Ginny Bishton is an artist who defies expectations. Or rather, completely dismantles them, leaving their components arranged in neat rows. One of her UCLA grad-school works consisted of a wall full of hand-copied bread recipes with the instructions left out — inventories of ingredients with the mixing, kneading, fermenting and baking aspects surgically excised — no narrative arc, no money shot.
Since then she has steered a willful, idiosyncratic course that has seen her gallery work abruptly morph, often in the space between consecutive solo shows, from gnarly op/minimalist drawings into psychedelic/serialist photo-collages, defying expectations that an artist — particularly a two-dimensional one — needs to stake out a signature visual style and milk it for the rest of his or her life. I'm speaking to you in hell, Roy Lichtenstein.
Unfortunately, those who aren't paying close attention are often bewildered by or even oblivious to such rapid crosscuts — even to the point that they're unaware that the same artist is responsible for superficially divergent bodies of work. But paying attention has its pitfalls, too — once you reach a point where you expect your expectations to be defied, the game is ruined. This is the history of Modern Art in a nutshell — novelty made redundant.
Bishton's habitual reinventions — dazzling as they can be — have become somewhat predictable. Not in terms of content: Who could have predicted her last body of work, gorgeous stained-glass aggregates of meticulously cut-out overhead snapshots documenting bowls of soup that had been individually cooked by the artist to achieve subtle, specific color effects? Not I. But fond as I was of those unlikely artifacts, I didn't get too attached because I knew that her next show would mark another radical departure.
Which, in a sense, it does. “More Is Less and Less” (at Richard Telles until Valentine's Day) does, in fact, include three particularly strong aerial soupscapes. It also includes three ink drawings that revive one of her earliest strategies — the quadruple layering of regular rectangular forms crosshatched at different angles, using different-colored inks. Two other ink drawings utilize a bean-pod form, the larger one, Licked by your dragon tongue (2009), employing eye-boggling draftsmanship that produces an interference pattern like an old TV set.
Then there are a couple of artistic homages, one to the German conceptual drawer Hanne Darboven, who died last March, and one to Bruce Nauman, no slouch in the abrupt-gearshift department himself. Bishton's rendition of Nauman's 1967 drawing Six inches of my knee extended to six feet is made up of pencil tracings from Bishton's diaristic photographs of her daily intake of vegetables — the same images that provided the tiny fragments making up her 13-foot-long 1997 photo-collage, February — September, pointing out the Naumanesque strategy of oblique self-portraiture underlying that sumptuous mosaic.
Bishton's latest abrupt change is to step back from making abrupt changes, and for followers of her work, it makes for a pleasant surprise. For those who haven't been paying close attention, it may be a revelation. By sampling and mixing from her entire pantryful of ingredients, Bishton de-emphasizes their differences, while simultaneously undermining the teleological story line that had inadvertently arisen from her restless invention. The result is a taut visual essay summarizing more than a decade's tightrope walk between organic sensual formalisms and rigorous conceptual formulae, between taking measure of everyday means and coming up with something to show for it in the end.
Another L.A. artist whose oeuvre has been characterized by sudden stylistic about-faces is painter Tim Ebner, who rose to renown in the late '80s with minimalist geometric neo–Finish-Fetish assemblages produced in a surfboard factory. In the early '90s, he abandoned this successful marketing niche for a series of awkwardly rendered clown portraits and anthropomorphic animals crashing through the surf. Into the '00s these pictorial scenarios underwent only incremental change, but Ebner's painterly technique grew in leaps and bounds — a fact that became evident when in 2007 he suddenly began producing a flurry of loose, colorful abstract paintings and atmospheric minimalist landscapes. It seemed that Ebner had come full circle, returning to “serious” painting and a nonfigurative visual vocabulary that might easily take another decade to work through.
Which only makes his current exhibition at Rosamund Felsen that much more laugh-out-loud funny. Mounted high onto metal brackets jutting from the gallery wall, Ebner's newest body of work consists of scroll-cut plywood forms in the shapes of exotic fish, resurfaced with what appear to be fragments of canvas from his gestural abstractions, amended with bulging Sculpey-blob eyes and lips, clusters of peacock and pheasant feathers, costume-jewelry baubles and occasional unlikely materials like bread and vacu-formed faux-marble Jacuzzi acrylic. Ridiculous and delightful, these cut-and-paste creatures of the deep nevertheless showcase Ebner's now-masterful painting chops in a way that is simultaneously art-historically infused and unpretentious as you can get. East Coaster C.K. Wilde's impossibly intricate collage renderings of an iconic galloping-horse silhouette — on view in Felsen's project room — are an appropriate match, though they only hint at the social engagement and breadth of Wilde's other work, much of which is made entirely out of cut-up paper currency.
Mark Todd, a former student of Ebner's, offers a less clear-cut version of appropriation and collage in “Juggernaut,” the next-to-last show at Billy Shire's Culver City digs before the operation folds back into a renovated La Luz de Jesus space on Hollywood Boulevard. Todd's work has evolved quickly and confidently over the past few years, successfully taking on the scale and materials of contemporary painting that have proven too daunting for many accomplished small-scale collagists — of particular significance in Todd's case because his subject matter/source material, comic book covers, particularly those of Jack Kirby dating from the '60s and early '70s, has an explicit size, loaded with formal and psychological baggage.
Todd handles all this baggage (and more) like the bellhop at Hotel Rauschenberg, playfully inverting the relationship between the textual and visual content of the originals into something new and strange. In some cases, the original layout is barely altered, but the scenes of battling mutants have been garbled beyond intelligibility. In other examples, layers of collaged, appropriated or invented material jostle vigorously with hand-copied fragments of story titles, nearly obscuring their low cultural origins in a modernist compositional choreography. In fact, Todd's formal gifts — he's a remarkable colorist, with some very interesting black-on-near-monochrome experiments, and he often teeters on the brink of the decorative (now there's a '60s supervillain!) — threaten to undo the delicious sense of queasy disorder informing his garbled pop transmissions.
What prevents this, and ultimately makes the work exceptional, is Todd's deep familiarity with the semiotic vocabulary of the comic book medium, and his ability and interest in treating this inventory of graphic and textual symbols as material. This isn't entirely unprecedented: Swedish political/pop artist Oyvind Fahlstrom and San Francisco hermeticist Jess dipped their toes in the deconstructed–funny page pond, and Aaron Noble (an associate of Wilde) has been putting recycled Kirbyisms to good — but very different — use for some time. But Todd's work transcends the often snobbish condescension that mars much pop appropriation of comics (you hear me, Lichtenstein?) to accomplish the much touted but elusive erasure of the boundary between high and low culture. These are the kinds of paintings I like to see, and they look like the covers of comic books I've only seen in my dreams.