The big, black apple box in the center of one gallery (Affective Memory Sculpture: Performance Isolation Chamber with Audio from “the Animal Exercise” (Cat in Heat), (all works 2015) could hide a man but has only a cat door for entrance. Inside roils a recording of Dan Finsel imitating the moans of the titular animal, which, like Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, makes writhing reference to artistic process itself, as an “affective memory exercise” channeled by the props of stage, film, and photo production.
Finsel’s last show at Telles also turned on art therapy, yet it took the form of more abjectly Jungian imagery in a 1970s, orange-magenta palette. A Bondo-pink butt with lips, mounted on a rod, adds a blob of color to a second, smaller room (Affective Memory Sculpture: Recurring Form ((Peair) D.F.=K.E))), but the show is otherwise taken with black: skylights blocked by black Plexi, the wall behind the desk painted matte black, the floor lined with black gloss vinyl—über-slick unto slipping. A series of video stills, printed, framed, and hung high, show the artist dumping a gallon of fecal-looking paint on his own feet (Affective Memory Sequential Photographs: Representing the Representation of Representing the Representation of Representing the Representation of…of Production (Rosco Feet Pour/Splash)).
Gloss black, pigment of artistic id, pools in this show like still water. Light glints off huge photos of spotless C-stands photoshopped to grotesque lengths, straddling their reflections. With this handful of Affective Memory Photograph: C-stand photo drawings, Finsel points his special perversions at the trappings of the trade—a wink at Christopher Williams but also an extended flirtation with commercial polish. In the end, Finsel is his own best tool: Framed in a glossy black monitor the artist at last makes a fleshly appearance (Affective Memory: (A / The Cage)), as he cycles for half an hour between silent screams and gestures of shame prompted by a first shot of a small chicken-wire cage. Here, like a growling horny cat in an oil spill, is the traction we crave.
Burnished bubble butts beam with unholy light. Cut and uncut, huge, veiny cocks blossom from every angle. Angels and gods, gladiators and cavemen, street hustlers and bodybuilders, S-M beltings and four-way pirate fuckfests are all drawn with the bright hues and hard lines of comic-book superheroes. The Los Angeles debut of underground-film hero Mike Kuchar (best known for collaborations with his brother, George) hangs and screens five decades of lusty illustration and delightfully schlocky film. Kuchar creams and colorizes a tradition set by Tom of Finland’s pencil drawings of leathered men and lonely sailors with inflated musculature and fantastically large rods (currently the subject of an exquisite survey across town at David Kordansky Gallery). While such work has a cool, supple-wristed beauty, Kuchar’s drawings and film both mock and celebrate the near-comic lust of the former generation. Many might worship the purity of high modernism, but we’d prefer to live in the hot mess of its aftermath.
In one room, Kuchar’s first effort without the help of George, Sins of the Fleshapoids, 1965 (considered one of the great underground films by none other the pope of trash himself, John Waters), plays on the hour. In the next, amid a dozen leafy potted plants, is a plaster replica of Michelangelo’s David, who looks askance at the framed illustrations on the walls around him. This high kitsch makes the gallery more “arty,” a classic cover for the homoerotic illustrations and soft-core movies playing on either side (the other video, Tickled Pink, 2012, shows in just under nine minutes that Kuchar’s cheap, campy charm remained tumescent with time). As with Sins of the Fleshapoids, the cut-rate set dressing only deepens my affections for the artist and his antics. With horny glee, Kuchar returns the original seasoning to the normally sexless accolade of “seminal.”
Under shadowy neon and nighthawk noir, the lithe limbs and strong bodies of Mira Dancy’s numerous psychic ladies, perfume models, and mixed deities invitingly odalisque. This normally coy pose carries here a decidedly intense authority, more Marlene Dietrich than Marilyn Monroe (or perhaps more Siouxsie Sioux than Debbie Gibson). Dancy’s loose lines never goop into impasto in her paintings, but possess the super flatness of advertisements, which are clearly mimicked in her composition of elements and bold headlines for rhymable aromas (“Herfumes Perfumes”) and pawnshop clairvoyants. With allusive titles (Aries Red Moon Calendar and Isis, both 2014) and a retelling of the Isis/Osiris story on a sheet of Plexiglas hung with gold chains in the middle of the gallery, Dancy invokes ancient deities with incantatory utterance and witchy power.
