Category Archives: Painting

“Helen Rebekah Garber: Spells, Spires, and Other Delicate Business,” ARTPULSE Magazine,Vol. 4 . no. 14Winter 2013

“Helen Rebekah Garber: Spells, Spires, and Other Delicate Business” ARTPULSE Magazine,Vol. 4 . no. 14Winter 2013.

by Tucker Neel

Humans have constantly employed meditative and repetitive actions to create immersed states that signal towards a profound desire to escape from the constrictions of embodied corporeality; the oppressiveness of being stuck in a body that must constantly face its own limitations is quite a bummer. The recent work in Helen Rebekah Garber exhibition, “Spells, Spires, and Other Delicate Business, fits perfectly within this precedent, presenting a palimpsest of transcendental referents that speak to more than the sum of their parts.

Impressive, heavily impastoed paintings are the highlight of Garber’s show. Each consists of a basic phallic form circumscribing various geometric patterns referencing meditative and metaphysical precedents. Walking among these works, one is confronted with a barrage of geometric quotations lifted from diverse sources, from the staccato incising on Central African Lulua Masks to the interlacing patterns emblazoned on religious vestments in Byzantine mosaics. While some of Garnder’s works do employ direct references to classic Christian depictions of the Madonna and Child, her paintings avoid falling into a didactic or overtly illustrative trap and instead register an interest in the subject of transcendence instead of any specific religious belief or ideology. In a particularly striking painting, Tower II, Garber’s characteristically flat totemic imagery contains starbursts coupled with embellished amygdaloidal forms, as well as catawampus pin weel forms signifying constellations or vortexes. The resulting conglomeration of obsessively applied brushstrokes comes across as reverential, humble, but strangely clinical.

Helen Rebekah Garber,  Tower II, 2012, oil on canvas, 84"x60". Courtesy Charlie James Gallery.

Helen Rebekah Garber, Tower II, 2012, oil on canvas, 84″x60″. Courtesy Charlie James Gallery.

To construct her paintings Garber puts down colorful layers of oil paint in between clearly drawn lines that, like lead cames holding together stained glass, provide the basic architectonic structure holding the imagery together. After this she obfuscates her chromatic process almost entirely by applying a white patina to every area of color. Garber’s painted whiteness functions as a kind of critical barrier allowing one to maintain a distance from imagery at hand. After all, the obfuscation of a thing makes its presence even more conspicuous, reducing subject to elemental sign, a testament to almost primordial communicative power. While it might seem like an evasive maneuver, a withdrawal, the unifying gesture is actually an invitation for viewers to reflect on the subject of the work and not the loaded religiosity of its referent.

Garber’s exhibition also includes heavily worked black and white drawings that function like sketches of the larger paintings yet lack the physical impact of their pigmented progeny. Unfortunately the drawings read like schematic plans, a programmatic approach that gives away too much. Their juxtaposition with the larger paintings is like the difference between seeing preparatory drawings for the mosaics in St. Peter’s Cathedral and witnessing the real thing in person and being confronted with the mind-blowing reality of the accumulation of thousands of tiny ceramic squares. In the presence of such work, physical labor is wedded to the sign of devotion. Thankfully Garber’s paintings make this connection effectively, with just enough restraint to allow for sustained contemplation.



Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia “by Deborah Calderwood”

The annals of contemporary art are filled with appropriationists, borrowers, persons who make art from other people’s images. Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Larry Johnson, all these artists, and their conceptual progeny (nearly every photographer and assemblage artist under 40), have made careers out of lifting someone else’s work for their own purposes, with, or without, permission. From looking at these artists’ work, the act of borrowing someone else’s image usually comes from a place of contention, a feeling of displeasure with the image’s original message and the conditions it stems from and helps produce.

Richard Prince is probably best known for cropping the commercial photographer Jim Krantz’s blue-jean clad Marlboro men from ads (ben day dots and all) to reframe notions of American masculinity and critique mass media advertising. Krantz never got a cut of the multi-million dollar action (nor should he have in my opinion). Levine reshot Walker Evan’s iconic WPA photos, and repainted male Modernist masterpieces to insert questions of gender and authorship into a larger art-historical narrative. More power to her. Warhol took photos from newspapers and advertisements and re-contextualized them, presented them back to us, the ever-ready consumer, as just what they are: infinitely reproducible images, each one the same, but different. Critics have made much about Warhol’s implicit critique of capitalist mass-productions, though the silver-headed sphinx maintained his critical silence on the matter (which, in the end, was probably a good thing). Before he started photographing cartoon stills, Johnson used to crib text from sources like TV Guide and Mensa to make cryptic and piercing work about the text that lies beneath the text, and in doing so he helped to unearth how subcultures congeal through language.

Richard Prince Untitled cowboy 1993

The extreme of appropriation is downright plagiarism, using another artist’s work and claiming it to be your own. Koons has been called a thief by a few photographers, most importantly Art Rogers, who sued him for making a gaudy sculpture based exactly on a photograph of multiple puppies. Rogers won his lawsuit in a landmark case (and he deserved to – in my opinion). And don’t get me started on Shepard Fairey. He’s more of a propagandist and corporate branding machine than an artist, and, thankfully, people are starting to see him for what he is: an undeniable crook. Check out Mark Vallen’s excellent article at for more info. Fairey’s appropriations of real-world protest imagery are almost always self-promoting gestures, camouflaged in the guise of politics. They are wallpaper for gentrifying neighborhoods, and advertising for his OBEY brand. His appropriations often employ simple copyright infringement, with some rusted colors thrown in for revolutionary panache. But I digress.

