This fifty-year survey of Peter Alexander’s resin works demonstrates how immaculately a synthetic material can distill natural phenomena into discrete objects—tall, vertical colored wedges that fade into transparency pay homage to the lightening of deep bodies of water near the surface, while the nebulous, yellow-and-purple gradations inside a translucent cube evoke a sunset over a stormy sea, as in the aptly titled Small Cloud Box, 1966.
With the show’s earliest pieces dating back to the mid-1960s, at the heart of Alexander’s special effects is the Southern California legacy of Light and Space. In the slickness and clarity of their surfaces, his simple geometric solids use reflection, iridescence, color, and distortion to radiate their own light, often in rosy shades of pink and gold. They play with our perceptions, obfuscating such basic physical properties as density and shape. The gradual thinning at the edges of simple wall-mounted works is so subtle that they appear to blur into a surreal haze, the kind that leads to a lot of squinting and eye rubbing. Two pieces, 5/6/16 (Lime Green Box), 2016, and 9/16/14 (Flo Yellow Tablet), 2014, seem to diverge from these natural references to explore newly formulated urethanes in electric colors with an uncanny ability to absorb light. This matte, opaque cube and wedge are so densely pigmented that they absorb the visibility of their own edges, and all the eye registers are blocks of color in space, geometric black holes, or creamy mint green and neon yellow. While much has changed in LA since the beginning of the artist’s career, the primordial resonance of these works, even in his oldest pieces, endures, much like with the cinematically sunny skies they've been modeled after.
Two thick brown, purple, and green globs of oil paint are dolloped onto the top half of a small white canvas—the word “erotic” is outlined in red below. Next to it are similarly sized paintings emblazoned with the words “seiki” (“genitals” in Japanese), “weich” (“soft” in German) and “fanny flange” (British slang for “clitoris”), each painted with a different treatment. One riffs on the iconic, masculine-identified Jackson Pollock drip, while another suggests a labyrinthine pocket of vulvic space. These are just a few of the one thousand paintings that make up Betty Tompkins’s series “Women Words, Phrases, and Stories,” 2011–16, which debuted earlier this year at the Flag Art Foundation. Culled from responses to two e-mails from Tompkins calling for “words that describe women,” the diminutive paintings are installed in close-hanging clusters on three large walls in the back gallery here. The weight and constant flow of this language—much of which is derogative in tone—is enough to dizzy. In scope and arrangement, Tompkins provides us with a crowd-sourced temperature read on how we’re doing with misogyny (spoiler alert: not good).
Also on view is a small selection of older drawings, as well as a fair representation of more recent paintings from such ongoing series as “Cunt,” 2003–, and “Pussy,” 2011–. Most of these are more intimately scaled than the early monumental “Fuck” paintings, 1969–, for which the artist is perhaps best known, doing away with some of the optic strangeness of those works and replacing it with something similar to, but not quite like, eroticism.
Three large flat-screen televisions are placed diagonally across the wooden floors, imitating the playful actions one encounters in Kenneth Tam’s three-part single-channel video installation The Loving Cup, 2016. The cup runneth over, as visitors encounter a generous and inviting social dynamic with a group of ethnically diverse men––strangers—who must physically and psychologically engage with each other through a series of activities across all three videos. Tam questions the normative scripts of interaction between men by asking them to slow dance, poke, and tickle one another or to make noises and ride each other like ponies. They frolic with balloons, which are also used as makeshift body gear for sumo wrestling, and even perform an improvised dance routine. Much of their behavior resembles that of boys playing childish games at a birthday party. Indeed, the props given to them by the artist evoke this nostalgic environment, with “Happy Birthday” balloons and gift-wrapped presents, mostly set up within domestic interiors.
Lining the otherwise bare walls is a series of four small ink-jet prints, titled “Champagne 1–4,” 2016, where two gentlemen embrace underneath a frozen waterfall of champagne, suggestive of a decontextualized sporting victory. While Tam offers scenes that confuse masculinity, femininity, and boyhood to explore vulnerability and athleticism through discomfort, his subjects are also noticeably having a good deal of fun. As if performing the theories of Judith Butler, these men explore the discursive limits of sex within a framework reminiscent of Augusto Boal’s theater of the oppressed: On their own stage, they have the ability to observe and free themselves, and also the world around them.
