Forty years ago, Robert and Mimi Melnick published a peculiar photographic study, Manhole Covers of Los Angeles. Drawn to the decorative patterns of industrially forged steel, the Melnicks’ mixed aesthetic appreciation of folk industrial traditions with archaeological rigor. Twenty-four years later, Steve McQueen embarked on an analogous study of the gutter barriers of Paris, culminating in the photographic series “Barrage,” 1998, which is on view as part of his latest exhibition. Here, McQueen focused on the improvised cloth bundles deployed by street sweepers to redirect the city's effluent. Fashioned from discarded towels, carpets, and other cast-off materials, the barriers bespoke a history of degraded cotton, cigarettes, and rubble. When illuminated by McQueen’s flash, the photos elicit a criminological tint, as if the barriers themselves were wrapped corpses subjected to the most horrific violence.
The second half of the exhibition shows McQueen’s hypnotizing triptych Drumroll, 1998. With two cameras positioned at the sides of an oil drum and another in the middle, Drumroll records an endlessly rotating panorama in mid Manhattan. Conceptually similar to Gabriel Orozco's Yielding Stone, 1992, where the artist rolled a malleable ball of Plasticine through the streets of New York. Just as Orozco’s ball accumulated the dust and grime of the street, McQueen’s oil drum yields to the street’s sights and sounds: horns, steam, and other street-level noise. As the oil drum both impedes and propels movement, McQueen is heard apologizing throughout, “Watch out, miss, watch out . . . excuse me, excuse me.” Notably, with every rotation of the central camera, the projected image consumes the very ground upon which it is placed, whereas the two adjacent projections, facing out to street-level traffic, articulate a panorama with no fixed horizon line. The cumulative effect is vertiginous, both groundless and unstable. It is these two views of the street—a revolving panorama in Drumroll, and debased cloth bundles in “Barrage”— where the labors of the street are cast awry.
Over several weeks, artist Miljohn Ruperto worked with animator Aimée de Jongh and neuroscientist Rajan Bhattacharyya to turn one long wall in the darkened gallery into a digitized mineral room—eight weird specimens have been rendered as if floating inside small caves in a row of monitors. One striking example resembles a human heart, bulging with red and blue in writhing, severed tubes. Another suggests a peyote button; another, a jellyfishall beam the aura of mysterious deep-earth organs. Each stone has been sketched, colorized, and animated into two jittering, faux-3-D frames. The animations twitch and glow. Between the hand-inked lines and LCDs, there is as much dissonance as magic. Ruperto has previously used a similar process in collaboration with photographer Ulrik Heltoft to “resurrect” the alien plants illuminating a fifteenth-century manuscript. Yet here with such wild subjects presumably extant and available, the translation from the radiant rocks of Ruperto’s source material to flat, hairy cartoons seems underwhelming, and almost alchemically obscure.
The exhibition’s title echoes the philosopher Georges Canguilhem, who writes that, in nature, “there are no mineral monsters.” In other words, taxonomy (like aesthetics) is a human invention. In generating his fantastic geological outliers, however, Ruperto routes his work around hard science entirely—testing not for chemistry but for “feelings” of revulsion or attraction. And while if pressed, a specialist might unpack the specific processes behind these curiosities, Ruperto and company strip away all paratext, all index, and all qualification, offering only hovering images. This show presents the end of a line of pure attraction linking spelunker to artist to animator to viewer. Thus utilized, Ruperto's samples disrupt the procedures of their discipline—suggesting, simply, that aesthetics transcends the training that would rationalize one classification over another—until the rock hound who tags these rocks as freaks might as well be an artist.
Dubbed the “Empress of Modest Propaganda” in the 2014 Whitney Biennial catalog, Lisa Anne Auerbach has been at the center of an alt-publishing mini-empire since 2004, when she first added a knitting machine to her existing practice as photographer and printer, and began pursuing the politics of consciousness via rabble-rousing sweaters, placards, printed matter, and zines. All of the above are represented in this jam-packed survey, “Spells," the irrepressible results of a free-running experiment in non-mass media and communication.