Appropriation is not a bad thing, and there is no doubt that critically aware appropriationist gestures from the past half-century have indeed changed the way we look at reproduced and mass-marketed images and the systems of control and consumption they promote. There’s a reason so many people get enraged by artists who “borrow” from external sources. Perhaps this is because appropriation is not necessarily a kind act. Art that appropriates is often executed to make a critical tear in the image being appropriated. Rarely is appropriation used as a form of reverence, a way to communicate devotion, indebtedness, and, dare I say it, LOVE. Which is why the work of Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia in the 2010 show by Deborah Calderwood at CB1 gallery in Los Angeles has such great resonance. In this fascinating body of work we see not just a collection of pretty pictures (though they are visually stunning), but we also witness an innovative approach to appropriation, a conceptual methodology which injects much needed joy and, yes, love, into the contemporary discourse around using another’s images for one’s own work.

by Deborah Calderwood, 2008 Acrylic and oil on paper 36 x 27 inches

by Deborah Calderwood at firsts appears as a somewhat conventional art show, with a healthy selection of multiple sized framed works on paper and paintings arranged evenly and with care on the gallery’s tall white walls. Yet the forms that actually inhabit each work appear awkward, childlike. A cloud-like bulbous figure with stick arms and googly eyes inhabits many pieces. He surfs, scales mountains, jumps around, sometimes in heels, like a reoccurring tour guide or portrait of an imaginary friend. Hilarious statements pour from cartoonish figures mouths’ in large comic-book speech bubbles. A blank field of pink holds eight comical caricatures, which look indebted to both Andy Warhol and Dennis The Menace. The work bears a startling resemblance to childhood drawings.

When it comes to the basic forms in each work, compositional structure tends towards simple placement on straightforward horizon lines, with little to no foreshortening or complex arrangements of objects. These forms provide a kind of anchor to the work, like lines in a coloring book. But outside of the line quality, everything else at play is full-on mature painting, the kind of picture making that takes a real sustained art practice to produce. These are, in fact, not kid drawings.

by Deborah Calderwood, 2008 Acrylic on prepared wood panel 18 x 23.5 inches

Childlike drawings by contemporary artists have been in vogue for awhile now, as evidenced by the influence of artists like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley (and Basquiat for that matter) on a younger generation. Yet Segovia’s work seems to completely resist the read these artist’s works illicit, denying a conversation about the man-as-child, and instead going much more towards an analysis of the forms at play, and the decorative elements that further contextualize them and give them meaning. His are much more carefully executed. They owe more to the lineage of artists like Paul Klee, Wilfredo Lam, or Lari Pittman, than, say, Tracy Emin, or other many of the left-handed artists from the Beautiful Losers school.

Nearly every work exhibits a kind of considered embellishment far outside of the attention span of a child. Decorative elements are created from seemingly infinite patterns, mark-making that no doubt took hours of dedicated concentration. Complex networks of juxtaposed abstract painterly elements cause the eye to move around the picture, always searching for more. And the palette in each work appears completely harmonious, free-wheeling, yet tempered by years of experience laying down color. The pleasure these works supply is undeniable.

by Deborah Calderwood, 2008 Acrylic on prepared wood panel 23.5 x 18 inches

Yet it’s this strange juxtaposition, this use of childlike imagery as a framework to hold advanced picture construction, that makes one ask, “just what are we looking at here?” The two pictorial approaches seems to have an underlying logic, yet one buried somewhere outside of the frame. This question becomes even more pressing when one considers that most of the works bear the words “by Deborah Calderwood,” which, as a reminder, is the title of the exhibition. The title brings to mind the de-authoring of the artist, if not the “death of the author,” in a rather comical Barthesian sense, where the notion of an originating source is thrown into flux. Such strange titling implies a confusion of creation, and, hopefully allows for a critical space to examine the work outside of the baggage that comes with discussions of authenticity, creative spirit, the innocence of children’s drawings, or, for that matter, the Greenbergian “depths of soul” discourse of abstract painting.

One approach would be to view the title, and its literal inscription on works in the show as the manifestation of an alternate identity. The artist’s own Rose Selavy perhaps? Yet there is no stand-in or fictionalized self at play here. All of Segovia’s images take their compositional inspiration from drawings created by the actual Deborah Calderwood when she was eleven years old. That Deborah is also Lorenzo’s wife, and the mother of his son, adds yet another layer of interest, making this not just a project about appropriation, but also about intimate and familial relationships.

Perhaps the title is one of the best ways to enter the conceptual framework that truly underpins this exhibition. The title first asserts itself as the invitation for the show. Here we see a photo of a young eleven year-old Deborah smiling at the camera in a billowy clown outfit, complete with painted-on eye-lashes and red nose and cheeks. This is the only photo in the exhibition, and therefore feels not necessarily out of place, but a strange reference point framing the rest of the exhibition. Besides being a sign of childhood play, her clown outfit also adds a comical element, underscoring the hide-and-seek game of identities embedded in the show.

front of the exhibition announcement for by Deborah Calderwood

As an invitation, it is actually fairly conventional; we are used to seeing all manner of portraiture of the artist deployed as a way to sell both the artwork and the artist in advance of an exhibition. Yet this invitation is different. By substituting the artist’s wife for the image of the artist himself, the invitation inverts the typical gallery invite’s play of image and text. This invite subtly critiques that kind of unabashedly self-promoting type of invite, the kind that presents the brooding artist in his studio, or on a motorcycle, or surfing. It takes the audience’s desire to image and “know” the artist and turns this desire on its head. This comes off not as a cynical gesture, but as something devotional, marking Deborah’s position as a quizzical and problematized original “creator” of the work that preceded the work at hand, in a kind of sweet, almost romantic game of Whodunnit.

The title of the exhibition, by Deborah Calderwood almost always comes after the artist’s name Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia both in print and on the gallery’s website. This has the strange effect of both reading that the work is by Deborah Calderwood and that Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia was created by Deborah Calderwood. This last read is perhaps the strangest of all, an inference that in some way the artist is asserting that his very existence, as an artist and perhaps a man/husband/father, is directly descended from his wife’s creative actions, her own position of agency. It’s a strange, if not convoluded reworking of Lacanian principles of subject development, but an interesting one to say the least.

