12 Divas assembles the work of a dozen Los Angeles women who are more or less regarded as “mentors and heroes” in the L.A. art community, and while the element of celebration and acknowledgement is certainly at the forefront of the show’s curatorial impetus, the undeniable subtext is a critique of the sexist art world the artists had to survive in order to become such exemplary role models. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that women artists receive fewer rewards on all fronts — financial, critical, academic — than their equally or less-gifted male counterparts. Women generally have to cobble together a career out of second-string galleries, university museum-catalog essays, and an endless conveyor belt (they don’t call it a tenure track for nothin’) of short-term and part-time teaching appointments. Which is why a show collecting artists of this level of accomplishment is happening not at MOCA, but at the tucked-away Molly Barnes Gallery in Santa Monica.

The outstanding work in this exhibition comes from artists working in the traditional media of painting and ceramics. Phyllis Green’s always sumptuous clay pods (upholstery optional) are well-represented by four examples of her distinctive hybrid of decorative romanticism and psychedelic biomorphic creepiness. Karen Carson surprises by debuting a piece from her excellent new series of landscape light boxes. Waterfall (2000) extends the backlit barroom Americana of her most recent solo show further into the backwoods of pop culture, flattening and stretching Painter of Light™ Thomas Kincaid to an agitated transparency and a literally luminous reinvention of landscape painting. Also included are a pair of her elaborate paintings/assemblages utilizing narrow rectangular shards of mirror and strips of molding arranged into dynamic lightning bolts invoking fundamental polarities (in this case Here/There and Up/Down). Helen Pashgian’s translucent blue-epoxy squares bring an almost glass-art sexiness to the light-and-space minimalism her pieces recall.

The show is spread across two floors, between the gallery proper and Herb Alpert’s old painting studio, and Martha Alf’s unfailingly peculiar pear paintings are scattered throughout.

The main gallery has a strong grouping of Carole Caroompas’ work from 1996 through ’97. This work gets better every time I see it, its aggressive countercultural posture, frenzied pop appropriations and baroque confectionery optics giving way to a complex compositional playfulness and almost paranoic conceptual net of obscure reference. Lita Albuquerque’s vivid new sculptural works drench conceptualist land-art fussiness in precious fine-art minerals such as gold leaf and pure dry pigment, with the eye-boggling light and color effects of the materials clearly outweighing the geographical, mathematical and narrative portions of the work.

Most of the women in this show came of age in the early 1970s — a period when lines were being drawn in the art world. After the expansiveness of the previous decade, newly minted factions of nonmainstream art activity began to codify and police their territories with the zeal of the righteous bureaucrat. Feminist art was one such category, and while some excellent work came out of the doctrinaire literalism that dominated the genre, many women artists were alienated by the requirement that their art should first and foremost declare its allegiances. The backlash in subsequent decades did little to heal the sectarianism, and video and performance artists (a.k.a. New deGenerates), Conceptualists and Identity Politicians remain cautious about those with whom they are associated. Which may explain the various shortcomings of 12 Divas.

Eleanor Antin’s Stanley & Patricia: One Thing Leads to Another (1995) and Alexis Smith’s Chordlerism (1978) are slight works that neither surprise nor do justice to their respective creators’ important oeuvres. This criticism ought to extend to the short video anthology of Rachel Rosenthal’s performance work. The video is so savvily edited, though, that several hours’ worth of performances are rendered into a fast-paced condensed cream of angst, entertaining with alternate bursts of rage and surreal humor. Likewise, Connie Zehr’s InkJet-printed documentation of one of her Zen-like floor installations of sand sidesteps its seeming stinginess. Zehr appears to be serious about her recent shift in media, despite the relatively blatant saleability of the photographs. Patssi Valdez’s single canvas, Autumn (2000), while a charming and brightly colored domestic scene, seems meager and out of place, unfortunately reinforcing the whiff of tokenism conveyed by her status as only-diva-of-color. While curator Dextra Frankel makes no claims to comprehensiveness, one of the most obvious absentees is Betye Saar, the African-American assemblage doyen of L.A.