Everywhere, there is text: tapestry-size banners catalog real and imagined hashtags and the declarations of psychics; sixty-inch “megazines” offer travel notes and lovely, large-format photographs of soul-crushingly ugly megachurches. There are enough declarative woolens to fill a walk-in closet, including Oops! Toxic B.S., 2014, a fetching, Britney Spears–themed pantsuit with “Work!” and “Bitch!” stitched into either butt cheek. Self-publishing is always also a form of disclosure for Auerbach, whose plainspoken, caustic sense of humor establishes a consistent tone and highlights her intensely personal engagement with the materials. The knitted banner The Natural World, 2014, invites the viewer to become a reader and, in the process, a psychic detective, piecing together a biography by way of bibliography. Totemic black cats watch from the shadows.
The exhibition’s title alludes to Auerbach’s long-standing interest in witchy, performative uses of text across multiple media. By transposing hashtags, dumb jokes, and the campaign slogans of yesteryear into durable machine-knit textiles, Auerbach invests these fleeting bits of language with a jarring sense of keepsake gravitas and timelessness. It’s a sleight of hand as much temporal as textual, a bend in time that happens when otherwise hasty words stick around for a spell.
More than a few tales tangle and collide in the hallowed half-light of Edgar Arceneaux’s Gesamtkunstwerk about the depths and vanity of human endeavor. All the disparate elements coalesce around Martin Luther King’s life and death. Amid theatrical tableaux walled by wood palettes, translucent mirrors, sundry wall works, and a feature-length video, Arceneaux’s installation pivots conceptually on the last major speech King gave against Vietnam and the perilous power of technology. This premise unfurls to include the coincidence of his assassination two days before the premier of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the auctioning of King’s Nobel medallion and bible against the strong wishes of at least some of his family; and two letters, one anonymously sent by J. Edgar Hoover intending to guilt King into suicide for the shame of his sexual infidelities, and another from Dr. Bernice A. King protesting the auction.
Sound from the film A Time to Break Silence, 2014, screened in a second room, bleeds throughout the exhibition. Composed by Underground Resistance—forceful players from the Detroit techno scene—their shimmying, militant, and dystopian dance music interweaves with a recording of MLK’s speech while onscreen, a Space Odyssey ape-man throws stones in the crumbling nave of Detroit’s Ste. Anne’s Church. Each coincidence collapses into the next, all leading from the dreams of the past and the potential ruination of our future with Detroit as the small stage for a civilization’s struggle. Though sometimes bewildering, Arceneaux’s grand vision coheres and contains just enough dark, dirty, funky, sinister, heartbreaking force to earn the redemptive potential it slyly offers in its shadows and reflections.
For those seeking a certain intimacy in the evidence of imperfection, the smallest Mark Grotjahn show of the year will disappoint. As in the artist’s 1997 to 2008 “Butterfly” series, the two new bronze sculptures on view at South Willard derive depth from distance, from surfaces made trenchant by implied restraint. Cast from repurposed cardboard boxes that once packaged DeWalt power tools, the blocky heads with bewildered-looking incised mouths and tubular noses are part of a family of work that was at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas earlier this year. Installed here on pedestals at roughly eye level, each piece has the bulk of an industrial washing machine; together the pair weighs nearly half a ton.
Untitled (Top and Interior Gates, DeWalt Mask M33.c) and Untitled (Top and Exterior Gates, DeWalt Mask M33.e), both 2014, retain the practical byproducts of the foundry process usually removed during polishing: a cage of sprues and vents for molten metal (exterior on one mask and interior on the other) and bent nails to keep the silica sand casing from slipping. Instead of patina or paint, or even a spit-shine, the sides are mottled with traces of the mold itself, wormed with the creases of the burnt-out box. Leaving the finish alone is effort, of course, and besides the large masks were actually cast in pieces and welded together, a lot of heat to approximate accident.
