I’m not sure if it’s just a coincidence or if there was some conspiracy of strategic scheduling to coincide with “WACK!” at MOCA, but there seems to be a glut of exceptional shows by contemporary women artists in L.A. at this moment. I’m not just talking about all the collateral omnibus group shows at Barnsdall and every elsewhere — all of which offer typical hit-and-miss cross sections of artwork (quantity and quality often being inversely proportional) — but rather kick-ass solo gallery shows by individual artists who happen to be of the chick persuasion. One exception is the inaugural show at Circus Gallery, a space that evolved from a series of group exhibits — in the unlikely venue of the Circus of Books adult literary emporium — organized by John Knuth, who now runs the West Hollywood namesake space just off Santa Monica and La Brea. I heard that not only was this not another “WACK!”-off, but the fact that “The Wonder of It All” (which closed April 28) featured only female artists was itself entirely accidental.
Marnie Weber, The Spirit Bear (2007)However it came about, it’s one of the strongest group shows of any kind in recent memory. Laura Riboli’s quirky stop-action videos of wonky crystal-geometric entities were one of the highlights of “Supersonic 2”; Lindsay Brant’s perversities (not the least being a portrait of Gene Wilder) put the stain back in stained glass, Dawn Kasper’s invigoratingly multivalent oeuvre runs the gamut from unusually colorful pushpin-art visual essays to performances in which she impersonates her enigmatic feral namesake Kasper Hauser.
And former L.A. Weekly Biennialist Sarah Cromarty’s glitter-caked überkitsch redemptions of pop-poster clichés has taken a turn for the recreational, casting rodeo cowboys, outboard fishermen and ATV riders into a seething psychedelic miasma of string art, wood grain and near-fluorescent washes of oil paint. Cromarty recently showed a stellar series of modified ’70s vintage LP covers at sixspace, where she also has a June exhibition scheduled — a collaboration with Yes Men couturier Salvatore Salamone.
Both Cromarty and Salamone are members of the Jim Shaw/Marnie Weber extended utopian worker vortex, and with the current white-hot level of activity around there, it’s a wonder they manage to spend so much time on their own work. Case in point: Weber’s first solo show with her new dealer, Patrick Painter. Over the past few years, Weber’s gallery work has burgeoned explosively from powerful-but-contained photocollages to an immersive multimedia Gesamtkunstwerk that absorbs the viewer into her erotically charged animistic dreamscapes. Occupying both of Painter’s Bergamot spaces, “Sing Me a Western Song” picks up where her “Spirit Girls” exhibit, concept album and rock opera left off.
The centerpiece of the show is the 25-minute film A Western Song, in which the Spirit Girls — a band of deceased adolescent girls — act out a trippy allegorical journey that is sort of like Pinocchio’s circus adventure as interpreted by Alejandro Jodorowsky, following Weber’s heroic Lead Spirit Girl from Airstream trailer to shamanistic pasture by way of a Western ghost town populated by hobo clowns. Both the film and the musical soundtrack are formally gorgeous, idiosyncratic DIY extravaganzas filled with humor and mystery. While “A Western Song” screens in a specially constructed environment in the new East Gallery, film stills, new collages and the remarkable props and related sculptural works — the life-size foam-and-resin-over-wooden-taxidermy-models Spirit Bear and Spirit Horse represent the latest development in Weber’s ever-expanding vocabulary — are deployed throughout Painter’s original space in an appropriately carnivalesque tumult.
Halfway between, at Weber’s former gallery Rosamund Felsen, L.A.’s most underrated painter Karen Carson’s new show (officially “Ride the Wind”; informally “Giddy Up Old Paint”) offers a slightly different take on otherworldly human/animal relations. Following hard on the heels of another of San Diegan Jean Lowe’s shows featuring her ascerbic, painterly papier-mâché dummy books (with LOL faux self-help titles like “Freedom From Rigor and Competence,” “Advanced Recrimination” and “The Extraordinary Privilege of Being Human”), Carson’s exhibition is a tough and lyrical continuation of her recent explorations of landscape — the forest-fire lightboxes and painted silk banners of her 2004 show at Felsen.
In the new body of work, Carson ups the ante on her appropriation of questionable popular visual tropes (bar signs, logos, Vegas gaming design, populist “painterly” clichés, etc.) by incorporating the default popular artistic subject matter of her part-time home state of Montana — the horse. Ghost Pegasuses in the Ab-Ex sky, to be precise. Carson’s herds of giant winged equines hover over and emerge out of landscapes that disintegrate into an abstract maelstrom of violet/orange gestural brush strokes that are as accomplished as they are ironic. The result is about as close as fine art can get to van art without blowing the whole deal for everybody.
As if that weren’t enough layers of quotation marks, Carson anchors the bottoms of these midsize horizontal acrylic panels with black clip-art-style silhouettes of contemporary human figures wandering through the surprisingly complex pictorial depths in seeming indifference to the apocalyptic scenario unfolding above and around them (except maybe for the recurring figure of the plein air painter at her easel, capturing the improbable scene). What is perhaps most remarkable about this work is how all these layers of discordant tongue-in-cheek add up to a sincere, profound, coherent and formally arresting allegory that holds up equally to our culture’s current sociopolitical climate and to more timeless failures of attention implicit in the human condition.
Karen Carson, Horse Power II (detail) (2006)A similarly humanist tone seems to have also intruded on the polystyrene perfection of Shirley Tse’s plastic fantastic artistic vision in her new exhibit at Shoshana Wayne Gallery opening Saturday. Known for her sprawling and innovative installations of intricately carved Styrofoam, Tse has incorporated organic materials into her work for the first time, combining such disparate elements as a carved jade heart and “factory rejected fiberglass reinforced resin machine mounts” from a military submersible in the tender, disturbing assemblage Sink Like a Submarine, in which a human heart surrounded by a protective cage of jungle foliage bears an unmistakable resemblance to a booby-trap land mine. Other works reference the little-known role of the loom in the history of artificial intelligence, squarely placing the iconic feminist craft archetype at the center of the military-information complex.
The fact that this column features only female artists (oops! plus Sal) is entirely accidental. The most compelling shows around just happen to have been created by individual women artists. Without a doubt the feminist movement has made this scenario possible. But without creative individuals who are willing to face and negotiate the complicated contingencies of the human condition alone, there is no doubt. That’s the difference between art and ideology — art gives you the benefit of the doubt.
MARNIE WEBER: Sing Me a Western Song | Patrick Painter, Bergamot Station A8 and B2 | Through May 26
KAREN CARSON: Ride the Wind (Action Paintings) | Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station B4 | Through May 26
SHIRLEY TSE | Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station B1 | May 5 through June 30
All at Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica