Category Archives: Artpulse

“Che Mondo at The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, “ARTPULSE Magazine. Vol. 4. No. 15. Spring 2013.

Curated by Carol Ann Klonarides, Che Mondo (What A World) at the LA Municipal Art Gallery asks, “If, in the age of omnipresent digital photography, everyone can be, and in fact is, a photographer, how does one remain a ‘Photographer’”? This exhibition points to answers by presenting artists whose photographs rely on specific material execution to claim a physical presence and inscribe conceptual meaning. The result is a truly inquisitive and captivating exhibition.

 

One alluring body of work comes from Julie Schafer whose large pinhole camera photos document landscapes marking the borders of 19th century mining zones. These works reflect one of the most basic ways of making a photograph; light passing through a tiny aperture imprints on chemically treated paper. Printed in the negative (with light areas appearing dark and vice versa), the impressively tall photographs succeed in alienating viewers from familiar bucolic scenes like piney hilltops and desert landscapes. The work is mysterious, but perhaps too much so. Schafer’s project, which interrogates the legacies of mineral extraction and removal of indigenous peoples, could use more wall text to relay the artist’s intention. Without this the work risks coming off solely as a sign of photographic virtuosity, an updated Ansel Adams shtick.

 

Christopher Russell’s work convincingly merges photography and drawing to create one-of-a-kind objects. He uses an Xacto blade to scratch into the surface of a set of identical photographs, each bearing an “oops” image of a thumb on the lens. One image contains a sinking ship, another a stream of disjunctive text, and in another, frenetic lines resemble veins or brain synapses. This mark-making violates the clean surface photographers traditionally hold sacrosanct. Through this process Russell calls attention to the way we interpret photos from subjective points of view while commenting on the frailty and latent violence that comes with fixed meaning. Russell’s installation also includes a massive but conspicuously non-photographic hand-drawn artist book containing his most recent novel. However, I wish it were easier for visitors to page through the fascinating and enormous tome, which is kept safe by a Do Not Touch sign.

 

The most powerful work in the exhibition is Susan Silton’s Color Theory, which consists of a chair facing a projector screen, which presents a never-ending loop of images emanating from an old school projector. Sitting in a single chair, one watches a slow pan of stamps taken from the artist’s grandfather’s collection from the Third Reich, each bearing the image of Adolph Hitler. This philatelist archive invites questions about collecting the past as a way to view the present. Here Hitler’s image speaks to photography’s use in propaganda, while the stamps sign to the record of a country’s official history as well as a the currency of communication. Finally the slide projector, itself all but obsolete, engenders a didactic experience. Yet what we “learn” from this set up remains elusive. The work’s cool detachment allows for self-reflection and perhaps a bit of indictment, a moment of serious rumination on the passage of time from one fascist institution to the next.

 

 

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“Alexis Smith at Honor Fraser” ARTPULSE Magazine. Vol. 4 No. 16. Summer 2013.

Alexis Smith

Slice of Life at Honor Fraser

 

Alexis Smith is an O.G. collage artist whose parings of text and image have unraveled complex narratives in viewers’ minds for nearly half a century. Her first show at Honor Fraser, Slice of Life, is a kind of retrospective of sorts, including work from as far back as the 1980s. The exhibition is a testament to Smith’s ongoing role as a keen observer of American culture, a continuing inspiration to generations of artists to come.

 

Slice of Life’s highlight is undoubtedly Past Lives, a work originating in 1989 as a collaboration with the writer Amy Gerstler. The installation takes up an entire room, filling it with a diverse collection of weathered children’s chairs, from a classic wooden rocker to a Lilliputian canvas director’s chair. As one circumnavigates the empty seats, a palpable sense of absence takes hold. Nearby, a schoolroom chalkboard bears sentences befitting an obituary headline, like, “Came to literature late.” The entire installation conjures thoughts of how indoctrination marks one from early childhood, how ideology, circumstance, and the language of control determines the roles we play in life.

 

Alexis Smith, Black and Blue for Howie Long, 1997. Mixed media collage, 29 x 19 x 4 in.  Courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery, Photo Joshua White: JWPictures.com

Alexis Smith, Black and Blue for Howie Long, 1997. Mixed media collage, 29 x 19 x 4 in.
Courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery, Photo Joshua White: JWPictures.com

Many of Smith’s works use humor as a foil to discuss issues of violence, manipulation, and American culture. This is no better seen than in a 1997 mixed media collage, “Black and Blue for Howie Long.” In this work we read the NFL player and bit actor Howie Long’s pithy quote, “ I am an artist. My art is assaulting people” written in comic sans on a large painter’s palette alongside a photograph of two men wrestling, with one head replaced by a Georgia Bulldog’s face. Continuing the sports tableau, a baseball bat and children’s toy tomahawk sit atop the palette like menacing paintbrushes. The work’s tautological wordplay ricochets around the gallery, branding the “artist” as a contextual and perhaps menacing position. Such a proposition deserves a chuckle. Yet the play of meaning doesn’t stop there. The baseball bat and tomahawk continue the chain of signification, pointing to both America’s pastime: baseball, and America’s past time: Native American history and identity and a culture relegated to sports mascots and comic caricatures. At least that’s how I see it.

 

There are equally engaging recent works in the show, like “Wild Horses,” a 2012 collage of the cover of the Patti Smith Group EP “Set Free” placed above a thrift store painting of unbridled horses in a desert landscape. Such a simple construction performs impressive and lasting tricks, riffing on questions of high and low, artistic titling, and the importance of name recognition. Its word and image play is so perverse I wish it were a billboard on Sunset Blvd.

Alexis Smith, Wild Horses, 2012. Mixed media collage, 22 x 24 in.  Courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery, Photo Joshua White: JWPictures.com

Alexis Smith, Wild Horses, 2012. Mixed media collage, 22 x 24 in.
Courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery, Photo Joshua White: JWPictures.com

 

Like Rauschenberg before her, Alexis Smith’s work, at its best, plays expertly on the precipice of communication. In her most successful works signifiers flirt with intelligibility while refusing didacticism. Smith’s constructs her signifiers with considered arrangement, with just enough connections to create an ouroboros of signs, with one image’s meaning devouring another, with no final cathartic “resolution.” The images turn back on themselves allowing for a slow-burn critique that always finds itself home in the present.

 

Tucker Neel is an artist, writer, and curator in Los Angeles. He is also the director of 323 Projects, a voicemail gallery that can be reached anytime by calling (323) 843-4652.