One could come away with all this “de-authoring” and “re-authoring” and think of exploitation, that the artist was in some way taking advantage of his wife, or worse, using his artistic skills to insinuate that he is “more talented” than her, that his images are more valuable as objects invested with both cultural and commodity status. Yet if this were so, why did he chose not to exhibit any of the original drawings alongside his own finished work? It seems that the knowledge that there are indeed “originals”, and that these are absent, makes them all the more mysterious. And because they are not present, there is no one-to-one relationship between Segovia’s painted images and Calderwood’s drawn images. As far as the “better or worse” arguments go, the subject should be mute. Deborah does not claim to be an artist and she has no interest becoming one in the future. And both parties are aware that this, in fact, is an exhibition of contemporary art, not a glorified family scrap book.

"by Deborah Calderwood", 2008 Acrylic and oil on prepared wood panel 18 x 23.5 inches

After one knows the back-story of this work, the images take on new meaning. Each decorative gesture takes on the feeling of reverential adornment, something the artist uses to make Deborah’s work even better, while not destroying basic formal elements the young girl set down decades ago. In this way, Segovia’s work occupies a critical space that does not use appropriation as a means to question authority over who “owns” an image. Instead, it creates a generative space, where source material and production work together, on the same picture plane.

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 2, 1981, Gelatin silver print 3 3/4 x 5 1/16 in. (9.6 x 12.8 cm)

Sherrie Levine’s photographs were always titled “After…”; After Walker Evans, After Duchamp, etc. not “by” as Segovia does with his work. The difference between these two prepositions is vast. “After” signifies the passage of time (in Levine’s instance a lifetime, the space between the shutter in Evan’s photo and her own), while “by” always brings with it a sense of immediacy, the fixing of authorship into place with the affirmation that one (or more) person (s) brought the work into existence; art and artist are wedded by the specific instance of creation. Using the old-school rules of painting, the inscription of the artist’s name implies both inception and the finality of creation. I bring this up to further articulate how Segovia’s exhibition, as opposed to Levine’s, does not take appropriation as a distancing exercise. Hardly. His work attempts to bring the appropriated subject closer, make it more present. In a word, he is able to make these works out of love.

Yes I said Love. The love at play here is both visible in the works themselves, and discursively present in the relationships that circle around the exhibition. That love intersects with the work on display is undeniable.  Knowing that the artist used his wife’s drawings for inspiration for the work automatically brings up questions of the two’s relationship. The fact that they have a one-year-old child also further heightens the resonance of the childhood drawings on display. The creation of these images right now, in these circumstances seems more than coincidental. To not acknowledge this is to put on blinders to the physical reality informing the work’s context.

I speak of love in the work itself because these images are rich in embellishment, an almost devotional and methodical laying down of marks that boggle the mind and impress even the most rigorously anti-formal viewers. Repetitive, consistent, and embellished mark making nearly always brings with it the sign of devotion, often religious, though not always. Think of Buddhist mandalas, illuminated manuscripts, dio de las muertas altars, needlepoint pillow portraits, full-body tattoos, and any number of instances where a person, or persons worked to make an image the sum of it’s parts, invested each God-given inch with the maximum amount of attention and affection. Think of repetitive hearts scribbled on hidden love-letters, a high-school crush that results in a name being written over and over and over again. Extreme embellishment, repetitive acts, meticulous decoration, and the forms that result from these processes always seem to bring with them thoughts about the creator(s)’s relationship to their subject and the questions of investments in time and energy. The objects resulting from such actions must have been “worth it” because the subjects they revere: the Divine, a love interest, a family member, or a pet, are also “worth it.” Segovia’s painstaking ornamented works are no different. Yet all this talk of love and devotion makes me feel icky. Why is this?

Love is a troublesome, and much maligned four-letter-word in the art world, something best left to greeting cards and Mother’s Day. The curator and critic Juli Carson has pointed out that love is an “atopic discourse,” when it comes to critical analysis. Carson notes that “…love is something that must be cleaned up, a sort of stain that both hides and reveals what is lacking in scientific discourse: the analyst’s desire.” In contemporary art this stain marks a critical suicide, a lack of critical distance. To say one made work “out of love” is to prompt eye-rolls and condescending questions. It seems that when it comes to being critically engaged, L-O-V-E is better spelled D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Perhaps that’s why, like a lapsed Catholic on ash Wednesday, I find myself feeling guilty for my “uncritical” transgressions, ashamed that this talk of love will somehow cheapen my observations.

Thankfully exhibitions like Segovia’s threaten to renegotiate the terms of this discourse. By investing his own conceptual practice with artifacts from his wife’s past, he challenges us to come to grips with questions not just of authorship, but of relationships. It’s easy to borrow another’s work when you’re not wedded to them both legally and emotionally. But when you use, with permission, your loved one’s childhood drawings, decorate them with jaw-dropping intensity, and put the final work up for everyone to see, you are putting both your loved one’s past, and your own present on display. It signifies a switch in what was before a conceptual gesture relegated to discourses of parody, irony, and pastiche. The steadfast earnestness imbued in Segovia’s work does away with any of these accusations and instead points towards a generative and positive critique that revels in the love that cements it in place.

-Tucker Neel

HERE and NOW ARTRA Curatorial at the T Lofts

Ooooook. First thing’s first. I have to get this out of the way: The abysmal nature of Here and Now ARTRA Curatorial was NOT, in any way, the fault of the artists involved. The work I saw was really hit-or-miss, but on the whole most of it exhibited real commitment and dedication. There was not much half-assing (but there was a lot of derivative painting). The real problem was the space, the context for the event.