Dancy’s deployment of mythology and expressive lines puts her wholly in the wet, messy lineage of neo-expressionism—a movement riddled with a history of macho market darlings. By the 1990s, the name, for some, turned an intellectual smear, it’s mention bordering on the room-clearing weirdness of “tristero” in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. But under Dancy’s brush, this fluid style gets a necessary jolt of feminism and a dark, gothy charm (closer to OG expressionists James Ensor and George Grosz) that was too often lost in those ‘80s pastel swirls and sploogy paint. Dancy’s nudes—which includes at least one hermaphrodite—are dominant players, staring us down with wry smiles and forceful beauty. Mythic figuration an antidote to anonymous abstraction, perhaps, but these neon deities strut with their own lurid force and elegant autonomy.
“Poor Marge. She'll never hold a man.” Why not? Maybe chemicals. Sodium fluoride—complicit in the fluoridation of city water—is here the conspiracy-rich compound by which Danielle Dean bitingly links dental health, mind control, mass media, standards of beauty, and stereotypes of race. The three actors in blue dental scrubs who are featured in Dean’s Hexafluorocilicic, 2015, the centerpiece of her second solo show at the gallery, chatter in non sequiturs pulled from the gunk of the news cycle as they run a series of pointless experiments—demos with electric blue water, yellow changing into pink, white pellets centrifuged in red goo.
The video’s bright colors and manic delivery only make more bold the underlying regime of strengthening, sanitizing, purifying that lies at the root of “improving” water. True, what in theory is medical-grade sodium fluoride is more often hexafluorosilicic acid—a waste product from fertilizer plants—and, yes, it is banned in Europe. Cut to a shot of an interior doorway, foggy, throbbing. The characters take turns standing there; their scrubs soon take on toxic shades. “Seven step purification process,” says the man in lime. “We filter it once, then we filter it again, then we purify it and filter it again, and filter it again, and filter it again, and then we purify it again. What’re we gonna do with all those Dead?” Unsorted parasites join the ranks of all the militants ever blotted out by American science.
In the video’s final minutes, degraded stills of contrails, dinosaurs in extremis, petrochemical spills, cracking earth and skin, are montaged to a pulsing dance track. Meanwhile, back at the increasingly bedazzled lab, a pair of interlocked green-screen G’s rotate on a platter, comped with stars or flakes. Grapes (fluoridated), germs (destroyed), gangsters (G’s?), gas (laughing)—Dean renders our seemingly pediatric trust in Government a semantic massacre.
With gossamer lyricism and cartoony glee, Australian artist Helen Johnson paints her meandering mediations in layers of figure and material, wit and research. Loose papers blow over goofy patterns and comic clips, swirling globs of paint cloud scraps of figuration, while actual clouds hide all but the pointed fingers of lithe hands with painted nails pointing out into the misty void (I opened my hand, 2014). Notes and observations are written in a loopy black cursive, mostly on the back of long, loose, unframed canvases hanging from chains. And besides the literal presence of words here, her paintings have a literary sophistication: a little urbane, wryly humored, gently absurd. Johnson paints with some of Amy Sillman’s frisky cinching of philosophy and abstraction, but this artist only dips her brush lightly into painting qua painting; the exuberant range and pastel politicking of Öyvind Fahlström is a more appropriate comparison.
Referential as hell, Johnson’s particular sources are either curiously obscure or more pointedly about Australian history and art that’s lost on American eyes. But even unread, the paths and patterns, textures and tones of all her disparate sources come together with a lissome wrist and soft-hued palette that makes its own meaning. One back canvas scrawl reads, “What does the poem think? . . . . Poetry can hardly stand the demand for clarity, the passive audience, the simple message.”
Jennifer Moon’s revolution, if not exactly televised, at least involves a few live feeds. One of two long glass cases at Equitable Vitrines, built into the lobby of Koreatown’s skyscraping Equitable Building, houses a row of flat-screen monitors linked to cameras in Moon’s apartment. “How can we really see a person?” asked Moon at a recent panel. “How can I really see myself?” Putting yourself under surveillance is certainly one approach. 24/7 views of kitchen, hallway, bedroom, bathroom (a tasteful angle), even her car, aim to strip pretense, drop guard, open the private to “unmediated” public view. On one occasion, we see the artist squat by her dog’s bowl to check her phone; on another, she belts out Katy Perry at her laptop.