“New Gravity,” it seems, is not so grave as the old stuff. Curated by Olivian Cha and Eli Diner, this show fields interventions by seven artists that—rather than programmatically deconstructing their context, as might be expected of a previous generation—engage the gallery in playful, even decorative ways.
A series of “Fluorescent Fittings” by Chadwick Rantanen, for example, augment one room’s lighting fixtures with cutesy plastic extensions from Beehive/Black to Birds and Bunnies/White, 2014. Elsewhere, Rantanen jams the gap between two standard wall works by Frank Benson and Oliver Payne with an “expressive” ribbon of carbon fiber. It hardly bears repeating that art follows a set of conventions—cool or daylight bulbs, rectangles in frames—and that these clichés might be poked or embellished. Far more interesting to cut chaos with elegant, existential wit. For her contribution, Kitty Kraus embedded an incandescent lightbulb in a block of inked ice, which then leaked a black electric puddle through the scores in the concrete floor. Liquid pools under a window, leaving rings as it dries, sinking any comment on the architecture to ground level.
Mahony wages a similar entropy against the white cube: Directly inside the entrance, a wide pile of granulated cork offers surprisingly springy footing, before being tracked through the gallery like high-end dirt. Weirder still to deny physics outright—or at least use art as an exit strategy. Payne’s pair of trompe l’oeil murals—in the fine style of painting as window—offers views of the show, between the gallery rooms, as if through a linked portal. Here the reference isn’t to Vermeer so much as Valve, the game developer behind the Portal puzzle franchise. The new gravity seems strongest where the reconfigured tropes of high art manage to re-ascend, despite themselves, into a profound register—aided by whatever tweaks to traditional, weighty angst.
Even now, the electronic mandalas and digital cross-stitch of Stan VanDerBeek’s “Poemfields,” 1966–71, projected onto the gallery’s felicitously high walls, flow with hypnotic, immersive energy. It’s difficult to imagine what early audiences, unaccustomed to computer graphics, must have made of them or, as VanDerBeek would have put it, how they experienced them. Digital patterns pulsate and scroll as words appear singly and in pairs; gnomic phrases materialize from the high-key geometric flux, then dissolve back into it, blurring distinctions between background and foreground, text and image.
VanDerBeek produced these bewitching short films—on view is Poemfield No.1–No.3, No.5, and No.7, the first of which has been restored in high-definition and exhibited here for the first time—with Bell Labs engineer Ken Knowlton using Beflix, a first-generation graphics programming language that worked by generating dense mosaics of keyboard symbols and type. The series marks a shift for VanDerBeek, a once-underground filmmaker, toward what he called an “expanded cinema” and the beginning of an intense period of collaborative experimentation conducted at the porous edge between high art and advanced telecommunications. VanDerBeek worked in emergent media with a revolutionary zeal, but he was also ambivalent, convinced that technology was dangerously outpacing humanity’s understanding of its uses and consequences. It’s worth remembering that VanDerBeek’s artist residency at Bell Labs—the epicenter and incubator of the Information Age—amounted to an emergency intervention: In 1965, the artist called for urgent research into an “international picture-language” capable of connecting the world in a satellite-linked “culture-intercom.” The “Poemfields” were meant as prototypes for this new computer-enabled medium of optical communication, one short “step away from mental movies,” as VanDerBeek wrote of them, “samples of the art of the future.”
