Surface Sounding at Seeline Gallery
By Tucker Neel
Published in ART LIES Magazine Issue No. 60 Winter 2008
To create Seeline’s Surface Sounding exhibition, the gallery’s director, Janet Levy, invited ten curators, artists and writers from Southern California to chose one artist each whose work addresses the concept of surface, a convenient theme broad enough to encompass any number of aesthetic propositions. With ten artists present and ten curators looming in the wings, it would seem impossible for Seeline, a relatively small gallery, to accommodate so much work and so many personalities without the show becoming an incomprehensible mish-mash. Thankfully, what could be a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario is in fact more like a jubilant pot-luck dinner party, with each curator bringing an artist as both date and dish.
For her selection, the curator and arts writer, Emma Gray, includes John Bucklin’s Remote Control Covered Wagon, a rickety, cobbled-together pioneer wagon with lopsided hand-crafted wheels, indented with marks from the artist’s fingers. For most of the show the pathetic-looking contraption, complete with antenna and remote control, is encased in a plexiglass vitrine on a humble plywood pedestal. But during the opening, the artist took it out for a spin, making it limp feebly along, like an injured insect, at a hobbled pace. In presenting this shoddy pioneer wagon, injected with the entertaining trappings of control, Bucklin actively proposes a witty and critical take on the legacy of manifest destiny and how such an ideology of conquest is suffused into common children’s toys, the didactic play-time tools that teach us about American history.
Injecting a welcome breath of serious ocular pleasure into the show, art critic, curator and author Shana Nys Dambrot presents viewers with three of Michael Dee’s Negative Star photographs, puzzling images of gelatinous black, purple and pink globules congealing together in richly hued constellations. The work looks almost Photoshopped, like digital pictures of glass dildos adorned with a neon glow filter. Yet to make these works, Dee bypassed the computer and instead went old-school, tweaking the Rayograph process, making images by capturing directly onto a negative, the light that passes through his signature phallic sculptures, made of iridescently hued melted whiskey tumblers. Like the objects they are made from, these sculptures, and their indexical photographs, hold an intoxicating potentiality; they are unabashedly drunk on their own beauty.
Curated by LA artist Alexandra Grant, Xana Kudrjavcev-DeMilner’s work may not be wholly radical or new, but there is something aggressively ambiguous and a little annoying in her collages. The first time I saw Kudrjavcev-DeMilner’s collages of nature photographs mixed with silhouettes of stately interiors and pictures of fabric from old fashion magazines, I admit I was overly skeptical of their message, their critical import. I thought, “Do we really need more pretty pictures made from the visual detritus of a consumer-obsessed society? What is important in this work?” There are so many other artists out there doing this kind of thing (and with greater effect) that these works, at first, seem redundant. Yet weeks later these simple collages were able to worm their way into my memory. In Standing, a stumpy surrealist figure swathed in fuchsia and bubblegum pink tweed, promenades past picturesque crashing waves on a rocky beach. The image is irksome, teetering on the brink of abstraction and filled with incongruous and peculiar elements. After trying to pick it apart for some semblance of meaning, one is left with the feeling that they have seen this all before. Upon second-glance, it becomes evident that this collage and Kudrjavcev-DeMilner’s other works in the show coyly investigate how printing techniques and photographic reproduction can stimulate memories of the past. Since her images are made entirely from magazine clippings from the 1960s and 1970s, they inspire a sort of Kodachrome nostalgia, a rumination on a color-saturated past and the shifting sign value of increasingly outdated technologies.
Lisa Melandri, a curator always willing to embrace the absurd and irrational, chose to exhibit A Brief History of the World, a creepy and entertaining work by Bill Kleiman. The piece consists of a hand-made white-on-yellow star-burst tessellation embedded with resin and cat hair, ripped open to reveal red-hot neon camouflage that oozes out a sludgy green hand with elongated fingers, that masquerade as paint drips. This hand plops lumpy rubbery blobs into a complementary outstretched appendage atop a pile of tiny black and white felt clippings, arranged on a puddle-shaped mirrored shelf. Like any hyphen and comma-laden description of it, A Brief History of the World, is absolutely ludicrous and over-the-top, a creepy crafty meditation on absurdity. Maybe it’s that the piece is from 2003 when the US began its illegal war in Iraq, but Kleiman’s conglomeration of loaded signifiers: fiery camo print, Islamic tessellations, zombie hands and reflective surfaces, all lean towards a possible critique of current events, war, and what happens when one’s creations get out of control.
When one or two curators select dozens of works for a group show it’s easy to overlook unfortunate choices and confusing conceptual pairings. But in a show like Surface Sounding there’s really no room for error. Here the act of curatorial choice is put under a microscope for close examination. Each work on display is intimately tied not just to its creator, but also to the curator who, with a Midas-like touch, chose it for exhibition. In a situation like this, the relationship between curator and artist (and gallery for that matter) is revealed as intimate, almost symbiotic. And while that revelation may not be a new one, it’s at least refreshing to see this intimacy play out in the open for all who care to see.