Much of the art world’s attention continues to focus on young artists making a big splash fresh out of grad school, while most of the best art continues to be made by the many artists whose work comes to fruition after several years of steady, cumulative art making. A case in point is Martin Durazo, who has been exhibiting his work locally since 1990. One of the reasons that Durazo hasn‘t received the attention he deserves is the uncategorical nature of his art. An early “ceramic” piece consisted of the artist repeatedly slamming his body into a wall of wet clay. A later work, created during Durazo’s graduate studies, was a low-budget porn film set in the art world, where choice exhibition slots are said to be routinely exchanged for sexual favors. Durazo‘s current installation at Otis’ Maltz Gallery, up through this Saturday, further blurs distinct genres of art making. “Fresh Air 100” is simultaneously a grouping of separate sculptural works, a kind of narrative environmental progression, and the detritus of the workshoprave opening. This event saw the artist mixing both music and video projections (popular DVDs and live surveillance feeds) from a central elevated platform (titled Laboratory) strewn with an array of AV gizmos. Student collaborators assisted visitors with the more interactive sculptural stations, including the spare, fluorescent-lit final chamber with its ominously medical massaging foot-bath unit.
Traces of this bacchanal linger in the space — the bubble machinefan cluster still spews sticky iridescent spheres through the central gallery, and Ghost Dog and The Basketball Diaries were both screening dimly and soundlessly when I visited. Durazo‘s students, encouraged to modify the show, had occupied one corner with a three-dimensional Silly String “drawing,” and with the house lights up, the shards of this exercise in groovy social sculpture took on the same glam pathos that marks all of Durazo’s work. His earlier pieces, particularly the grids of cast-off aquariums, seemed intent on knocking modern art from its puritan pedestal — despoiling the formal elegance of their arrangements with a panoply of icky thrift-store as-is knickknacks and stoner paraphernalia.
It‘s hard to imagine, after a decade of ready-made slackerisms, anyone wringing novelty out of Styrofoam packing forms, but through them Durazo manages to conflate his taste for candy and his uneasy relationship to consumer culture as the structural units of his new works. The two main freestanding sculptural works in the exhibit, Happy Hour and Are You Ready?, combine the soft, hollow white cubes of unaltered iMac packaging in vaguely minimalist configurations surrounded and penetrated by cheesy fiber-optic lamps, clusters of angel (and Clipper) figurines, syringes, poppers, and a variety of medical ephemera, including antiquated anatomical models and boxes of gel-filled mammary prostheses. These debased hybrids are made to further function as pedestals for the Donald Judd–like series of aquariums, with alternating green and blue fluids filling them to the depth of a couple of inches, resulting in oddly sandwiched modernist landscapes.
Several of the other works hold up equally well as individual sculptures. The visually cool pastel checkerboard of heating pads called Give is arranged on the wall like an abstract painting, inviting the viewer to lean against it and absorb the warmth. But it’s Durazo‘s orchestration of the entire gallery that stands out as the most ambitious creative undertaking. Blacking out two of the three massive skylights in the brand-new Maltz space, Durazo reserves the blast of L.A. light for To All My Friends (Deck) (which will eventually be completed with its installation in the artist’s yard). Bordered by Give and several other small works, the deck is cut off from the main gallery space by a freestanding low-rent meditation hut called Atmosphere, lit by scented candles, lined with crating blankets and carpet remainders, and charged with negative ions and soothing burbling noises from a spitting frog fountain. In spite of the tartly ironic attitude of its components, the space achieves an authentic air of repose.
Emerging from the chill-out zone, the viewer enters the main gallery space; there, behind a wall of iMac Styrofoam doubling as a rack of STD pamphlets, one confronts the sterile bubble of hospital aesthetics, whose artificially crisp light mimics and reconnects to the fierce daylight of the entranceway. This seemingly arbitrary structure — an implied cycle of death and rebirth — is typical of Durazo‘s subversions of modernism’s one-directional dynamic, countermanding the distillation of pure aesthetic principles with a sad but playful shrug. Most impressively, he is able to carry this off without backpedaling on any of the formal or conceptual gains of the modernist (or postmodernist) era; Durazo manages to encompass these within an inherently flawed, therefore somehow all-inclusive, model of art and life.
Another underappreciated Los Angeles artist is painter Kelly McLane, whose first solo show at Angles, “The Gravity of Nature,” almost lost its centerpiece due to post-911 squeamishness. The Nature of Gravity, a large triptych depicting a jet airliner crashed in a wooded rural area, was initially completed two weeks before September 11, and only included in the final show after lengthy deliberation by both the artist and her gallerist. It seems the only possible call, as, apart from the spookiness of coincidence, the epic painting provides a somber central note of gravitas to balance the remnants of sly whimsy that remain from McLane‘s earlier work.
McLane, who has always displayed tremendous facility in terms of draftsmanship and paint handling, has developed impressively via reduction. Simultaneous to limiting her palette to a burnt-out photographic whiteness, McLane has reined in some of the more extravagant allegorical tendencies of earlier paintings (as well as the subtle gibes at other L.A. painters), resulting in spare, dreamlike pictorial scenarios articulated with impossibly detailed brush strokes and pencil marks. When narrative fragments do appear, as in Crop Circles, where an upright bear regards the titular phenomena, or Meth Lab #1, where hazmat operatives lug topiary animals away from a circus tent, they seem less a part of some thinly veiled allegory than simple testimony to the inexplicable peculiarity of everyday life.
This grounding has been brought about in large part by McLane’s adoption of conventional horizon-dominated landscapes that nevertheless declare their artificiality through the gridding off of the surface and a different painterly treatment of each area. This is most effective in the vast stretches of sky, the rectangular patches of which don‘t quite match up — bringing to mind theatrical scrims and primitive, pieced-together panoramic photographs. The resulting oscillation of surface effect draws the viewer’s eye in to the delicacy and deliberation of the actual painting, and its periodic regularity beats out a trancelike rhythm that is strangely not at odds with the often disconcerting content of the imagery. Somehow this attention to illustrational and painterly detail, combined with the fragmentation of the underlying structure of pictorial convention, results in work that celebrates the willful human practice of art making even as it depicts the ungovernable and unfathomable vagaries of nature.