In “MAN'S BEST FRIEND,” KAWS, aka graffiti artist turned animator turned mass-productionist Brian Donnelly, has reimagined some of his invented characters (such as the Dilly Bar–like Warm Regards, which also resembles a googly-eyed steaming poop emoji on a stick, and KAWSBOB, a KAWSified version of SpongeBob SquarePants with X-shaped pupils) as supporting actors in a cast largely dominated by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Here, composite representations of these beings appear together or alone through installations of shaped canvas, sculpture, and mural-sized painting as well as fifty framed works on paper. Versions of Snoopy—cropped, blown up, and retaining the integrity of Schulz's sketchy yet deliberate line quality—repeat across a grid of canvases, while the cartoon dog’s outline elsewhere informs the shapes of brightly colored canvases.
It is helpful when viewing these works to keep in mind that KAWS also owned a store in Tokyo called OriginalFake, which sells toys, clothing, and decorative objects designed by the artist himself. Fakes of the originals, the works featured in “Man’s Best Friend” neither parody nor mimic iconic images; rather, they become elements layered like sentences within a larger story—with KAWS emulating the crossover appeal of artists such as Jeff Koons. In “MAN'S BEST FRIEND,” Snoopy’s cultural ubiquity comes to represent much of what KAWS’s guerrilla practice of art-making achieves. KAWS is a skater at heart.
When the dealer’s away, the art will play. Freedman and Fitzpatrick are out of town for Tobias Madison’s latest exhibition, but “the keys to the gallery can be picked up at Hollywood Smokes” next door. Meanwhile this artist’s crew of mummified rod-and-gauze figures, produced for the show, has replaced human art workers—shuffling, stacking, and checking in their overlords’ absence. The gallery storage, crated art, and other gear have been scooted to the back of the space and sealed behind Plexiglas. Sheet plastic smeared with dried iodine hangs from the rafters like some shredded surgical tent. The gangly, skeletal sculptures seem to tend other, less anthropomorphic works: a big wad of gauze blackened with iodine; a “tide pool” of shredded cables and steel sheathing, gurgling in a chemical puddle. Like zombies in a zoo, Madison’s undead creations go about their motionless business of “being seen.” Two mummies start up a metal staircase to nowhere. One raises a pair of pipe “binoculars,” as if seeing back.
Most of the gallery, though, has been pinched into unusable spaces by a giant angular build-out (three white walls that seem by all appearances natural parts of the building), which is fine, because except for the back enclosure, the gallery is bare. The dry, “intervening” conceptual wedge on the one hand, the messy tableau on the other, skew the gallery’s usual “operative” back- and front-room balance. The hospital-smelling mummies are a transparent parody of the labor behind the gallery’s operations—for example, the periodic reshuffling of the walls—but also the main event: art and handlers in one. It’s a testament to a kind of cultivated opacity that, even depopulated, still seems to maintain function: the impression that something is happening even when nothing is.
In a dark room at Chateau Shatto, the installation Endless Columns (all works 2014)—a carved-Styrofoam, faux–Art Deco ornament designed after a salvaged MGM Grand ashtray on which it rests—is lit with projected moving lines that trace its ziggurat-like form. Mirrors above and below the work as well as lining the walls of the room multiply the totemic shape, producing a flattened hierarchy between reflection and structure. Cayetano Ferrer, who grew up in Las Vegas and made a patchwork floor of casino carpeting for the 2012 “Made in L.A.” show at the Hammer Museum, rearranges the stylistic elements that surround gaudiness, where artifice is so accentuated and superfluous that it has become an end in itself instead of a representational device.
Another polystyrene tower, Infinite Screen Wall, stretches from floor to ceiling and is laced with green neon tubes, and as with every good fiction, it is both overarching and punctured. The work separates a pile of plaster tiles that will be restacked every day of the exhibition by the gallery staff from a series of rectangular consoles on steel bases (Quarry Composite). These pieces are part marble and part linoleum with print matched to the natural stone, layering the appearance of the thing over the thing itself, as Ferrer has in the past with street signs and billboards wrapped in the image of the horizon behind them. Ferrer’s gift is that he reconfigures not space but gilding. And maybe that is the idea behind his exaggerated illusionism—to dismantle the pretenses inherent in what presents itself as natural.
