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Artweek

‘L.A. Paint’ at the Oakland Museum
 
 — John Rapko
 

With LA Paint at the Oakland Museum of California, curator Philip Linhares aims to present some of the “energy and vitality that exists in the LA art scene,” as seen in the works of eleven painters. Besides locale, the artists and their works share, Linhares suggests, responsiveness to a common, near global condition, but one experienced intensely in Los Angeles: “continual visible change,” the rapid creation and destruction and recreation of the artifactual environment. This responsiveness is suppose dto show in the works in their “sense of the new” accompanied by a relatively reduced awareness of history and tradition. ANd indeed there is here no Baudelairean lament that the city changes faster than the human heart, but Linhares is, to his great credit as a curator, wrong about the lack of historical concern. In this interesting show there are a number of works so steeped in art history as to represent a kind of hyper-modernist mannersim.

Nostalgia isn’t an issue, but a number of the artists look to art history, including appeals to poetry and sound art, to enrich their works.

There are, Linhares suggests, four expressive modes here, the list o fwhich sounds like the beginning of an encylopedia of painting written by Borges: “abstraction, narrative, surreal/fantasy, and the cartoon street-art-based ‘lowbrow’ school.” First up is a remarkable series of circular paintings by Don Suggs. Each shows many concentric circles of pure color; two of the paintings are predominantly blue, red and flesh-toned, and the viewer feels a bit queasy with the sense of bodies and bits of sky churning. Scanning inwards from the perimeter, there’s a point roughly two-thirds in where one seems to plunge downwards, as if sliding down the edge of the continental shelf. The titles reveal the intellectual wit of it all: Mona Lisa; Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; (Barbara Kruger’s) Your Body is a Battleground. The color schemes derive from these canonical works. The point, one sees and hopes, is not about history going in circles, but rather very surprisingly seems like a kind of historical self-reflection and analysis. This is particularly striking withDemoiselles, where the colors of Picasso’s echt-modernist provocation now seem lifted, in ever sense, from Tiepolo. Another Suggs, 20 Blackbirds, a grid of twenty smaller such concentric constructions, inevitably evokes the poem of Wallace Stevens, suggesting that the pictorial demand for a number that  can be divided into a visually discernable order outweigh’s Steven’s literary luck with thirteen. Steven’s blackbird again marks “the edge of one of many circles.”

Another of the show’s highlights is found in the paintings of Loren Holland, which suggests Rousseau dipped into a vat of toxic waste. These works indeed “deal with the challenges many women of color confront,” as the musem press materials state, but this description doesn’t hint at the power of what Hollan has made of these concerns. Three remarkable oil paintings on paper–Unreal City, Death by Water andFrom Ritual to Romance–take up aspects of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Each painting shows a different woman–a sunbather, a surfer, a pale nymph smoking an elaborate pipe–as a kind of beach or shore creature, part water and part land. These elemental women also share some of their substance with the air. Holland here has taken up the basic motifs of the poem, ambiguous destruction and transformation by water and the “shoring” up of ruins, so as to make the contemporary challenge and the modernist legacy revitalize one another, changing each otehr into something “rich and strange,” like Phlebas, like thy father. One peculiarity of Holland’s pictorial treatment, difficult to describe but unshakeable once noticed, is that she has rendered foreground, figure and distant view so as to indiuce a nightmarish sense that the viewer’s head is immobilized while her eyes swivel about.

There are other works here that, though less explicit in their appeal to art history, draw from it a way of making meaning. Two untitled works of Hyesook Park suggest, through gestural abstraction, something of Cy Twombly’s facture put into hte service of rendering Leonardo’s deluge. Steve Roden’s work draws on the aleatoric energies and uncoverable compositional schemes of John Cage. Roden’s aim in these dense works seems to be to give a human-scaled architecture to digital flows. Biomorphic and distended bell shapes are treated as primitive pictorial elements, and then haloed with interfering patterns of rhythmic decoration. It’s as if Roden wants to sound the bell then return the aural reverberations to visual expression. These and other works shown indicate that yet again painting has survived its supposed death by drowning in recent technological and cultural change.