Artra was a weekend-long event where dozens of artists were invited to exhibit their work (overwhelmingly painting) in unoccupied apartments in a new loft complex on L.A.’s Westside. The event was billed with the subtitle: “A Westside showing of over 70 artists at the corner of cool and convenience.” Cool is debatable. Convenience – for who?

I went on Sunday as the sun was setting, and, I will admit, rushed to each room. Maybe it was because I was in a rush, but I quickly developed a queasiness about the whole thing.

Important to note was that some of the lofts had already sold. I know this because they had huge circular stickers on their doors reading “SOLD,” which lent a strange uber-capitalist aura to the event.

The T-Lofts, where urban living meets lots and lots of concrete.

Here’s how Artra is described on the event’s website:

“ARTRA was formed in answer to the restrictions in exhibiting opportunities for artists following the economic meltdown. With commercial galleries closing, non-profits seeing their budgets shrink and future funding drying up we felt the need for a return to some DIY creativity in the search for an engagement between artists and audiences.”

I’m all for expanding exhibition opportunities for artists, but let’s not kid ourselves. This was not a DIY endeavor. It was a DIC thing: Do It Corporate.  This event was put on by the T-Lofts company, an entity devoted to selling – duh – the $600,000 plus lofts which played host to work for the weekend. Another sponsor was Lee Homes, a developer who built the lofts. So this was a corporate money-making scheme – there is not disputing that. So please, lets banish any notion that ARTRA was artist-run, DIY, or subversive in any way. It wasn’t really an answer to dwindling spaces available for artists to show their work. It wasn’t a new concept in any respect. Realtors, salesmen, developers, and government insitutions have used artwork, and the attendant presence of artists, to sell property for decades. This is how people sell real estate all over the world. The problem here is that when a developer looks to sell a condo they usually RENT work from artists to put up on the walls. Artists are PAID for their labor and the use of their art as temporary decoration to make a space look less cold and more inviting. The ARTRA artists were NOT paid for use of their works nor for the time they spent in each space talking to visitors and potential future inhabitants of the T-Lofts.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the event was that The Torrance Art Museum was an event sponsor. What is a museum like the TAM doing sponsoring what was, essentially, a corporate sales event? I wonder if one of the board members at the museum has a direct or indirect interest in the success of the T-Lofts or Lee Homes.

I’m sure some of the artists who participated were pleased to do so. Work certainly got sold and I saw a few collectors there. Plus it did draw a crowd.

But really, was this the ideal environment to showcase work? First off, the lighting was completely inadequate. I went around 4pm on Sunday and half of the condos were poorly lit or else completely dark. Only a few spaces had switched on their lights and a few had to employ their own flood-lights for proper viewing. Also the artists involved had to contend with real-estate agents wandering around actually showing potential buyers the space. This seems like an inevitable outcome of such an event, but it did taint the entire viewing experience. It gave each space the feeling of a model home, a sort of Ikea showroom.

From the rumblings of a few artists I talked to, it seems that they were promised something far different from what they got. From poor lighting, to space restrictions, to interruption from loud realtors, the artists who participated in this thing really got the short end of the stick. But what do you expect from a real estate sales pitch masquerading as an art show? The whole thing fell somewhere in between an art fair and a timeshare presentation.

That said, there was certainly some great work on display. Here are a few of my favorites:

Sherin Guirguis

Sherin Guirguis’ work is always so gorgeous, you can’t help but want to stare and stare and stare away until you can take in every last detail. The cut out tessellation patters are really what take the cake for me. Yet they have a kind of violence bubbling just beneath the surface – with images resembling mushroom clouds and technicolor explosions. The work revels in it’s own visual pleasure and I find that comforting.

Roni Feldman

I’m not very familiar with Roni Feldman’s work but I really liked his black-on-black paintings of crowds. You can really only grasp the totality of each visual field when the light reflects in a just-so manner. This makes the work very mysterious but kinda hard to photograph.

Roland Reiss

Roland Reiss’ installation in one of the loft’s bathrooms was a nice surprise. I liked the variety of fake flowers, the notion of something beautiful springing from such a stark, modernist space. I also liked that this was one of the few installations that directly addressed the space itself, the idea of the bathroom as a fruitful, productive space.

Matt Wardell

Matt Wardell, aka 10 Pound Ape, makes some of the most badass assemblage installations available for your viewing pleasure today. I’m so glad his show at the Claremont Museum of Art is extended and the museum isn’t going to get shut down- yet.

The work really gives you a lot to look at, but it’s real success is its ability to make subtle comparisons between visual regularities and strange, metaphorical lovelies. Notice the flocked kitty next to the flower-sporting crack pipes? And yes, that is a poster for a Susan Sontag Marathon Reading. The work also employs lots and lots of phone numbers you can call to hear interesting messages. I love me phone numbers in art!

Matt Wardell 2

Matt Wardell

Matt also had one of the best installations of the day. These oranges festooned one of the loft’s staircases. I really liked how it engaged with the space, referenced the kind of decorative pennants used to sell stuff, and the fact that the oil dripping from the oranges stained the concrete floor. It smelled nice too.

Macha Suzuki

Macha Suzuki makes some amazing sculptural works that walk the line between humorous prop and surreal maquette. His work always seems to touch on questions of transcendence and out-of-body experiences. I also like the way the work takes up space.

Luis G Hernandez

This caught my eye because it was one of the few works that took advantage of the site itself. Here, during the show-off showcase day for the lofts, this work suddenly adds an ominous tone, as if the walls were falling apart. Nice job. I also like the work’s simplicity and its innocuous, yet penetrating, nature.

Joe Reihsen

Reilhsen’s other works were not so successful, but I found this piece really made an impact, probably because it photographs so well.

Martin Durazo

Martin Durazo had this great little buddah sculpture in his space (shared with Sherin Guirguis and Kelly Barrie, whose photographs were big and beautiful – but maybe a little too enigmatic for me). I really like the pedestal- very Martin to tweak the supporting elements of his work to bring about a totally unexpected read. I also like the stark whiteness of the buddah contrasting with the bright heavy utilitarian box.