Lines from Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson, Perry decorate the glass, too: a manifesto for a revolution built on pop-song love—and just as heartbreakingly hard to actualize. Around the corner, a speculative science-fair display of green poster boards illustrated with CCTV cameras and headshots of Continental philosophers argues for a “Panopticon of love.” For Moon, our own feelings of inadequacy are what trap us in tragically private lives. But the definitions of acceptable behavior vary widely—as is made clear by a plaque that reads, in part, “Jennifer has made alterations to her natural way of being out of respect for the management’s request that there be no nudity.” Would that it were so easy to retool oppression as self-scrutiny. At the far right of the posters sits the most clear formulation of Moon’s wistful philosophy of exhibitionist self-love: a cutaway model of a eukaryotic cell captioned with a little plastic tab: “Cell, please love me.” Equitable warden, please set me free.
Sergej Jensen combines beautiful treatments of tone and of texture in nine paintings, introducing figurative scenes that evoke classical canvases and etchings, and marking a successful departure from his minimal, organic geometries. Loose, honest, at times scatological in both subject and execution, figures stand in comedic regard to one another: A ghostly depicted reclining nude is rendered cartoonish by his sulking, impasto companion (Untitled, 2014); a Jesus-like character at the foot of a dying woman appears uninterested in the tragedy and the surrounding melodramatic throng (Untitled [old vs. young], 2014). In Untitled (Rave at Gallows hill), 2014, a figure squats to relieve herself in front of a statuesque Venus, creating a moment as poetic as it is cheeky.
By leaving the scaffolding of his thought process visible in the finished product—the brushwork is mediated and often deliberately unfinished—Jensen presents a clear willingness to let the work remain in a state of frank discovery: The heroic form slouches into something more human, lending the work a far more relatable touch than the images it references. This transient energy, coupled with a pastiche of Greco-Roman and pastoral imagery and impressively executed in a muted palette, creates an unexpectedly vibrant and intimate experience. At a moment when so many histories are mined via digital networks, “Classic” is refreshing in that it retains the immediacy and metamentality that we associate with contemporary life while simultaneously producing an analog affect. If to be classic is in a sense to be timeless, these are works that make a furtive appeal: How can anything belong to a time other than now?
These sculptures bend, loop, puddle, swirl, and arch in ways that are both exquisitely crafted and weirdly natural. Once I heard an earful of Alma Allen’s story, plump with struggle and shitty luck, his artwork beginning as a homeless street hustle, I understood how his gentle and enduring will shaped these works with their sensual skins and gravitational force.
For years, starting in 1993, Allen made diminutive and odd shapes carved from wood and stone, only recently adding bronze to his materials and scaling up to the multiple-tonnage range. Easily plunked into a tradition of manufacturing essential or natural forms that includes Romanian modernist Constantin Brâncuși and Japanese artist/designer Isamu Noguchi as well as mid-century gallery cohort, Californian carver J. B. Blunk, Allen’s work spaces out into another galaxy of desert psychedelia and Old West alien artifacts, that dusty weirdness that’s both ancient and futuristic.
Though the artist has wandered many places, Allen’s specific relationship to materials vibes distinctly California, the kind that only survived the hard angles of art movements after the collapse of ’60s counterculture by hiding out in a place such as Joshua Tree, where the artist lives and works in a house he designed and made himself. The tree trunk in the gallery garden droops its long head (all works Not Yet Titled, 2014) while inside a hunk of black-and-red marble on the walnut table duckbills out from smoothed asteroidal skin, and a giant, funky, bronze pickle with the dangling eye all exude an earthy aura and stoned humor still happily living on in the alien landscape and spiritual planes of the Mojave Desert.
A synthetic spot, resembling the brand color of TED Talks, holds the center of the gallery like a spotlit circle of red stage (Parenthesis [all works 2015]). Yet, as if to retract the reductive optimism of the inspirational-speaker format, this rug is branded with curly brackets. Liz Magic Laser is known for putting on bizarro versions of Western media’s discursive tropes. If TED’s chosen often exude childlike gumption, pacing across said circle in the video The Thought Leader is an actual child (Alex Ammerman). Rigged with LAV mic and sports shirt, this kid is eerily practical—as when he quips, for example, how we all want a perfect world, but your perfect world makes his impossible: “I can’t even stick my tongue out at it,” he says. Not that he loves sticking his tongue out. “But I resent systems that stop me from doing so.” He’s an actor, of course—a precocious one—but not a philosopher. Laser feeds him lines from Dostoyevsky.
