine-gun-armed killer, at its center. Its series of solidly-painted, feather-shaped sections have none of a bird's softness or frailty, and bring the viewer's eye to its central visual, making interaction with the murderer unavoidable. The pastel, bands of background behind the gunman -- pink and light blue -- create more incongruity and derangement rather than less.
Adding to the disconcerting pull-push of the work are the paintings' third component: Soft, ephemeral, snippets of text that Lloyd places at the edges of the symmetrical works and paints loosely by hand, with letters freely changing up in size and perspective.
From a distance, their vague, elliptic narratives seem welcoming -- so abstract that we can define their meaning in whatever gives us reassurance. But once studied, the viewer might find themselves either comforted or agitated again as they rift between the concrete and the ineffable. "Today, however, we are having a hard time living because we are so bent on outwitting death," reads one.
"I think that human beings fundamentally are kind of lost at sea," says Lloyd. "And I think these things are about that. I've read so much mysticism and politics that I feel we only have an illusion of control."
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To discuss the new work with Lloyd is to enter the world of the illusionary, as he talks about what we believe to be real, and what is really real, and the reality of what we can't see -- whether it's the bacteria that covers the surface of our body that we don't see, or ideas related to mysticism that began to draw Lloyd in as a teenager living in Ghana when "juju" or magic and the witch doctors who practice it was simply part of existence.
If at first Lloyd's new work might seem to be figurative and abstract images cobbled together, they are, in fact, highly-edited manipulations that deliberately use multiple vocabularies to disconcert and remove our natural urge to gloss over.
Lloyd, who walked away from the illusion of the known -- the established and expected path that makes an art career -- is comfortable where he is. The question remains: are we?