Photo by Joshua White

When Brian Wilson was recording the sessions for the lost Beach Boys masterpiece Smile, so the story goes, he abandoned — even attempted to destroy the tapes of — the “Fire” sequence of his “Elemental Suite,” believing that he had created music containing such powerful juju that it sparked a rash of fires in the Los Angeles area. There were those who called Wilson crazy. While, to my knowledge, Karen Carson has made no such claims, it’s a good thing they don’t burn witches anymore, because the same kind of sympathetic magic seems to be in play in her new exhibit at Rosamund Felsen Gallery. Just a
couple of days after the unveiling of her 24 new lightboxes
and paintings on silk — all depicting forest fires — L.A. was subjected to record-breaking heat and two enormous conflagrations in Riverside.

I’m only partly kidding. Art, when it’s working, does have a tendency to operate outside of linear time, often seeming creepily prophetic. The history of Carson’s fire paintings is studded with synchronicities and unintentional resonances — from the fires she witnessed in Bakersfield and Montana shortly after beginning the series, to the unavoidable association with the current inferno in the Middle East. It’s a measure of the strength of contemporary art for it to seem even the slightest bit meaningful in light of current events, especially so in the midst of the backwash of bondage photos currently titillating the public palate. Carson’s work, collectively titled “Putting Out Fires,” holds its own.

Karen Carson, Untitled (Large Black Tree), 2003

On one level, the work succeeds because Carson seems to have achieved a sort of rapprochement with the picturesque landscape. Much of her discomfort with painting’s long and sticky history with the pathetic fallacy (artists’ tendency to attribute anthropomorphic qualities to nature), seen in the scenic bannerisms and waterfall beer-hall signage of her August 2001 show, seems to have been resolved. Carson’s truce with the sublime forest scene has been achieved, admittedly, by torching it. But given the poisonous propagandist use that has been made of advertising and pop culture since 9/11, a little in-house immolation from a master of Pop idioms isn’t out of order.

One of the main sacrifices evidenced by this body of work has been Carson’s penchant for making incremental adjustments to her paintings over time. By choosing to work on the notoriously unforgiving medium of silk, Carson rules out the possibility of revising — both the work itself and the history of its realization. Here, every gesture is recorded. While there are layers to each piece, usually from the translucent glow of encroaching or receding flames to the charred silhouetted evergreens in the foreground, there is little or no room for second-guessing. As in Zen calligraphy, where the slightest hesitation will tear a hole in the fragile rice paper, Carson has chosen a structure that entails complete disclosure of her process. This has two obvious results: Carson’s considerable drawing and paint-handling skills are emphasized as never before, and the images take on yet another allegorical connotation — that of a creative fire burning through its course in the studio, with the art object the only material evidence.

However operatic these paintings get at their peak — and they run the gamut from the aria to the dirge — most have retained the slightest sense of removal, signaled by the carefully painted geometric borders that frame each smoldering vista. By making these scenes of devastation and transformation resemble nothing so much as carpets, Carson undermines their potential for melodrama, hints at the pathetic hubris of our attempts to impose geometric rationality on the forces of nature, and suggests that visual language retains some power to contain — or at least give us a framework for understanding — even the most incendiary aspects of our lives.


Another artist exploring the containment of natural forces — albeit in far cooler mode — is Jennifer Pastor, whose first L.A. show in ages is on view at Regen Projects. “The Perfect Ride,” which was completed last year and exhibited at the Venice Biennial, includes a sculpture of the Hoover Dam, a much smaller one of a human inner ear and a projected animation of a rodeo bull rider. Each segment embodies a meditation on the mediation of some physical force — sound waves translated into the oscillations of the Organ of Corti, the stepped-down hydraulic potential of the Colorado River, or a ton of pissed-off beef. Aside from obvious or implied concerns with the traditional sculptural issue of gravity, the three components have a quirky overlap of formal elements. The ear model is indistinguishable from an educational display, until you notice a tiny horn shape protruding from a rippling jaw muscle that you won’t find in any human-biology text. Likewise, the spouts of “water” spilling from the dam’s central plumbing echo the horns of the bull, while the translucent mound that seems to be engulfing the hydraulic infrastructure (supposedly a hillside, but made from the same slightly iridescent plastic as the “water”) from certain angles resembles the arched musculature of the bucking bovine. The animation itself — a life-size projection of a line drawing extracted from a videotaping of a human doing his best to negotiate an equilibrium with an immovable force of gravitational reckoning, i.e., the bull — is beautiful and stretches our definition of sculpture.

These kinds of formal and conceptual stutters are typical of Pastor’s work (if anything can be said to be typical in an oeuvre consisting of less than a dozen objects in as many years), and go a long way in confirming her credibility — alongside her sometimes-paramour Charlie Ray — as one of the founders of the current school of intellectually challenging, science-savvy, patently idiosyncratic L.A. sculpture. But too much emphasis on the book-learnin’ — and Pastor is famous for her astronomical research-to-development ratio — doesn’t credit the deeply embedded formal intelligence of this work. The dam in particular engages the viewer, with its imposing scale, off-kilter orientation, extremely subtle surface play and — not least — its peculiar abstraction into the kind of industrial-display vernacular that makes it appear to be some kind of prototypical space hot rod, fueled by queen-bee jelly. Between that and the rodeo sequence, Pastor’s affinities with the pseudo-clinical aesthetics and physiological architecture of Matthew Barney have never been clearer. As a sheer object maker — much as I love the Cremaster films and the sculptural ideas they contain — Pastor gives Barney more than a run for his money.

KAREN CARSON: Putting Out Fires | At ROSAMUND FELSEN GALLERY, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica Through May 29

633 N. Almont Drive | Through May 29

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