Far to the southeast, at the Watts Towers Arts Center, Saar’s generational influence is explored alongside that of many others, in an exhibit of young black artists who have passed through the many post-secondary art programs in this neck of the woods. Fresh Cut Afros, curated by WTAC director Mark Greenfield, collects the work of 10 emerging and established artists — some locals still attending or recently graduated from MFA programs, some long relocated to foreign climes after briefly studying in the Southland. While, as with 12 Divas, the ostensible curatorial premise is positive — in this case, the need to awaken the African-American community to the recent abundance of art that is rooted in both the black experience and in contemporary academic art practice — the exhibits also share an inferential critique of the surrounding culture. Unlike 12 Divas, a good chunk of Fresh Cut Afros explicitly addresses the qualitative conditions of its own exclusion — that is, racism.

Of the 23 works in Fresh Cut Afros, only a handful of pieces don’t make reference on some level to race. Mark Broyard, onetime studio assistant to Saar, spikes his formally attractive assemblages with reproductions of historical engravings illustrating the slave trade. Kori Newkirk’s Closely Guarded (2000), the highlight of the show, weds David Hammons to Jeff Koons with a pair of nickel-plated, wall-mounted basketball hoops whose â “micro braid pony bead nets” extend to and conjoin on the floor. Lavialle Campbell’s compact ceramic works also incorporate beads, as well as flocking and some patent-leather glazes, bringing a fetishistically elegant blackness to a medium that has always equated fineness with the refined whiteness of porcelain. Mark Bradford’s appropriation of topical materials is a little more awkward in A Dreadlock caint tell me shit (2000). The main oscillating significance of the work is powerful — what at a distance appears to be a loose, formalist grid of possibly handmade paper is revealed upon closer inspection (of the exhibition list, in my case) to be an accumulation of squares of permanent-wave end paper although the addition of several 4-inch fake fingernails crudely inscribed with “Burn Baby Burn” seems literally and conceptually stuck on.

Kevin Hill’s box-mounted portraits of women of African-American descent attending graduate schools in Southern California (from his “In the White Cube” series), while conveying a laudable determination to seek out and honor his subjects, fails to communicate the complexity of the artist’s intentions or the collaborative aspect of the process, described in the accompanying statement. Isabelle Lutterodt and Edward Wake toy with the formal parameters of black-and-white photography to quite dissimilar ends, the former’s bleak and claustrophobic layouts contrasting with the expansive symmetrical symbolism of the latter. Michael Garnes’ giant Monopoly board, Monopolized (1992), is the most politically explicit work in the show; he clogs the compartmentalized surface of the game board with references plain and obscure, all swathed in shiny resin. It’s a beautiful object and a skillful melding, in the tradition of Oyvind Fahlstrom, of Pop and politics. Amsterdam resident Femi Dawkins’ compelling charcoal drawing J Blaze/Galactic Dreaming (1998) only incidentally refers to black identity, and wouldn’t, except for its outsize scale, look out of place in the Prinzhorn show of Outsider drawings at the Hammer. Louis Cameron’s acrylic paintings, made up of brush strokes applied to plastic, peeled off, then glued onto canvas, are devoid of racial content. Instead, they fit neatly into contemporary mainstream Los Angeles abstraction, with a more interesting and funnier twist on materials and painterly illusion than most.

While the strengths of 12 Divas have nothing to do with adhering to a political agenda, its weaknesses result from its failure to more carefully do so. Something like the reverse is true for Fresh Cut Afros, whose politics are, for the most part, inextricable from the formal strengths of the work. Both shows are remarkable for their broad stylistic inclusiveness within the narrow parameters of their curatorial premise.

The default criticism of this kind of curatorial approach would be to say that the works themselves have little to do with each other, and that therefore the curation is weak. When you’ve seen how arbitrary most group shows are — curated from the concept down and bolstered with the most far-fetched theoretical drivel — you begin to suspect the validity of this stance. Shows with a strong formalist or conceptualist bias begin to seem polemical, rooted in the divisive territorialism of the ’70s, when everyone in the art world started backpeddling to hang on to his or her piece of the pie. Shows like 12 Divas and Fresh Cut Afros, instead of an argument about why this or that way of making art is obsolete or irrelevant, provide uncommon models for a pluralist Art World where we can all just get along. Really.

12 DIVAS | At MOLLY BARNES GALLERY, 1414 Sixth St., Santa Monica; (310) 395-4404 | Through September 2

FRESH CUT AFROS | At WATTS TOWERS ARTS CENTER, 1727 E. 107th St.; (213) 847-4646 | Through August 20

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