Democrats, Republicans and Others will be interested in the photo show on homelessness at the Central Library featuring the work of Tipper “Parental Warning” Gore alongside that of a dozen photojournalists (including celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz and Joseph Rodriguez, author of 1998’s East Side Stories: Gang Life in East L.A.). The power of documentary photography to effect social change has diminished since the days of Jacob Riis or Walker Evans, and it would probably take a fully immersive aesthetic experience, say a holiday in Cambodia, to awaken the middle classes from their stupor. Nevertheless, the intentions are laudable (proceeds from book sales going to the National Alliance To End Homelessness), and it’s always easier to appreciate the aesthetic subtleties of propaganda from a position of high indifference (just ask Leni Riefenstahl). Emotionally moving and dramatically engaging, the photographs are also never less than accomplished formally — often masterful. Most are rooted in the Life tradition of “serious” documentary photojournalism, mostly B&W and relying on the power of the human figure and implicit narrative to carry the aesthetic ball. Several of the artists, notably Jodi Cobb and Benedict Fernandez, are more generous, seducing us with startling compositional or colorist showmanship. And Tipper? She’s somewhere in the middle, with a group of unpedantic, brightly colored domestic scenes shot in the alleys and underneath the freeway onramps of America. Which is all well and good, but wouldn’t it be more effective to refuse to sleep with your husband until he raised minimum wage to the price of a movie and instituted socialized medical care with the money saved by axing Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the Pentagon? Maybe next year.
Bay Area painter William Wiley has had a steadily charmed career. His first solo show was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1960, the same year the then-23-year-old received his BFA, and he seems to have been adopted more or less effortlessly into all successive art-world paradigms, from West Coast Ab-Ex, to Pop, to Conceptualism (I believe Wiley is behind one of my favorite neo-Duchampian gestures of the ’60s, the Slant Step project, in which a whole body of work by Wiley, Bruce Nauman and others was produced around an apparently functionless stepping stool found in a thrift shop), to fame as one of the pre-eminent practitioners of the unjustly denigrated Funk Art movement of the ’70s and beyond.
Throughout, Wiley has maintained a steadfast openness to what is possible in art, exploring a wide spectrum of media including performance and collaborative works examining art-world institutionality. At the same time, his influence as a teacher and mentor is comparable to that of Richard Diebenkorn or John Baldessari. Plus, he hasn’t had to abandon his commitments to his ranch lifestyle and artistic regionalism, or to the ongoing validity of traditional media and art-historical awareness in the practice of art making. Not content to rest on his laurels, Wiley has continued to produce challenging and delightful work, as evidenced in his current exhibition of watercolors and sculptures, “The String Theory . . . is it . . . sound? Yours as ever, Marked Twine,” at L.A. Louver.
In each of the 20 or so modestly scaled works on paper included, Wiley traces out intricately layered landscapes composed of a mosaic of delicate, fragmentary wedges and shards of luminous watercolor defining a Pythagorean dimensionality. Shapes overlap, blurring boundaries. What appears to be an elaborate vista turns out to be a drawing of another drawing — pinned to a door and opening onto another, equally ambiguous patchwork view. Some obviously depict the artist’s cluttered studio, or the landscape around it. Others are internal, theatrical spaces, or drawn from art history. Weaving in and out of these layers, or framing them, or floating between them and the viewer, are words, words, words. Scratched in an often graffitilike font of swooping diagonals, Wiley’s incessant flow of chatter sets up a literary counterpoint to the sensual richness of formal information in the works. Sometimes critiquing itself, sometimes providing a dialogue or soundtrack to the pictorial events, sometimes meandering off into a cryptic flurry of collapsing wordplay, the resulting â linguistic skeleton forms a reassuring background babble of rational self-awareness that one may depart from and return to at will. The tone is intellectual, acerbic, idiosyncratic, intuitive, skeptical, sad and funny. The content displays a deeply felt social and political responsibility, and an endless curiosity about and delight in the phenomenal world. Formally, it’s as rich, and drunk on the senses — the shape and sound of language — as the visual elements. In other words, unlike most text in art, this is good writing. Like Raymond Pettibon if he could draw. (Kidding!)
The intricate and playful geometry wobbling furiously through Wiley’s two-dimensional works springs forth in his mixed-media wall pieces and sculptures. Manifesting a high-spirited recklessness depicted only in the watercolors, the sculptures shake off the last vestiges of formality from Wiley’s formalism. Mr. U. off the Wall looms down like an insectoid architectural model trying to deliver an important message. Squink bears a sign bidding the viewer to ask the gallerist to set the sculpture in motion, an elegant swooping arc resulting in the comically anticlimactic squawking of two toy noisemakers. Most of the three-dimensional works double as musical instruments. Some of them are horns, such as the pair of fluted didgeridoos made from melted copies of Wiley’s vinyl LP with collaborator Joe Henderson. Some, like the title piece, have strings stretched above their surfaces by painted cardboard cylinders, creating primitive chordophones. Others remain mysterious — until tomorrow night, Friday, August 18, when Wiley will improvise on his musical sculptures. (For info, 310-822-4955.)
POST (downtown; its Mid-Wilshire space closed a couple of months back), along with a very strong group show featuring yet another splendidly squalid candy-colored fish-tank grid from Martin Durazo and a pungent extension-cord-and-spinning-daisy extravaganza from Steve Shackelford, hosts the Los Angeles debut of the young Dutch artist Merijn Bolink, who successfully wrests a bit of territory from home-turf pop-conceptualist sculptors like Charles Ray and Tim Hawkinson. Tending more toward the Hawkinsonian, Bolink deconstructs familiar objects, then painstakingly rebuilds them into object lessons about a brilliant but idiosyncratic epistemology, poetic illustrations of doomed hypotheses regarding the nature and order of things. For The Pentasexual System, the artist imagined genitalia for a five-gendered humanoid species in a futility-riddled faux-anatomical model of intercoupling protuberances. Untitled (Cake Table) amends a still life of partially composed cake ingredients by inlaying shapes of the shadows cast by various flour bags, egg cartons, baking tins and plastic measuring cups with the same material as the object casting the shadow. (The shadow of a sieve, for example, is thus made up of flattened metallic mesh.) A firehose stretches the length of the gallery with a dark bucket set on it midway, which, on close inspection, appears to have been swallowed whole by the boalike hose. A female figure, reminiscent of a sleazy 1980s fashion mannequin, is made entirely (save the black-patent high heels) from pieces of film taken from an early-’70s Dutch porn movie. What was this guy thinking?
Why did the chicken cross the road? How is a raven like a writing desk? This kind of rickety pataphysical conundrum generates an informational moiré pattern, emerging from the layering of incompatible logics. When these are translated into tangible objects, the dissonance hovers like a fog between the artwork and its source, arresting us with its simultaneous strangeness and familiarity, its authoritative subjectivity, and its beauty. This is the essentially Surrealist (before Breton turned into Stalin) impulse that animates the work of the best contemporary artists, apparently in the Netherlands as much as in L.A.
THE WAY HOME: Ending Homelessness in America | At the GETTY GALLERY, LAPL Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., downtown | Through October 15
WILLIAM WILEY: “The String Theory . . . is it . . . sound? Yours as ever, Marked Twine” | At L.A. LOUVER, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice | Through September 2
MERIJN BOLINK | At POST, 1904 E. Seventh Place (a block behind the Greyhound Station), downtown Through August 31