Ichiro Irie

Ichiro Irie had some really funny photos of a guy (probably the artist) pissing on art museums and art institutions. The joke gets old pretty fast, but I appreciate that the next time I go to the BCAM I’ll think of this photo.

Dawn Arrowsmith

This work by Dawn Arrowsmith is a little difficult to see, but it’s a rearrangement of LA’s freeways as if they were a labyrinthine projection into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a funny collage work, and I appreciate how it involves the viewer in imagining the irrationality of it’s creation.

Andy Brown

This may be my favorite piece of the day. Andy Brown’s simple work consisted of a small piece of drywall with a foot-size hole knocked out of it. The hole is partially covered by a poster for the movie Escape From LA. Not only does the work call attention to rumblings of insecurity, the punishment of being “under the stairs”, it goes to a place that critiques the fragility of the very structure that houses it. It also references the notion of quick fixes, tiding up a space, wallpapering over problems. It seemed to fit the mood of the day.

Billy Kheel

Billy Kheel is one of the recent graduates of GYST’s 8-week Getting Your Shit Together class, so he’s one of my students. I was very excited to see his work in person, and it didn’t disappoint. His felt collages can be a little too design-y at times, too concerned with looking like “art,” but here the grey and black image is striking. It’s a scary work but made of comforting materials. I cant wait to see how he evolves this part of his practice.

Billy Kheel

But Billy’s strongest work is no doubt his videos. Here he tries to break a circular rope/crown/measurement string with only the blood in his head. It’s a rather ludicrous attempt to literalize a thought into action. It’s a rather Sisyphusian task, but one that calls to mind questions of the intersection between intellectual thought and physical strength. It seems to go to the heart of conceptual art. It’s also quite funny.

Maybe the ARTRA event was worth it to get introduced to new artworks. But I think artists should take this event and transplant it to an environment where they get paid to show their work, or a space that they claim and inhabit on their own terms, where their work is the main attraction.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Young British Artists did this by showing their work in warehouses, and, as Artillery has pointed out in their last Nov./Dec.2009 issue, there are many alternative venues in LA showcasing work, and many more just waiting to spring up. So come on artists! Let’s all seek out new truly DIY opportunities to show our work.

Penelope Gottlieb at Kim Light

Originally published in Artillery Magazine May/Jun 2009 vol 3 issue 5
Penelope Gottlieb Installation

Penelope Gottlieb Installation

In NO $ DOWN, Penelope Gottlieb presents visitors with dozens of modestly sized, colored pencil and watercolor, drawings of “homes,” each rendered in a monochrome color, and each inside its own matching brick-a-brac frame. The work is arranged salon-style around a roaring, but completely fake, fireplace, a replica of the hearth from TV’s Leave It To Beaver. The installation is intoxicating, and one can’t help but scan the exquisitely crafted drawings and pick a favorite. In one piece titled Find Your Nest, a pitiful stucco duplex, in purple, is photographed from the street and conspicuously obscured by two parked cars. An acid-yellow tract home, surrounded by fledgling Cyprus trees, is titled Better Than New! Gottlieb’s selection of quintessentially heterogeneous Californian dwellings: craftsman bungalows, mid-century split-levels, Tuscan-style McMansions, and dingbat boxes, feels familiar. So it’s no surprise to find that the images, and their concomitant titles, come directly from real estate ads the artist mined over the past ten years from The LA Times.

Gottlieb's Spanish Doll House

Gottlieb's Spanish Doll House

In sourcing her images from The LA Times, and not, say, creating them as a plein-air painter, and packaging her appropriated images in a candy colored “pick your favorite” display, around a wholly decorative fireplace, Gottlieb creates a situation that questions not just “The American Dream” of home ownership and its bastardized nightmarish present, but also proposes a larger critique of how that very dream (or business proposition, investment, or gamble) is sold, pictured, and packaged to our consumer society. This critique doubles back on itself when one considers how strange the situation becomes when Gottlieb’s work actually sells, when someone buys her work and hangs it on their wall, putting a picture of someone else’s house, an anonymous house, in their own home. When activated as part of this exchange, the work is not about the physical veracity of a specific house, or even style of house, but about the mystique surrounding the image’s source, its point of origin, where the image, and the work of art, came from, and the conditions that facilitated its creation.

Alongside her many homes, Gottlieb also includes a handful of drawings of shopping carts overflowing with collected ephemera, as well as an image of a decorated school bus. Unlike the house drawings, these works are left Untilted, without accompanying witty real estate ad quotes. While these works attempt to expand the idea of a “home,” they come off as heavy handed, and end up to confusing the show’s larger critique. When Gottlieb’s shopping carts and buses leave the gallery and adorn other walls, they simply remain illustrative jokes at best. At worst they embody a kind of liberal guilt that distracts itself with pretty images of the sign of economic disparity, instead of focusing on the conditions that make these realities possible.

Penelope Gottlieb's

Penelope Gottlieb's Handyman's Heaven!

Despite this unfortunate inclusion, the show remains rewarding. Gottlieb has created a meditative tableau, fireplace and all, which allows viewers to contemplate the unseen forces that shape their desires and predilections, a place to reflect on the barbiturates that seek to keep America dreaming.

-Tucker Neel

The Unique Spectacle That Is The Contemporary Art Fair

By Tucker Neel

Originally published in  Fine Art Magazine, Vol. 33 No 1, Spring 2008, 67.

Installation at Gavin Brown Projects

Installation at Gavin Brown Projects

Art Basel is like watching your parents have sex, or so says one of my favorite graduate school professors. While the gallery/collector public displays of affection and private backroom deals may seem to spoil the mood, the roaring art market wouldn’t be able to survive in its current state without Basel.