“32 Leaves, I don’t, The Face of Smoke,” artist and writer JPW3’s solo debut, is premised on the presence and absence of sound. The exhibition is split into two areas: Outside the gallery, the artist has created a Japanese-style teahouse in which he has placed a sculpture with the egg-carton texture of anechoic foam. The “foam” has been made in popcorn kernels and then cast in aluminum, a material choice that reverses the chamber’s function from absorbing sound to reverberating it. Within the gallery, a loud sound track sends a racket of bangs and scrapes, a cartoonish whoosh through a space filled with five monolithic sculptures that approximate the form of an abstracted race car. To make these, the artist began with aluminum frames and then dipped each in colorful wax. On the walls are several large-scale works on canvas that have been painted with a thick wax and embedded with layers of receipts, tuning forks, rolling papers, and detritus from his studio.
The artist makes much of his work out of wax, which has formal and conceptual resonance: It’s known for its plasticity—the substance molds to temperature as definitely as sound defines itself against ambient noise—and as recording medium, the material out of which early vinyl records were pressed. In fact, JPW3’s vocabulary here is almost entirely rooted in sound and heat, getting at the connective friction between those two elements. Race-car driver Ayrton Senna, popcorn, and Zig-Zag rolling papers are recurring motifs. In the back of the gallery, a large electric cooker has been filled with wax and then popcorn and a tire rim. It’s heated during the day and then turned off to harden each night. JPW3 lays his work out like an arrangement of notes and rests, individual pieces reverberating off each other to reach a harmonic whole.
On Sayre Gomez’s Instagram, in a shot of his latest solo effort, “Im Different,” a visitor bends down to clean up his dog’s poop. It’s easy to see how a dog could get confused: Sprinkled across Ghebaly’s spacious main gallery, like a kind of attitudinal filler, is a thin layer of dark, trashy mulch. The spread is studded with toxicologically painted fake rocks, hiding speakers (Hypnotic Presence of Popular Music in Southern California, 2014), each leaking out pop hip-hop hits—not least of which is 2 Chainz’s “I’m Different.” This ironical dawg park declares this exhibition “different” from your traditional bleached-white painting show, while clumping together Gomez’s disparate production: paintings from several series, banners by Chicago designers Struggle Inc., a pair of coffee-table sculptures—the mulch adding “substance” to works otherwise united mostly by style.
In the gallery’s mulchless second room, a salvaged window set into an interior wall (Uww (Untitled Window Work), 2011/2014) dates the trajectory common to Gomez’s past several shows: a “window” motif, also represented in Thief Painting in Violet over Orange, which shows a pair of white gloves raising a sash from the inside a house, or Untitled Painting, both 2014. One might think of Gomez’s ten large vertical canvases as themselves “window-like”—a toss to pictorial tradition, or to the picture-dense windows of the Internet (which—besides the airbrush—is seemingly Gomez’s main tool). The moody reiteration of found images, like the hands or a dewy brush line (Untitled Painting and Untitled Painting, II, both 2014), approaches a kind of souled mass production. But this hazy intensity is dispelled, if not effaced, by the posturing evident in works like Bench with Figure (Angst model) in Cerulean, a knockoff-Klein-blue mannequin observing the field of mulch. Though its self-consciously “different” setup is, in its painfully contemporary way, nothing new, this is no plain-old painting show. Indeed, the mannequin seems to stare longingly at the wall, toward distant paintings hung like windows above a crapscape of cool.