As traditions pass through generations, forms and functions change, but what develops is heritage. It may start with learning a skill: weaving, for instance. With time, practice, and technological and cultural advancements, skills can render new imaginings, such as the gauze pillars, phallic paintings on linen, and abstract sculptural totems in this exhibition.
With work from Lenore Tawney, Tanya Aguiñiga, and Loie Hollowell, this show represents a very specific history and pedigree: the woman weaver. All of these artists inherited a penchant for using fiber to address the body, and are thus here intertwined despite the formal distinctions among the fruits of their labors. Hollowell’s “Lingam” oil paintings, 2016, reference the Hindu symbol of generation—the phallus—and the Bauhaus’s influence on fiber arts. In Hollowell’s versions, the shaft is turned sideways in a never-ending loop, balancing the verticality of Tawney’s linen thread weavings. Tawney’s Orinoco, 1967, Spirit River, 1966, and The Megalithic Doorway, 1963, are lingams themselves, columns of light in the form of open weft towers. Aguiñiga completes the circle: male, female, and nonconforming are united in an installation of fifteen mixed-media sculptures. Figures such as Beasts of Burden and Structures of Oppression hang next to the series “Gynic Dispossession” and Agamic Senescent—all made this year. These organic forms are suspended by rope, displaced identities floating beside one another. The arrangement evokes an unseen presence that winds around and through the work, an amniotic fluid keeping it all afloat.
With meaning braided among the works and the artists, “3 Women” upends any linear art-history narrative. There is no first or last; all three support one another, and, as Roger Ebert wrote of Robert Altman’s great film from which the show takes its name, “Like many dreams, it ends without concluding.”
Barbara Kasten’s photographs and moving images have a lot to say about the relationships between perception and physical reality, and even the complicated dialogue between an image and its author. The oldest works in the show, “Constructs LB 1-6,” 1982, are small color Polaroid prints, which vibrantly record the artist’s previous installations composed of geometric objects, light, and shadow. Though not wholly abstract, the compositions feel theatrical and painterly while emphasizing contrast, spatial volume, and a lack of recognizable hierarchy.
The images in the 2016 series “Elementals” are the newest in the show and also the largest. Their shapes, made of everyday materials such as Plexiglas and cardboard, seem at once familiar and monumental, while their rough-hewn surfaces drive home a sense of materiality. Remarkably, capturing 3-D space on a flat plane seems to expand one’s view of the elements within the frame, strengthening the visual relationships among them.
This is also true of the series “Double Negatives,” 2012–16, comprising gelatin prints of common household window screens, rendered fantastical by the wavy effects of light and the illusive reversal of positive and negative space. Strangely, that ill-defined concept of the picturesque comes to mind here, not as a Romantic ideal, but perhaps as a way of acknowledging these exploratory, imperfect arrangements as somewhere between beautiful and sublime.
As you enter this space, your senses are bombarded by Alex Da Corte’s scrambled, saturated landscape. A supersized witch’s hat fills the first area, lit by green and red neon from above. This is flanked by a stained-glass window depicting a red rose, referencing Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and a floor-to-ceiling, blown-up image of a weeping bridesmaid. The exhibition is like a dream: Recognizable elements are mashed together, but something is off, and it gradually morphs into a surreal nightmare.
The gallery buzzes with sound from three video works—the focal point of the second room—depicting a handsome proxy for the artist unflinchingly performing unpleasant tasks, such as snorting up a raw egg for A Season in Hell, 2012. These actions are shown in slow motion, creating sounds of continuous anticipation. They also feature brightly colored, pastel sets and wardrobe, mimicking the static staging of some weird children’s science-class project or a YouTube tutorial. The three installations, each pumped with a discrete scent, can and should be viewed as separate but related ecologies. The show comes together as a sort of pained smile, a poppy front for more sinister intentions. Perhaps the final room best exemplifies this: Bathed in purple light, plush hamburger bean-bag stools function as seats from which to view the video A Night in Hell, Part II, 2014, depicting a looping scene of a burning mummy falling across a theater curtain.
This image on endless replay complements the perverse humor running throughout the exhibition. Da Corte plays with the weight, pacing, and scale of objects and images both conceptually and formally, queering their presences and relationships to one another and to the viewer.