For many galleries Miami in December is the time and place to unload inventories and increase reserves for the coming year. This sobering reality doesn’t diminish the queasiness that comes with seeing work you adore hanging clustered like so much meat in a butcher’s window. Hearing dealers and collectors talk in frank, Warholian terms about how much is it now and how much it will be worth in a year seems to take the fun out of looking at the work in the first place. And watching works sell to earnest collectors and hotel chains alike, and knowing that in a few months the entire cycle will start again can put a damper on any sort of art-school-fueled idealism.

Yet if one can overlook its artistic and creative constraints, Basel can become a welcome opportunity for artists. Where else can one interact with so many intelligent, influential (an often inebriated) artists, writers, curators, and cultural mavens from all over the world? If anything, the multiple fairs allow for thousands of artists to contrast practices and compare conceptual interests.

Once inside the fairs the repetition of materials and methods was at times overwhelming. Every-day objects cast in metal, taxidermied animals, reconstituted designer goods, Photoshopped history paintings masquerading as photographs, utilitarian tools covered in sparkles, crystals and glitter, adolescent flat watercolors, oversized celebrity-themed photographs and paintings, abject libidinal cartoons, finish-fetish metals, neon, glitter, cardboard, and used and unused bottles of alcohol – all cropped up again and again in countless booths.

This is not to say that any of the works employing these techniques were inherently derivative. In fact, an outstanding work at Art Basel employed more than one of these material concerns. Oliver Payne and Nick Relph’s installation at Gavin Brown Projects allowed visitors to peruse the duo’s stylish retro sneakers stuffed with expensive bottles of Chateau Latour, strategically placed alongside antiquated technology like a tan Macintosh Classic computer or an old Tamagotchi keychain. Displayed on well-lit platforms a’ la Prada or the MOMA’s design wing, the work embodied a kind of dandy decorative sensibility, updating Haim Steinbach’s 80’s consumer fetish wall displays for a new nostalgic millennium.

Another work, also reminiscent of Jason Rhodes’ plastic phantasmagoria, was Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s Infinito Botanica at Frederieke Taylor’s booth at the Pulse art fair. Here the artist arranged a crowded table of religious idols draped in fake foods, pizza, Corona beer bottles, ceramic tzotchkes and pop art piñatas. The booth’s walls were crammed with clichéd paintings of whimsical white dresses, lonesome suited figures, and brooding faces, all of which looked like they came straight from a local mall’s Fine Art emporium. The overall effect was not only humorous, but also keenly critical of the art fair’s tendency to value commerce over kunst, likening the entire experience to a carnival of conspicuous consumption.

However not all standouts employed an over-the-top aesthetic. Jay Johnson’s Some Kind of Meal in Quint Contemporary Art’s booth at Art Miami sparsely speckled an unremarkable wall with minuscule bronze objects: a bottle, a pill, a funnel–each referencing human relationships to food, eating, digestion, and sustenance. The work insisted on placing the viewer in a self-reflexive position, highlighting one’s own bigness next to the work’s conspicuous smallness. This physical sensation no doubt heightened by the work’s close proximity to nearby bombastic and self-consciously BIG painting and photography.

Unfortunately some artists and galleries can take reductive tendencies too far. Take Wilfredo Prieto’s El Tiempo es Oro / Time is Gold installation in Martin Von Zomeren’s booth at NADA for example. The entire booth was painted machine-gun blue, empty, save for a single gold pocket watch dangling from the ceiling. With this didactic polemic deployed in such a privileged space, the piece clumsily strives to addresses the economies of space and time associated with paying for and showing in an expensive fair. But the piece does little more than scream its castigations in a familiar tone at an uninterested and unreceptive audience. While Prieto has made his name practicing similar flat-footed institutional critiques (some of them at times quite acerbic and poignant), he, and many other artists with similar goals, could learn a thing or two from Yves Klein.

While admittedly operating under less anti-capitalist pretenses, Klein spoke to Prieto’s current concerns with Le Vide, his now legendary performance from 1956. For this work the artist provided blue cocktails to guests attending his opening in a gallery that featured nothing displayed on its blank white walls. Upon returning home after the show and retiring to the water closet, the patrons found that their urine had turned a patented Yves Klein Blue. He had effectively used the tools of the trade (booze and a party) to highlight the merger of the gallery/patron relationship, making the remnant of such public interaction visible in the most private of places.

Maybe the art world is too jaded to take note of pranks like this. Maybe we’ve seen it all before. However, Cut out ‘however’ one can only hope that more artists could channel Klein’s strategic humor within the primed setting Basel provides. Such an informed, simple, and hilarious intervention would no doubt usher in new ways of seeing and participating in the unique spectacle that is the contemporary art fair.

Nancy Chunn the Otis College Ben Maltz Gallery

By Tucker Neel

Originally published in ISM Magazine March, 2008

Installation shot of Chunn's Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear

Installation shot of Chunn's Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear

Nancy Chunn is a self-described political junkie. Her most recent show, Media Madness, at Otis College of Art and Design, attests to her addiction to the news, an addiction that seems to suit her well. While she doesn’t take revenge on the news media per se, Chunn acts more like a sieve, distilling current events into a personal lexicon of images, signs and symbols to make maps, diagrams, and hieroglyphs that express her fears, frustrations, humor and anxieties.

Chunn is best known for Front Pages, a body of work from January 1- December 31, 1997. During this year she drew on the front page of each day’s New York Times newspaper with bright pastels, adding her own images over photographs, obscuring headlines and sometimes entire stories with expanses of color and carefully chosen texts. Media Madness presents the viewer with two months, June and July, arranged as if they were days on a calendar displaced onto the gallery wall.