“Amboy,” Cologne-based Conceptualist Frances Scholz’s first major solo exhibition in Los Angeles consists of little more than a press release, two five-minute videos—ostensibly, the trailers for a documentary film about an artist named Amboy—and a set of five relatively small photographs of Amboy, California, an unincorporated town located in the Mojave Desert. Working with these modest fragments Scholz stages a provocative critique of contemporary art stardom as transacted in the sunlit glare of LA, the epicenter of our most potent mythologies, tall tales and shared hallucinations. In one of them, an artist named Frances Scholz visits the city in order to make a film on the (genuinely fascinating) life of Lydia van Vogt, widow of science-fiction author A. E. van Vogt. But Scholz soon abandons that project, we learn, detoured by the story of Amboy, an artist “you haven’t heard of,” (according to the press release) whose turbulent absence and mercurial afterimage are at the center of this confounding installation.
The frame narrative is pure hooey of course, the first in a cascading series of densely intertextual red herrings deployed by Scholz, not the least of which is the eponymous Amboy, a thinly veiled Hollywood stand-in for the late LA-based artist Jason Rhoades, whose volcanic talent turned the American low-cult lore of violence, cocaine, straight sex, and salvaged thrills into an obsessive, polymorphous visual language for contemporary art. An immediately recognizable Paul Giamatti plays Amboy as self-destructive art monster and redneck Trimalchio, consuming and regurgitating all in unholy communion with the image flow that surrounds him. Scholz ironically evokes and pays tribute to Amboy/Rhoades’s gargantuan, fan-boy extroversion, then compresses it into a bleak joke without a punch line, a self-reflexive knot of parallel histories, alternate geographies, and unsettling slippages between the fake reality conjured by “Amboy” and the real, fake world just outside.
Watching the recent digital restoration of Bruce Conner’s thirty-six-minute film Crossroads, 1976, which depicts 1946 footage of the first underwater atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll, is a vertiginous experience of telescoping back in time. Conner obtained this government-shot film from the U.S. National Archives and with minimal interventions (editing and, most notably, the addition of music), turned it into a resonant meditation on the apocalyptic sublime, rendering the familiar nuclear mushroom cloud strange again. The mushroom cloud is one of Conner’s signature images, appearing in A Movie, 1958, and briefly in Cosmic Ray, 1961, as well as in his collage works and drawings, some of which are also on display here.
Repetition is key to the film’s power. With the introduction of each new shot—a placid seascape dotted with ships—we wait, anticipating the explosion. The alternation between aerial views and straight-on shots provides a variety of perspectives, so that each eruption is astonishing in a different way. With his characteristically sharp eye (a found-footage pioneer, he was one of the first to appreciate the anonymous stylistics of educational and industrial films), Conner foregrounds the tension between the terror of the event and the involuntary beauty of the footage, with its organic shapes in motion and extremely subtle gradations of light and dark. The original electronic musical score by Patrick Gleeson (in the first half of the film) and Terry Riley (in the second half) provides two contrasting aural perspectives. Presented on a giant thirty-five-foot screen in a spacious dark room with four benches, this is an exemplary model of what contemporary digital moving image restoration and exhibition can achieve.
California is facing one of the most severe droughts in its history. While Los Angeles appeals for conscientious sprinkler use and reduced car washing, Howard Fried’s Sociopath quietly waters the sidewalk outside of the gallery in which it is installed. First shown in 1983, the work consists of a two-tiered sink that dispenses tap water from its perched faucet to the trough of a precarious plywood platform and a series of irrigation pipes that traverse the gallery floor and walls. Embodying a kind of empty functionality, the pipelines run seamlessly with the industrial framework of the gallery. This integration of extant architecture might recall earlier modes of institutional critique, but here, vectorial vents, rafters, and plumbing create something like a diagrammatic drawing—in three dimensions. If one finds this use of water objectionable, perhaps its sociopathic temerity is a challenge to the authenticity of eco-consciousness and other fashionable modes of activism that often take place in the virtual communities of social media. What is the role of political provocation in our current social landscape—both online and off?