Cut to a shot of the boy executing a fidgety plié. The montaged audience, meanwhile, laugh or jab out their tongues at improper times—punctuating the contrarian nature of free choice. Cast a parenthesis around (free choice) too, though.a sound work made with Rachel Mason (coming through the walls of the entrance hall, as it were) oozes dark mantras—“my mind is my own,” “miles and miles of golden sand”—drawn from the show’s second/companion video (My Mind is My Own). Here, a young girl (Ella Wilson, whose mother is a professional voice coach) leads a group of grownup actors in what the press release calls “sinister versions” of public-speaking exercises. Again, Laser’s scripting exacerbates the thought-violence of the form, using art as inspirational crowd control. Still, the “thinking actor” might reject the prompts of paid motivators.
“Variations: Conversations in and around Abstract Painting” tests the limits of abstraction’s abundance by assembling a luxurious stable of paintings, as well as videos and sculptures. Works by expected names such as Amy Sillman, Mark Bradford, Gerhard Richter, Julie Mehretu, Albert Oehlen, and Christopher Wool ground this exhibition, but it is the addition of less expected practitioners and practices that makes it particularly comprehensive and surprising.
Analia Saban’s banal and elegant marble countertop on linen, Kohler 5931 Kitchen Sink #2, 2014, Anthony Pearson’s framed pigmented Hydrocal Untitled (Plaster Positive), 2013, and Dianna Molzan’s wrapped and painted stretcher bars, Untitled, 2012, excavate painting’s sculptural repressions. Even the influence of critics and curators is made present by printing their words rather literally onto the gallery walls. By including media other than paint and canvas, “Variations” outlines a kind of expanded field for painting that continues out to evocative interlocutions in sculpture and video. A. K. Burns’s Touch Parade, 2011, a video of various banal fetish gestures, Rachel Lachowicz’s Cell: Interlocking Construction, 2010, a Lucite sculpture filled with blue cosmetic powders, or Diana Thater’s video of a hooded, perched Female Peregrine Falcon (Brook), 2012, expand the exhibition to implicate the tactile, aural, visceral, and erotic. Assembled largely from works already in or slated to join LACMA’s permanent collection, “Variations” offers a less than temporary endorsement of these objects as well as of the practices to which they metonymically link.
Andy Warhol remained cryptic about the two abstract forms—the “peak” and the “cap”—that recur throughout his Shadows, 1978–79, a sprawling installation of 102 large handpainted and silk-screened canvases, seen here in its entirety for the first time on the West coast. Their possible sources run a delightfully Warholian gamut, ranging from cardboard maquettes to the Empire State Building to erect penises. Warhol attributed the title to a photo of a shadow in his office, which he said the shapes were based on: “It’s a silkscreen that I mop over with paint,” he wrote.
The objects behind the eponymous shadows remain mysterious, but Warhol’s source of funding for the project was never in doubt. Shadows was sold to the Dia Art Foundation in 1979 for a reported $1.6 million, the same year it was first exhibited at Dia cofounder Heiner Friedrich’s gallery. And it is easy to see what attracted Friedrich: Warhol’s laconic abstraction, the subtle shifts in surface textures and images, together with the immersive quality of the installation as a whole, seems to align the canvases with the spiritually charged aesthetic associated with other grand projects of Dia’s first decade, epitomized by Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, completed in 1977.
But the spirit behind the series is more downtown than desert. Shadows’s filmstrip repetition of black silk screens against hot monochrome acrylic splits the difference between the dark, drone-based Minimalism of La Monte Young and the louche glamour, stroboscopic flash, and thump of Studio 54, an association Warhol encouraged, calling the installation “disco décor.” “This show will be like all the others,” the artist wrote a week or so after the opening of his 1976 show at Friedrich's gallery in New York magazine. “The reviews will be bad—my reviews always are. But the reviews of the party will be terrific.”