July, 2004

Tom LaDuke at Angles Gallery

Susan Geer

It’s hard when you live in a place to step back and really

see it. If you’re in the forest, the trees get in the way; in the city there are all those buildings. Maybe that’s why the vantage point for Tom LaDuke’s recent paintings of the urban Southern California landscape is so important: it shifts our focus from the innumerable details. His through-the-windshield perspective, a skyward tilt from low ground, tends to capture mostly the tops of buildings and tlle tips of power lines and trees. The vast majority of the pictorial space is often empty of imagery, a blank cloudless atmosphere of vaguely grey, light infused but featureless sky.LaDuke treats that wide, open painterly emptiness as something of a playful rune to give psychological as well as compositional weight to his painting. He makes it a tender, pale gray litmus wash of sky in the five paintings of brushy treetops

with mythic and poisonous names like Belladonna, Hemlock and Narcissus. In Super 8 Strip, the night sky congeals liek a huge, radiant, rosy-brown jelly completely saturated by ambient city light, pressing down heavily on small signs of civilization. A wan searchlight from a small strip mall can barely crease its density. The mall itself forms a spindly, low horizon line of faint light stanchions, palm trees and distant pinpoint city lights along the painting’s bottom edge. If it wasn’t so beautiful, or perhaps so vaguely familiar, it might be frightening. But LaDuke gives it a comic and loving spin by including nearby a very tiny copy of an enormous inflatable clown advertising balloon. Like a cheerful puffy slug or sci-fi alien, it seems to be making steady progress toward the mall. That insertion gives a scene of commercial light pollution a whiff of visual comedy that is a fitting insight into a city founded on film fantasy like Los Angeles.

There is always a keen sensitivity to the psychology of sight in LaDuke’s subtleties of light and shifted vision. It’s particularly enthralling in Silver Screen, a wall-spanning gray-toned painting whose title and visual twist pay nodding homage to Jean Baudrillard’s description of LA as a city of cinematic spectacle. The painting’s image presents what looks at first to be a sky-shrouded semi-urban vista of a small, foggy hilltop jostled by a few treetops and towers. Because the image is mostly empty space we quickly notice the tiny lettering in one comer. The reversed words “safety glass” immediately shifts our perspective from outdoors to in, and create a conscious sense of physical separation from tlle painting’s view. Adding to the complexity of the window’s illusion and the interior point of view are rows of very subtly painted geometric shapes that float in the painting’s empty sky like ethereal visitors from another world. Verging on invisibility they appear and disappear into the painting’s vista to cunningly remind us not only of the supposed window that is the painting, but also suggest the virtual collapse of nature into our man-made world to form a single perspective or constantly self-referencing sight.

In his sculptures, LaDuke pushes his work’s ongoing exploration
of the human experience of self in an urban landscape by exploiting miniaturization’s inherent capacity for fantasy
and narrative. Heirloom, is an amazingly realistic fragment of what looks like a neat pile of loose skin and bones, but in its organic isolation also suggests a dormant volcanic island floating on a pedestal. The maze-like Hours of Operation is a deserted, sprawling ghost town of gray storage units, each containing cast fragments of the artist’s own body. A clever, Lilliputian solution to interring Gulliver’s dead body, it resonates with the sterile, impersonal emptiness of the urban landscape where shelters for possessions make for cities within cities, but breed no life.
The show’s most penen-ating examination of the psychology of the local landscape is Self-Inflicted Burden, an impressive small scale, self-portrait sculpture in silicone. Made from a photograph of LaDuke holding a gun and inspecting a small bullet hole in his upper arm it is amazingly realistic-with inset glass eyes and real hair on the arms and torso and beautifully colored flesh complete to the bluish blush of a five o’clock shadow. Yet, as remarkably accurate as it is, it is the intellectual collateral that makes its impression really durable.
LaDuke apes Chris Burden’s performance Shoot, a now legendary act intended to elevate art as an experience over the primacy of the art object. But he then makes his own copy of that art reference into a literal scale model, complete with five boxed copies, ready for assembly and do-it-yourself painting. It’s a tour-de-force piece of “model making,” as smart and funny as it is visually skilled. LaDuke’s act of replication not only pays visual homage to history, with all the nostalgia that implies, but makes the art object a wonderfully circular representation of self fabrication whose uniqueness will forever be that of a copy. Sounds pretty Hollywood to me.
-Suvan Greer
Tom LaDuke: Pattern Seeking Primate closed October 16 at Angles Gallery, Santa Monica.
Suvan Geer is contributing editor to Artweek.