A first round of press releases announced the lineup for this show, guest-curated by Kristine McKenna, as a trio to include two late West Coast artists represented by the Michael Kohn Gallery (Wallace Berman and Bruce Conner), a bankable New York artist (Richard Prince), and one common denominator: The oeuvres of all three involve lots of images of women. With Conner now removed from the equation, this marketing strategy/curatorial premise seems stripped. Conner, who had some of the romance and funk of Berman and also the sometimes-odd combination of coolness and indulgence of Prince, could have been the bridge in this exhibition. Without his presence, the show offers less an arc of sensibility than a comparison of two artists’ forays into imagery of women, and becomes a study in how two rather different artists have examined the ways in which culture inscribes itself onto women’s bodies and persons, and how the artists go about such inscription, too. As such, it remains worth catching before it closes on March 7.

Berman, who grew up during the Depression and World War II, and Prince, a boomer, have greatly different ways of looking at the world. A Beat-generation artist whose 1957 exhibition at Ferus Gallery — closed by the LAPD on charges of obscenity — was one of the first signals that L.A. had something edgy to offer in contemporary art, Berman was a key figure in the West Coast collage/assemblage scene and an originator of a kind of Beat-Pop aesthetic most notable in collages using then-cutting-edge Verifax technology, a precursor to photocopying. He was also the publisher of Semina journal, itself a kind of sequential page-turning collage comprising poetry by friends and images found and made by Berman. Among his kin are Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp in his more surrealist moments, Robert Rauschenberg, Allen Ginsberg and certainly contemporaries like Ed Kienholz, Jay DeFeo and George Herms.

Prince is a thunder god of the appropriation era. He made his mark by rephotographing found photographs, originally from the most pop-cultural of sources, with his Marlboro men remaining his most enduring images. But he’s a mercurial and promiscuous artist, also given to painting and sculpture, and he quickly turned from pop culture to subculture — bikers and their girls, muscle cars, vintage smut, pulp fiction. Prince descends from Duchamp on a cooler day, and from Andy Warhol, and his kin are more realistically John Baldessari and early William Wegman than the ’80s crowd with which he is associated. He’s less an appropriationist — a term still hung on him by fans and detractors, both of whom tend to oversimplify him — than he is a palimpsest artist, and a miner of American cultural strata who laid open a pit now being sifted by a crop of younger artists.

Berman seems destined to remain a cult artist, but his work warrants more attention, and just the opportunity to consider how he viewed woman — as subject, object, muse, co-conspirator — is fascinating, whether in the tender portraits he shot of his wife, Shirley, and other women to whom he was close, his confrontational images of DeFeo posing nude in front of her career-defining painting, The Rose, a playful collage of friend Teri Garr dancing, sexy and raucous photos of the artist Patricia Jordan wearing nothing but a ski mask in Berman’s Topanga studio, or collages filled with found images of female icons ranging from Janis Joplin to Jackie Kennedy, Venuses, vixens, strippers and porn stars. Though most of the imagery is more tame than what makes it onto L.A. billboards today, Berman’s collages can still make you blush. He emerges as a hippie mystic, whose yin and yang leans toward the optimistic, and who is capable of addressing tenderness, intimacy, power and sexuality with a comfort that remains unnerving for viewers. His is work that insisted on being hot in an art world that was trending cool, and the opportunity to see it is reason alone to see this show.

Prince arguably continued that trend, and in the way he examines source material that is somewhere between kitsch and contemporary outlaw folk art, he can even seem cold; in weaker moments, academic. That is clearest here in a mailbox plastered with images reproduced from print porn — a phoned-in-feeling bad-boy exercise — or in some of his nurse collages, which seem little more than the product of a guy flipping through skin and boink magazines looking for bodies the right size to clip and graft in place of the uniformed physiques of nurses on pulp novella covers, instantly converting nice girls to naughty. But some of these deliver a combination of sexuality, fragmentation and spatial disorientation that is compelling and uncanny. Similarly, Prince’s cut-and-paste reworkings of De Kooning “women” drawings might at first seem little more than predictable riffs on the old body slasher, but Prince manages to get inside De Kooning’s project both formally and psychologically, and to unpack it and also add something to it.

The show’s centerpiece, a 1986 El Camino wrapped — windows and all, as city buses often are, with advertisements — in a blown-up montage of vintage back-seat-babe photos, isn’t as smart as some of Prince’s other reworkings of cars and their parts, which manage to get at the intersection of girls, horsepower, Americana and aesthetics in the male sexual psyche in interesting ways without being so overt. But it’s not without impact.

I’m not convinced by McKenna’s attempt in her catalog essay to refashion Prince as something of a romantic and a sensitive guy — a maker of works “freighted with feelings of melancholy and loss.” But he is perceptive and astute, and, surprisingly for someone often regarded as a rip-off artist, frequently inventive and never idle. Prince is an artist who will never be as endearing as Berman, but who is more complex than the Warholian enfant terrible or the appropriation poster-boy to which he commonly is reduced.

SHE: Images of Women by Wallace Berman & Richard Prince; Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m., through March 7; Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 658-8088 or www.kohngallery.com.

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