R.I.P., Dan Bernier. The gallery, not the man. After only two years at the highly touted 6150 Wilshire complex, the dapper gallerist is closing the doors on his tenure as one of the more idiosyncratic and influential sensibilities in the ‘90s Los Angeles art scene. Graduating from managing the LACE bookstore (where Manuel Ocampo had his first solo show) to his primordial AB space on Robertson, Bernier scored an early coup with Martin Kersels’ solo debut, a dazzling mishmash of sad and comical kinetic assemblage. When Bernier launched his namesake gallery — along with the ex–Food Housers at ACME and Angles alumnus Marc Foxx at the funky Nebraska art strip mall, with its rickety architecture and grad-central openings with kegs of cheap beer — it was a unified declaration that Los Angeles possessed a vital and unpredictable art underground.
Location of many historically momentous shows (including Kersels‘ piano dragdesk soundtrack show, Patty Wickman’s multileveled kitsch-free representational tour de force, Tamara Fites‘ disturbing and strangely painterly interactive tableau vivant Lambikims), Bernier’s Nebraska location was the intellectual anchor of the complex. The antithesis of the highly successful and easily digested ”house style“ of neighbor ACME, Bernier‘s eclecticism extended to include the sarcastic, Cannabis sativa–addled drippings of Steve Hurd, the pathological ballpoint astronomical notebooks of Russell Crotty, the luminous beeswax Tupperware homages of George Stoll, the so-thick-they’ll-never-dry stroke paintings of John Sonsini, and the melancholy airplane-window voyeurism of photographer John Schabel. While the uptown shift to the Wilshire digs marked a distinct turn toward the conventional for all of the ”Pentad“ (Sue Spaid‘s term) establishments, Dan Bernier gallery — lacking ACME’s magical chute to MOCA‘s permanent collection, and Marc Foxx’s seemingly endless and arbitrary supply of red dots — never regained its footing.
A scramble to fill the suddenly blank space has reputedly been won by erstwhile dealer-without-a-gallery Bennett Roberts. Them‘s big art boots to fill, Bennett. Just remember what Dan Quayle says: ”You got to know when to fold up, know when to hold up, know when to walk away, and know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sittin‘ at the table. They’ll be time enough for countin‘ when the dealin’s done.“ Happy trails, dapper Dan . . .
It was in the ”Five Emerging Artists“ show at Dan Bernier in June 1997 that many people first saw the work of Kori Newkirk, whose solo gallery debut is currently on view at Rosamund Felsen gallery and who is known previously for his depictions of Cadillacs in the unconventional media of pomade and Lite-Brite. Newkirk‘s new work continues his wry and formally impressive engagement with black stereotypes. Two paired sets of work occupy the front gallery. A portrait in digitally mosaicked encaustic tiles, and a C-print portrait of a black man in an industrial streetscape, his face blurred a la the alleged perpetrators on ”real“ cop shows (entitled Channel 11 and Channel 9, respectively), make up one pair, while two cornrow bead-curtain ”paintings“ — one an acid-colored blowup of a flame, the other a negative-space skyline of downtown L.A. (looking for all the world like the fringe on the hem of one of Josephine Baker’s flapper dresses) — form the complementary dyad. The second gallery has a set of four handgun silhouettes cut from Plexiglas that cascade downward into elegant veils of clear beads, and a new, almost entirely blacked-out Lite-Brite piece titled Midnight Son (Horizon), showing a wide, empty landscape defined only by the punctuating cone of a police-helicopter searchlight. You don‘t need a weatherman to spell out the political referents for you, but an exact position is nowhere mandated, much to the work’s benefit.
Newkirk‘s strength lies in the deep formal intelligence of his art, which balances the ambiguity of unarticulated narrative connections between the pieces (and between the art and its content) with a sure-handed genre-hopping proficiency with materials. His work suggests that politics and racial-identity issues are not incompatible with well-crafted, sensually complex formalism, but, in fact, establish an essential continuity with our physical, sensory experience of life.
While at the Felsen gallery, pop your head into the backroom to check out Alice Konitz’s two contributions to the current ”Project Wall.“ Continuing in the Bizarro domestic-moderne mode of her two pieces (best of show) included in RFG‘s recent Charles Gaines–curated ”Touring the Frame,“ the untitled spinning-Styrofoam geometrical floorpiece and sweetly awkward Stone Curtain (a teetering, gobbed-together array of wood-panel amoeba shapes) combine the best of CalArtian smart-ass material flimsiness with the current fad for House Beautiful nostalgia. One to watch out for.
If you haven’t visited Jane Hart‘s Lemon Sky project space in Hollywood yet, Legion of Rock Stars accordionist Colin Cook’s New Age Hypnotism is the perfect excuse. Cook‘s work occupies a desperate no man’s land between the purist aesthetic ideals of modernist sculpture, and the ludicrous frailties of the human body and ego. The monstrous hybrids that result, usually incorporating an image of the artist, are often as visually arresting as they are hilarious or horrifying. New Age Hypnotism includes a large-scale video projection that puts most of that overexposed genre to shame.
Speaking of unarticulated narrative connections, Alexis Smith‘s first solo gallery show of new work in five years recently graced the walls at Margo Leavin. Riddled with semiotic leaks, Smith’s meticulous assemblages rival Karen Carson‘s work as the premier feminist modernist formalist language-based work being made by a woman artist in Los Angeles today! In contrast to Carson’s radical stylistic swings over the last few shows, Smith rests somewhat on her laurels. ”Words“ is absolutely what you would expect from an Alexis Smith show: immaculate layered arrangements of crisply isolated and exquisitely detailed pop detritus. Permeated with an arch intelligence expressed in a spare nouvelle cuisine vocabulary of interlocking one-liners (Martha Stewart meets Dorothy Parker) that has the unique effect of appearing simultaneously sharp and ambiguous, Smith‘s collages seem to make concise critiques about consumerism, gender, class, popular visual culture and the art world, only to break apart into shiny discontinuous facets upon closer inspection. Just when you think you’ve pegged a piece‘s meaning by the narrative resonance between an appropriated fragment of ad copy stenciled on the glass and the thrift-store painting beneath it, your eye is drawn to a visual echo set up by a glued-on hat or scrap of streetworn plastic. Again, as with Newkirk, ”privileging“ the senses while thwarting strict verbal pigeonholing results in fine art — an infinitely more complex and open-ended can of worms than layout diva Barbara Kruger can manage in a whole retrospective.
Finally, if you’re at Bergamot to see Kori Newkirk, don‘t forget to check out the always eye-awakening color photographs of William Eggleston at the Gallery of Contemporary Photography; the recently uncovered, deeply reassuring Craig Kauffman hard-candy-color Bubbles in the backroom at Patricia Faure; the riveting, fascinatingly repulsive Imaginary Places II prints (with foam mesh, Op Art computer moires, and kidney-shaped cardboard cutouts swathed in garish fluorescents) by Frank Stella at Bobbie Greenfield. Alas, you just missed Terri Friedman’s Aspirations. A jolly, pathetic, kinetic site-specific inflatable in ”The Guard Shack“ at the entrance to the parking lot, Aspirations overcame its trendy (how far behind fashion can the art world fall?) ‘70s revivalism with its sample-happy ’90s impurity and guerrilla insouciance, bearing witness (alongside Lemon Sky) that the self-organizing grassroots artist community that spawned the late, lamented Dan Bernier Gallery is still kicking.