Fried imbricates virtual community with personal memory in The Decomposition of My Mother’s Wardrobe, 2104—an extended performance-based work, temporarily manifested in four garment-filled clothing racks installed in a back room. After completing a questionnaire surveying color and pattern preferences, participants are given a unique combination of garments based on a computer algorithm that has processed their responses. These are not gifts. All recipients must agree to partake in a set of activities while wearing the clothing: taking photographs of predetermined spaces (e.g., the window next to where the clothing is kept) and attending a “celebratory event” in an undetermined time and place in the future. Here, the object of art engages a mode of speculation counter to commodity exchange and financial markets, entering instead into a discursive and even playful form of the social contract.
Instead of machined planes packing neat hunks of rot, Max Hooper Schneider favors rigs of steel chain, meat hooks, and C-clamps—dangling everything from neon drawings in Plexiglas to a resin model of a human spine. Paul Thek it ain’t. Schneider’s grotesque displays graft found or synthesized organics to factory supports, such as Precor Crocodilian 9.1, (all works cited 2014) a faux crocodile-hide belt retrofitted to a treadmill, or Genus Watermeloncholia, a square biomelon in a vitrine, beeping bummed messages on a little screen. The exhibition serves as a junk store for failed experiments; the works, creatures penned in limbo. It’s “The Pound,” after all—a title that suggests a nominalized, tenderizing punch or British currency or the place where puppies go to die. Dark no matter how you slice it.
Take Aral Spring Trolley, for example, an aquarium in a popcorn machine that has been filled to capacity with an invasive species of freshwater snail. This spawning, cannibal swarm is beautiful mostly in a mindlessly proliferating, bio-centric sense—not, so much, on art’s ageless terms. (For that, Schnieder provides a handful of lysergic doodles in pen and enamel—cell-like, microscopically enhanced.) The artist’s humor is cut with a sense of doom: In CH59X Plasma Panderer, a pelvis lolls awkwardly against its glass tank; the greasy red embalming fluids (a mix of pig blood, human blood, human bone powder, and alcohol) really do sting the nostrils of the living. In the corner is The Conk, where a pile of broken cinderblocks and dirt grows bent rebar, waving softly, stonily, like sea grass. Goofy, pathetic, hyperbolic, and desperate—like ugly puppies—these are artworks that maybe, queasily, will haunt our dreams forever, but that only their maker could love.
In a dark and cushioned gallery, Yuri Ancarani’s trilogy of short films La malattia del ferro (The Disease of Iron), 2010–12, plays on a seamless loop. Each lush 35-mm segment focuses on an “unseen” form of labor, reveling in the dexterity of machine-amplified human bodies: the micro movements of a da Vinci surgical machine inside the abdomen of a patient; the macro movements of two excavators with enough force to break a mountain into slabs, directed by the flicks and waves of a quarry chief; and the human movements of submarine sailors systematically manipulating the ergonomic suits and bulkheads and diving bells that house them at deadly depths.
Throughout, Ancarani’s camera marvels at technologized, ultra-human extensions of labor. What is shown is no mean “work” but is in fact highly specialized, not to mention dangerous. Lurking under the smooth cinematography is the sense that the slightest error could be catastrophic: death by crushing for the sub crew or il capo, peritonitis for the patient under the da Vinci. This thrill—that such precision can be accomplished with an alien-looking apparatus—is paralleled in the apparent mastery of the filmmaker over his own, lensed extension. As his subjects go beyond their normal abilities, the artist sees as never before.
At the same time, Ancarani’s films indulge in a technohumanist vein—in shots of the quarry chief’s dense, glossy chest hair, or in a sequence where the robosurgeon’s servos cycle through their range of articulation. Never mind that the doctor-operator almost certainly makes more than the quarry foreman—the value placed, seemingly, on mechanical sophistication over bodily risk. Surplus value be damned. Labor here obeys a “beautiful choreography.” Il capo stabs a stub-fingered hand into the air, stopping the excavator’s claw. A sci-fi sound track sucks and groans as the da Vinci plunges into the abdomen, into the frame.
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.”
“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.