Jill Giegerich is an artist whose visibility in the 1980s was comparable (if not quite equal) to that of fellow CalArtians Mike Kelley, Lari Pittman and John Baldessari. Giegerich dropped off the art-world radar screen in the early ‘90s, after splitting from Margo Leavin’s gallery, then Fred Hoffman‘s, then choosing not to engage representation — at least in the sense of having a dealer. So when I curated a show last year called “Between Representation: L.A.’s Greatest Unsigned Artists,” one of the first people I thought to include was Giegerich. But she was unimpressed by my exhibition title — its implication that “being represented” was the default state of any successful artist, and that anyone not in that state must be looking ahead to re-establishing this most sacred connection. These were, of course, the very kinds of discussions I hoped to provoke. But, after suggesting several title changes that would allow her to participate in good conscience, Giegerich declined to be in the show, although she agreed to join a related panel discussion during which she gamely explained her position.

This kind of careful, adamant delineation is typical of both Giegerich‘s ongoing position in the L.A. art world and of her actual work. Due to the uncompromising nature of the former, the opportunities to experience the latter have been few and far between in the last decade. Fortunately, the Armory Center in Pasadena and curator Josine Ianco-Starrels have conspired to remedy this in one fell swoop by organizing Giegerich’s first midcareer survey, of work spanning the years 1979 through 2001. Modestly scaled, the exhibit collects fewer than 40 pieces from more than two decades of art making, yet offers a concise overview of Giegerich‘s evolution.

The earliest works — all are untitled except for a sort of code giving the date, the artist’s initials and an annual serial number — are the simplest, depicting, for example, the contours of a lamp with a flat arrangement of welded brass rods (JG-1981-?), or layering black rubber incised with simple, elegantly designed apertures over an off-kilter rectangle of polished brass (JG-1980-5).

These terse pieces belie their austerity with a powerful sense that they embody some kind of fundamental paradox about, well, the nature of representation. One of the schools of art making with which Giegerich can be identified is the 1980s fascination with semiotics, the study of the function of signs and symbols that swept through both the lit-crit and art worlds during that era. The artists who were grouped together under this problematic critical umbrella ran the gamut from expressionistic painters like the East German A.R. Penck and the late Jean-Michel Basquiat to the systematic sign-language inventions of (CalArtian) Matt Mullican, from the droll, immersive multimedia stagings of Laurie Anderson to the precise conceptual objects of high-art copycat Sherrie Levine or Formica maven Richard Artschwager. While such inclusiveness begs the question “What art isn‘t addressing the function of signs and symbols?,” these artists all share an undeniable interest in breaking down the language of visual communication into its most widely understood components, then rearranging them in novel, often self-contradictory ways — which is a pretty good one-line summary of Giegerich’s work.

Her visual vocabulary, while blossoming into a relatively baroque fecundity over the course of this survey, relies on a fairly pithy set of variables. One is the use of off-the-rack building materials such as rubber, sandpaper, plywood, carpet, fiberglass, cork, asphalt, brass, copper, aluminum, etc., often in combinations that set small cognitive dissonances ringing — carpet that looks like brick, thick-grain resinite sandpaper standing in for patterned laminated countertops, or papier-mache hand-cast to resemble factory-made flooring molded in the shape of a human silhouette. A similar punning homology informs her pictorial strategy; simple domestic or architectural forms are rendered illusionistically by assembling geometric fragments cut from inappropriate but visually consistent material — an outsized faucet made from lap cement on carpet pieces, or photocopy-enlarged woodgrain cut and pasted to depict any number of elaborate, indeterminate boxlike clusters (and oddly reminiscent of German collage-Dadaist Kurt Schwitters‘ idiosyncratic Merzbau assemblage environments). Many of these doppelgangers hover independently away from the wall, teetering precariously forward or to the side, their irregular contours recalling the shaped canvasses of Giegerich’s teacher Elizabeth Murray and carrying the disruptive play with the Renaissance picture plane‘s “window of illusion” over to the very conventions of gallery and museum display.

In the last decade, these singular elements were brought to a low boil, combined in ever more elaborate pastiches to arrive at an appropriately paradoxical style of restrained baroque conceptual picture making. Early ’90s work in particular, such as JG-1991-11 (a cool flourish of cork in the shape of a banner emblazoned with the word Soma — Brave New World or The Upanishads? — on a bed of photocopied-rope noodles, with an actual sawed-off trumpet jutting from the surface) or JG-1991-15 (an outsize, bravura pomo candelabrum that manages to be elegiac and smart-ass in the same breath) show a decorative facility that almost overwhelms their playful, provocative conceptual reticence.

Almost is the key word here: Giegerich‘s trajectory is, at its most essential, a balancing act. Balancing deliberation and ambiguity. Balancing a minimalist, Povera attention to materials with a voracious stylistic appetite drawing from cubism, constructivism, pop, deco, high-modernist design, art nouveau, and the kitchen sink. Balancing a hard-nosed, literate, competitive conceptualism with a subtle, sensual, attention to aesthetic minutiae. Balancing the delicate induction of audience introspection against the hardwired efficiency of industrial signage, arranging familiar visual tropes in uncomfortable configurations. Teetering on the edge of being either too intellectually dry or too decoratively moist, Giegerich’s work certainly resides next to Karen Carson‘s or Lari Pittman’s for its singularly SoCal (in spite of the artist hailing from Chappaqua, New York) version of decorative conceptualism (in spite of the deliberate but arbitrary absence of evident painterly chops).

Giegerich‘s first work from 1995 — consisting of a pair of highly tailored pants draped with elliptical skeins of gold chainage and anchored by a brass plumb clipped between the cuffs, all hovering in front of a quartet of silkscreened B&W photographs of old-growth tree trunks on a nylon banner pinioned by lathed doweling — typifies her flamboyant ambivalence. While raising fence straddling to a high art, Giegerich’s work remains firmly rooted in an antagonistic, bipolar, high-contrast understanding of human perception, a dazzling, wobbly world-view that underlies all great design. Continually verging on the rational, it pulls back every time with breathtaking elan. As Karl (of the Flyings) Wallenda once said, “To be on the wire is life — the rest is waiting.”

JILL GIEGERICH: Survey 1979–2001 | At the ARMORY CENTER FOR THE ARTS | 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena | Through December 29

(626) 792-5101 | www.armoryarts.org

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