Isabel Yellin’s pillowy sculptures are bulbous, voluptuous, and come in black, white, muted pink, and taupe tones. As they hang by chains and cords from high rafters, their curves are highlighted by the sunlight streaming into the gallery. They look like misshapen punching bags, bringing to mind a rickety gym where a kid might work out her ambitions and anger in secret. But this is no teenager’s lair—if the gallery is an arena, Yellin’s nuanced works put up a formidable fight.
These are physical objects first—defined as much by their materiality as by emotion or narrative. Made of synthetic leatherette filled with expandable foam and stitched together, they are shaped by both intent and circumstances of process, hardened in some parts and yielding in others. Markings and texture on the shiny surfaces suggest that the foam caused stretching and collapse in irregular and unpredictable ways, leaving occasional rough or tender patches across all, but most memorably as on B5 (all works 2016).
Like human bodies, each form here is distinct from the next. They tout their imperfections over uniformity, celebrating vulnerability in an anthropomorphic forum. But there is also life outside this ring; in an antechamber are two works—Shell 1 and Shell 2—that look like they could have been deconstructed, or evolved, from the opaque punching bags. Translucent fabric is stretched over corset boning, letting light filter through, both growing and glowing.
The quality of the light at Park View feels quintessentially LA—specifically, those neighborhoods that lie east, dusty and browner than the pastel palette famously used by David Hockney to render this town. Elif Erkan’s exhibition “ex oriente lux” is characteristic of a transplant intrigued by the unreal, contradictory metropolis. However, Erkan’s work rests comfortably here, her sculptures drawing on the city’s tensions.
The focal point is a series of hunched concrete slabs titled “Poses” (all works 2016), which weave a path through the gallery. From certain angles, edges lifted slightly upward, they appear to float a bit off of the ground. Laced with beige pigment and featuring tiny neon liquid construction levels embedded throughout, they gently usher you around them; but not unlike LA’s network of freeways and winding hills there is always another route, another landscape unfolding. Two wall-based sculptures, Compass – Heart Disease and Compass – Blood Clotting, look over the floor-bound works, where the interiors of food containers are cast in fleshy Plasticine with kale and fish-oil capsules littering their surfaces.
Erkan’s vision is more indebted to the massive infrastructure that shuttles us to and fro—and the debris that collects alongside it—than that sleek Finish Fetish look that dominates the city’s aesthetic history as exported to the mainstream. She mobilizes signifiers of defeat—wilted vegetables and crumbled rock—to prompt us to read into these objects the disillusionment of moving here with an image of cruising the coast only to find oneself sitting in traffic on the 101. The artist’s work maintains a quiet grace that suggests these apparent contradictions and disappointments might just be the strange look of equilibrium, a balance not found in a center but through dispersal.
Mary Kelly’s Circa 1968, 2004, renders a famous photo from May ’68: a woman in a crowd waving a Vietnamese flag, resembling Delacroix’s Liberté. In her “Circa Trilogy,” Kelly positions this formative political tableau between two others: a photograph of a library ruptured in the London Blitz, just before her birth—Circa 1940, 2016—and a cell-phone snap of May’s stifled echo at Tahrir Square more recently—Circa 2011, 2016. All three are rendered in Kelly’s signature “compressed lint,” cast in low relief on the filter screen of the artist’s dryer then glued to paper cards—duly interpretable as history rammed through the trap of the chore—though the material’s feminist invective, conceptually crucial to the series “Mea Culpa,” 1999, doesn’t stretch to cover the Arab Spring.
There is little here to nuance the mnemonic pathos of photographs, especially ones already so nostalgically overdetermined. The artist’s indexical fluff obliterates detail and gradation from the images’ iconic outlines as surely as the fuzz of leftist romance cushions the real. Yet a corresponding trio of oblique texts—“Unguided Tour c.,” 2016—nonetheless press Kelly’s point. Each begins with “You are here,” a futile attempt to place the viewer at each photograph’s conception. As poetry, the facts suffer: “On a balcony, a banner,” reads Unguided Tour c. 1968; it ends: “Beneath the paving stones, / More than the beach.” More poignant, and a better read, is the incidental poetry of “7 Days,” which takes its title from a radical feminist tabloid to which Kelly contributed in the early 1970s. She has reproduced the front pages of several with brick-like sections of lint. The teasers bannering one, circa 1971, are a tender litany of idealisms: “Miss World / Allende: Year One / Boxing / One Room Sex / Gramsci.”
“When you’re ready, you can open your eyes.” Guided meditations suspend vision in the name of presence, only bringing back sight to close each session. Phenomenological strains of modern painting, by contrast, offer vision as the primary vehicle for experience. With works by Agnes Pelton, Linda Stark, and Alex Olson, “The Ocular Bowl” presents three generations of practitioners whose paintings invoke spiritual consciousness.
In Pelton’s 1929 oil-on-canvas work, Star Gazer, the roughly symmetrical composition and rich color give it the force of an icon. A flower in the lower third of the canvas seems to look up at, or perhaps receive the light of, a single star in the gradient sky. Stark’s work also engages the iconography of spirituality, but with an ironic distance. See, for instance, the square painting Ruins, 2008, a part of her torso series picturing cropped figures, which depicts a graphic shirt featuring Stonehenge overhung by a massive full moon in a hot-pink sky. An arrowhead pendant necklace, modeled in painted wood as a shallow relief, cuts into the image. These New Age tropes are complicated by Stark’s seemingly sincere pleasure in material experimentation and exacting application.
Olson, the youngest artist here, is most overtly in dialogue with modernism. In her oil-and-modeling-paste painting Circuit, 2016, three squares appear immersed in horizontal bands of color. The middle of the composition is a single pigment, but the top and bottom shapes comprise multiple rectangles of different colors keyed to optically interact, producing the effect of individual floating squares. While evoking classic Bauhaus exercises as well as the palette of Anni Albers’s textiles, form does not wholly stand in for content here: This image is also a kind of sunset, a dusky echo of Pelton’s work for a hazy, present-day Los Angeles.
Two chimneys, Chimney Sculpture 1, 2015–16, and Chimney Sculpture 2, 2016, stand stark in the middle of the room. Hung on a corner wall are two horsehair weavings, Luce’s Fireplace 10 and 12, both 2014, reminiscent of brushes for sweeping ash. Four ceramic and papier-mâché jugs, Jug 1, 2016, and Pitcher Sculpture 4, 5, and 9 (all 2015), are stored in the back. And five embossed drawings on paper—abstractions of lamps, pitchers, and busts—authenticate this show’s sense of shelter.
In “Two Chimneys,” Catherine Fairbanks’s techniques result in ordinary magic: flour and water can make bread, or in this case, paste for paper sculpture. Pressure and heat fire earthenware, and tension combined with dye raises paper. For the show’s two eponymous sculptures, Fairbanks worked without a frame, layering pile upon pile of paper strips to replicate a mainstay of a family home—the gathering place to eat or stay warm and dry.
Yet the works here are not humdrum craftwork borne from childhood nostalgia. Nor do they show signs of daily use: There’s no ash or soot, their edges don’t fray, and absent are any wine-stained rims. The jugs bear paper handles, a medium unsuited to serving liquids. If the chimneys were lit, they would burst into flame. While hearth, vessel, and light are usually humble symbols of offering and providence, the artist’s sculptures are stripped of life-giving necessity. Fairbanks attends to the common, raising the recesses of the domestic to the master’s surface.