It’s a little after 9:30 on a Saturday night, and I’m watching a 7-foot-tall skeleton aptly named Sleepy Bones shuffle and pirouette about in an elongated cube crowded with people. Sleepy Bones is talking, somewhat cryptically, about how much planet Earth has changed in the last few centuries. Over in the corner, a guy wearing nondescript pants and a polka-dotted smock pings away on a toy organ and drum while a kind of alterna–Little Red Riding Hood character ad-libs in an Anglo-Swedish accent, occasionally asking Sleepy Bones questions that the skeleton sort of responds to in strings of almost rhyming couplets. As audience members, we are very much in the middle of this drama, shifting back and forth in our limited-edition sneakers to accommodate Sleepy’s reckless dance, and although I’m at an opening at the Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery on La Cienega just north of Washington, I’m thinking that this is a very Rhode Island School of Design flashback seeing as how Clare Rojas and Erin Rosenthal, two of three artists in “Art Part II: Dazzle Dogs,” met there (the other artist in the show, Andrew Jeffrey Wright, lived in Providence, but didn’t go to RISD). On the gallery walls are paintings with quilted borders, bright acrylics dominated by geometric shapes either painted on paper or directly on the wall, collages of groovy godlike creatures, and even a cluster of painted pebbles. From the rafters dangles a many-limbed papier-mâché sculpture. On a table by the back entrance, there’s a stand selling buttons for a buck, some zines and other art tchotchkes, and despite the fact that this is all happening in L.A. gallery world’s most recently anointed white hot corridor, La Cienega, the scene feels very far from anything slick or wealthy-collector-friendly, or any overly careerist constructs currently ruling the Land of Art. Rather, this feels like art in the grand bohemian tradition, messy and brimming with young ideals and questions and when the lights go down, more than likely, not many auto-sleds will be pointed toward Brentwood or Malibu.
Last May, Lizabeth Oliveria moved her gallery down from San Francisco almost on a whim after meeting L.A. gallerist Anna Helwing at the Art Chicago fair. “A year prior to that I would have never imagined being in Los Angeles,” she says. “I primarily work with emerging artists, and although I think San Francisco has an exceptionally strong group of those artists, it was really hard to actually get people to come through the gallery, especially when you’re talking about a more global scene. Since I’ve opened down here it’s been pretty amazing the amount of curators and critics and collectors that routinely come through.” When asked about the concept behind “Dazzle Dogs,” Oliveria confesses a laissez-faire attitude. “I approached Clare, who did a solo show with me up in San Francisco, and really she was the one who suggested including the other two artists,” she says. “Generally speaking, the way I work with artists, not just in this show but always, is that I trust the artists to do whatever they want with the space. This show was about having faith in Clare and subsequently trusting her instincts accordingly.” As one takes in the show’s vibe — the bright palettes and handmade feel — no doubt, there’s a strong aesthetic overlap at work in “Dazzle Dogs.” Shades of folksy Americana mingle with state-of-the-art-pop culture bashing?, all mixed together with ’60s love and ’70s funk-deco patterns. The sum clearly concocts a whole that’s more psycho-loco than the parts. The effect feels like you’re in the midst of an art tribe that lives off the grid, but still cosmically borders the urban chaos. Rojas has been on a roll as of late, contributing to museum shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philly, Yerba Buena in S.F., and MOCA in Chicago. Her paintings — usually on paper, wood and stone — combine folk influences with an other-galaxy flavor and a feminist spirituality. In Rojas’ work, landscapes are filled with singing ponies, bearish torsos stuffed with precious gems perform handstands, bearded men are skewered on sharp, ornately decorated peaks, and birds are fused from lovely abstract shapes. Rojas says she wants her paintings to have the perspective that one might have staring off into a forest, a narrative taken in at a distance, but to still convey a vibrant emotional intensity.
Lately, Rojas has begun taking aim at society’s double standards by incorporating male nudes in her work. “There’s such an imbalance today. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but it’s everywhere in our culture, and I think that everyone’s so beaten down that we’ve become kind of numb to the repercussions,” she says. “But nature’s balanced, and things will happen as a result. Those images of women are not about sex or sexual freedom; they’re about money and selling. It’s not about nudity; it’s about the context.” One of her images features a naked man with a boner hugging a huge beer bottle. Rojas also has a musical alter ego, Peggy Honeywell, whose framed lyrics are on display at the show. Occasionally, Rojas fashions sculptures upon which Honeywell performs. Like Rojas, Andrew Jeffrey Wright is a multifaceted artist on the rise. His brightly colored patterned paintings, insane flowering bursts of Skittle-like pellets mixed with coy comic panels, screen prints and small, culturally subversive figurative works on paper create an effect that is not only visually dynamic but also politically astute. Mr. T fused with ET, Mr. eT With Soda (2004) resounds in a way that elevates both icons to a whole other perverse plane. Black and White Bart Simpsons play basketball one on one, while elsewhere plaid suitcases labeled “Weekend Drugs” are packed and at the ready. Along with impressive hand skills, Wright co-made the four-minute film Ich Bin Ein Manipulator (2003) with Rojas, a sly animated send-up, and “Dazzle Dogs” highlight, that mines the feel-bad-because-you-are-not-good-enough conceit behind the glossy-magazine industry. “We’ve found that it’s a lot easier to get people to pay attention to something if they’re laughing than if we’re just hitting them over the heads with harsh facts,” says Wright. Fulbright scholar Erin Rosenthal makes paintings, prints, sculptures, works on documentaries, plays the character Sleepy Bones and still finds time to wield the drumsticks for the band Urdog (she’s headed out on a three-week European tour after installing this show). For Rosenthal, the narrative is very important, and one can find consistent motifs in any single showing of her work as well as throughout the entire body. Her images are filled with extraterrestrial Buddhas, trees that appear alive and people constructed from ornate and bright patterns, not to mention the occasional pack of French fries. “In my mind, when I make an image there’s always a story, and I like to think, an implied action as well. What’s important to me, though, is that the narrative not be didactic,” she says. “I like to leave a lot to the viewer’s imagination and interpretation. Some images are just really loaded and so heavy, so I find myself, every step of the way, making sure that I’m maintaining what I believe is a delicate balance.” Rosenthal’s dangling sculptural piece, Out of Body ESP (2004), is abstract but still very much rooted in the figurative tradition, resembling a kind of outstretched super body soaring across the ceiling, the only difference being that this particular body includes a torso region comprised of a patch of clouds, bolts of lightning, eight different-size eyeballs and a two-arm section that looks like bicycle handlebars reaching out toward a heart that forms the prow of the sculpture. A body disjointed but yearning for a sense of wholeness, exploding across the sky. As the evening progresses, the Nordic, alterna–Red Riding Hood character continues asking Sleepy Bones questions, but it’s clear Sleepy is beginning to lose steam, its loping elliptical orbits tightening more and more into herky-jerky twists until finally the tall skeleton waves farewell, disappearing back to its home — somewhere in Middle-earth, or Providence, Rhode Island. ART PART II, DAZZLE DOGS | Lizabeth Oliveria
Gallery | 2712 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles | Through April 16