Chunn’s interventions champion her own subjectivity with quips and witticisms and comic-book-like images that bring out the humor, sadness, or ambivalence she feels in relation to the stories in the paper. So a story on, say, an I.R.A. bombing in a British city, condenses into “UP TO THEIR OLD TRICKS” (written in green of course) above two explosions. By whittling the daily news into one-liners, easily digestible combinations of images and text, she replicates the corporate media’s habit of substituting surface for substance, producing sound bites instead of informed analysis, talking points enslaved to the constraints of a scrolling news ticker.

Whether the viewer agrees with Chunn’s summation of the daily news is beside the point. The work is wholly about one woman’s act of reading and reflecting over the course of a year. The artist is the sole locus for the work so impartiality flies out the window. Here we see how the news acts on and through a person. In this way her work performs entirely differently from conventional news media, which relies on the myth of objectivity to maintain credibility.

In addition to revisiting Chunn’s seminal work, Media Madness also includes Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear. Consisting of a suite of four different installations of dozens of small and large canvases arranged on the gallery wall in an expansive salon style, the work tells the story of Chicken Little, a worrisome fowl beset by seemingly endless obstacles and hazards, from falling televisions to homicidal tractors, bimbos in Broncos, and invasive CIA agents. While the work turns many current political, environmental and social issues into a fable with no resolution, Chunn has said that when she completes the last group of paintings she’ll eventually have Chicken Little working for Fox News, a fitting end to a story about fear mongering in the new millennium.

The images of burning forests, toxic waste, genetically modified food and over-consumption in Chicken Little and the Culture of Fear may just be fleeting glimpses of a world temporarily out of balance, or images of an entrenched uber-capitalism that generates countless injustices and neglected catastrophes. Perhaps the saddest thing of all, and what gives Chunn’s work legs, is that the symbols and icons imbedded in her work will outlive the immediacy, the context, of their creation.

This observation came to the fore in her Four Seasons painting series. Utilizing Chunn’s familiar stock of symbols first developed in the Front Pages series, the paintings depict major news stories that occurred during each of the four seasons in 1999. But if it weren’t for the didactic wall text explaining the subjects of each work, one could easily see these paintings as contemporaneous with today’s breaking news. In this way they are history paintings, their subjects specific, yet enduring.

In Spring Cleaning (Spring 1999) the flat, angular images of fallen bodies, fighter jets, armed soldiers, and explosions meant to reference the violence of the Columbine school shootings and the war in Kosovo immediately bring to mind the dead bodies and battle fields associated with the seemingly endless wars America fights either directly or by proxy all over the world today. The message in the work may be rooted in a specific time and place, but the larger polemic is not necessarily historically constitutive. As long as war and violence are part of our everyday life, these pictographs of crumbling buildings, troop formations, bombs, funerals, guns and dollar signs will have lasting resonance.

Looking at Scandal (Winter 1998-99), emblazoned with Day-Glo images of sperm, moist red lips, a giant unzipping zipper and a garbage can stuffed with money and a copy of the Star Report, one cannot help but think of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinski muckraking that inspired this flamboyant painting. Yet the toilet at the center, the accusing fingers, computer, and the bald headed man exclaiming”Oops,” also immediately calls to mind the many right wing politicos recently outed for their less-than-hetero behavior. While the story in the painting is from a bygone era, its sentiment is symbolically perennial: We seem to be more interested in who politicians fuck than who they fuck over.

Perhaps this is the larger message imbedded in Chunn’s work, that we should use the news as a vehicle for developing our own symbolic, and perhaps radical responses. Registering dissatisfaction is a first step but we need to go beyond critiquing the news to actually making the news. Now that the time for action has come the pressing question is how do we, as cultural producers, change the game, rewrite the rules and shift the power structure in such a way that the images displayed in Chunn’s work are no longer up-to-date, but instead vestiges of an embarrassing yet distant past?

The Things He Loves: A very thorough stroll through David Hockney’s Portraits

By Tucker Neel

Originally publihed in The L.A. Alternative Press, Vol. 5, September 4, 2006, 6.

Hockney’s Divine

While previewing L.A.C.M.A.’s David Hockney Portraits, the first museum exhibition dedicated solely to this artist’s investigation into portraiture, I was struck by the feeling that I’d seen this before, a feeling I get whenever I look at Hockney’s work. I don’t mean this in the pejorative sense at all. I only mean to say that his work contains a seemingly endless stream of art historical references and that, when confronted with any number of his paintings, I feel like I’m flipping through the pages of a survey book on Modern Art. His influence is widespread and his importance as a major artist of both the 20th and now 21st Century is undeniable.

Born in Yorkshire, England in 1937, Hockney began his art career at a young age. By the time he was in his mid-20s he already had gallery representation, was winning prestigious awards and producing sold-out solo shows. After moving to Los Angeles in the mid-’60s he began depicting the subjects he has become famous for, like swimming pools, modernist architecture and wealthy, tanned art collectors all unapologetically painted in the crisp clear light typical of Southern California. His work also unabashedly champions a loving, observant and celebratory homosexual gaze. After moving to L.A., he created his famous paintings of young bronzed naked men diving into and emerging from crystal clear blue swimming pools, including the now iconographic Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, which is prominently featured in the LACMA show. His artistic career has been punctuated by startling twists and turns in artistic techniques, media, and subject matter. He has painted everything from rich Beverly Hills housewives to gay lovers, abstract geometric forms to monumental canvases of the Grand Canyon and Mullholland Drive. He has designed stage sets for operas and has embarked on innovative photographic projects designed to mimic the sporadic movement of the human eye, calling attention to cubist picture planes and collage techniques. Yet despite his varying styles and subjects, each of his prolific bodies of work remains fresh and personal.

Hockney’s work resonates because it samples from different art historical epochs while at the same time maintaining a contemporary statement imbued with his own world view, grounded a in specific time and place.

For example, Hockney’s small drawing of Celia in A Black Dress with White Flowers from 1972 looks like it could have been drawn by any number of turn-of-the-century French masters, namely the Lilliputian Toulouse Lautrec, famous for his depictions of angular female bodies decked out in high shouldered cabaret dresses in the Moulin Rouge. Spend awhile perusing Hockney’s many sketchbooks, which have also been digitized and appear on a computer touch-screen (a fantastic idea on the part of the museum), and it becomes apparent that he really hasn’t shackled himself to any specific style. The sketchbooks testify to the fact that a great artist doesn’t have to keep painting the same thing over and over again. In fact, Hockney’s wandering eye and almost schizophrenic hand are some of his best assets.

A few of Hockney’s Twelve Portraits After Ingres

In a completely separate room, his Twelve Portraits After Ingres in a Uniform Style directly acknowledges his indebtedness to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the great 19th century French Neoclassical portraitist and his use of the camera lucida, a device that allows for an artist to trace a projection of and object with stunning accuracy, sort of like your great great great grandpa’s version of an overhead projector. Despite being a rather antiquated device by today’s standards, Hockney used the camera lucida to create the portraits for the series. In a noticeable departure from his portraits of upper-class members of the art and business world, the Twelve Portraits punctuate the show with carefully drawn, almost reverent depictions of museum guards, people whose jobs often are overlooked and undervalued by the art world. It is also interesting to note that this series includes some of the few portraits Hockney has painted of sitters whom he doesn’t know on an intimate level, as either long-term friends, lovers, business associates, or family members.

Van Gough’s La Mousme

Hockney’s iconic portrait of Divine, the multi-talented drag queen of John Waters’ movie fame, stands out in as a marvel of artistic sampling. Here Divine sits sans gaudy wig, makeup and dress, with his bald head turned towards the viewer, one pronounced eyebrow raised in a knowing and almost enlightened regard. The chalky cerulean blue and washed out pink in Divine’s robe looks as though they could have been lifted directly from the verticle stripes in the background of Matisse’s painting of The Artist’s Studio. Additionally, the ebullient wallpaper consisting of radiating diagonal brushstrokes directly behind Divine conjures up the contrasting ultramarine blue and cadmium red colors appropriated, perhaps, from a billowing polka dot dress in Van Gough’s La Mousme. This assimilation of decorative elements with the subject matter of the painting, a portrait of a larger-than-life drag queen who himself dared to push boundaries while celebrating desire and a revolutionary playfulness, resonates today as a magnificent example of “queer” portraiture.

For “chromophobes,” afraid of color, Hockney’s portraiture may seem a bit garish at its best, threatening at its worst. Overwhelming color and decorative patterning in painting and film have historically threatened the heterosexist art world establishment. These persons can’t stand the idea of the feminine “infecting” traditional masculine aesthetics. I think it gives them hives and makes them long for the good-ol-days when “men were men and women were just the nude models.” Thus, richly patterned quilts and tapestries, hand made crafts, the results of “women’s work,” as well as the pattern and decoration of so-called “primitive” societies, have been, until very recently, relegated to the family wardrobe and the anthropology department respectively. This resistance to a feminine “contamination” underlies a homophobic distain for overtly colorful persons who themselves blur traditional gender roles.

Take a trashy drag queen best known for eating dog shit and immortalize him in rich vibrant color, surround his portrait with a gold frame and you bet that hardly anyone is going to want to hang it alongside a presidential portrait. After all, this painting of Divine, while not being overtly confrontational, certainly commands the attention of the viewer and threatens to shock the calm whiteness of any solemn interior, be it a modernist home or a museum.

Quite possibly the most important aspect of Hockney’s portraits is that they exist as an expression of the human desire to arrest time, cheat death, and preserve the subject for eternity. I, for one, am exceedingly happy that Divine’s likeness will remain intact and preserved for the entire world to see, should they want to enter the museum. The painting keeps the man alive, if only as a fleeting glance. And the other portraits in the show attempt to create this timelessness as well, some more successfully than others. While some of the paintings are dated by their subject matter– the inclusion of a shag carpet, bellbottom pants, or a particular hairstyle– some paintings, like a portrait of Charles Falco from 2005, purposefully attempt to avoid being emblematic of a specific time period.

Charles Falco is a physicist who specializes in quantum optics. As Hockney’s scientific collaborator, he has been helping the artist investigate the use of the camera lucida throughout the history of painting. In his portrait we see the scientist in a Spartan interior seated in a crimson chair, his leather bag on the floor to his left, a waist-high gray table to his right. On top of the table rests a puzzling set of conjoined white quadrilaterals outlined in murky green brushstrokes. These odd shapes seem to suggest the outline of a laptop computer. I asked Falco, who, along with many of Hockney’s other portrait subjects was present for the exhibition preview, what exactly these shapes were meant to represent. He confirmed my suspicions about the laptop, adding that his computer is an integral part of his relationship with the artist, so it made sense to include it in the painting. As to why the computer wasn’t rendered in full, Falco said, “He (Hockney) just didn’t finish the painting.” After further discussion he changed his answer slightly, noting that by not painting the laptop, Hockney allowed the painting to resist being pinned down to a specific time period. According to Falco, “Painting the laptop would have been like painting a cell phone in the eighties.” Perhaps this gesture implies that Hockney wants his paintings to remain timeless, that he wants them to live alongside the many works by artists he himself admires and borrows from so liberally.

Usually when I look at a painting and see signs of another artist’s work, sampled techniques and borrowed palettes, I tend to lose interest. Sometimes it’s better just to go back to the original. However, with Hockney’s work this sampling keeps my eyes and mind alive. As an artist who has spent his life depicting the people places, and things that mean a great deal to him, Hockney has certainly come to know the meaning of intimate observation. He has represented what he loves in countless ways by embracing a variety of contemporary subjects while at the same time drawing from multiple art historic sources, creating timeless images whose fluidity and engagement will undoubtedly continue to influence the work of future artists.