Coagula Art Journal

July, 2004

Tom LaDuke: Landscapes of Morality in a Labyrinth of Smog

at Angles Gallery, Santa Monica

One occasionally forgets that the two major industries of fhe California Southland are death and entertainment: aeronautics and arms manufacturers coexisting wifh media dream weavers peacefully side by side in a vast flat anonymous landscape whose definition and components are blurred most of the time by a fhick mist, a mixture of ,chemicals and vapor whose name SMOG when pronounced actually provokes a contraction from fhe belly up, leaves the mouth gaping and the throat slightly gagging. This physical sensation may unconsciously dominate us as our mortal coil wanders around in the ambient featureless-ness. And once we have pushed this dark, rich air out of our lungs, how much humanity does it leave us? The edges of our being, physical, menial and emotional are just as as the landscape, blurred to our own eyes and blurred to one another.

The acknowledgment and investigation of these facts lie at the core of Tom La Duke’s paintings, drawings and sculptures recently shown at Angles Gallery. These works, rendered in an “extreme realist” manner in quiet matter whites, greys, blues and browns are right on the cusp of poetry and abstraction, between the beauty of the banal and the beauty of horror, minute observations. of the present condition and portents of annihilation. In the face of 21st century absurdism, he offers an existentialism free of cynicisrn, layered in references, rich with astonished humor, ironic disbelief, and the shock of absence and powerlessness. Self Inflicted Burden is a 3-foot high realist urethane resin statue of the’ artist (presented on white pedestal), memorializes his deliberate shooting himself in the left arm with a pellet gun while standing alone in his studio, bare chest, clad in blue plaid pants and shod in black leather clogs.
While the work refers to artist Chris Burden’s public performance wherein he was shot, LaDuke’s perfect statue of himself is minutely crafted and anti-heroic: here is his own body, imperfect and vulnerable, white and pink, with wisps of sparse thin hair, birtmnarks and pimplesnn his chest. He looks intently at a trickle of blood dripping from the tiny wound. Further curious and amused about the idea of a “scale model” and replica, the artist also presents the statue in an unpainted, white, multi-part “kit.” In a clean cardboard box, the statue’s ready-to-assemble body parts are laid out orange-red foam, like pieces of toy airplane, ship or robot. A wink at collectors’ taste for the pristine, the kit may remain untouched and unopened as an object of precious potentiality, a game that may never be played… It is accompanied by brochure suggesting slowness, caution and the use of the appropriate paints should one chose to assemble and complete the work.
The dominant theme in La Duke’s work, however, is landscape. In a series oflarge paintings and smaller drawings of lone maimed trees, the artist draws a disquieting portrait of the physical landscape of Los Angeles. And, while casts a scrutinizing gaze upon what appear to be lifeless suburban areas, he is simultaneously contemplating them as instances of the Self, and of course, the inner self. While the landscape could be synonymous with the vast potentiality of the Self, here, landscape and self are dark (grey and brown), blanketed by smog, untraceable, bruised, scarred, “peopled” by anonymous/ ominous blank high rises and rises of low lying hangars and flat nameless storage buildings, pierced by industrial necessities such as stark tall light poles, antennae, spotlights, air conditioning units, electrical wires…An objectified world under the surveillance  of helicopters and cameras; a world where the inner self is unshowable, invisible, untraceable.
The artist’s gaze is so eerily direct, naked, filled with such candor and fervor that it casts us into an intensely focused contemplation. In Silver Screen, a brownish-grey landscape is seen from within an invisible office from which transparent horizontal reflections of interior squares of light float into the picture plane. In Super 8 Strip, a mottled surface of greyish greens and blues is cut in half by a solitary white slash: a tall light pole moutned with a surveillance camera. Another paintnig appears to be a rich abstraction in flat purple-brown (the artist uses military paint to reproduce atmospheric colors he has really observed) save a 2-inch band of greyish white at the bottom of the picture: closer inspection reveals the presence of low buildings mounted with electronic apparati.
Two more sculptures push the boundaries of the esthetics of representatlon.Heirloom is a forebodingly fascinating awl bizarre 23-inch longitudinal heap of pink flabby human skin (made in extreme verisimilitude out of silicon rubber) stretched over the shape of a shillalah. This is a “mortality portrait” depicting once the skin of the arm of the artist’s mother and the family shillalah he will inherit when she passes on. And finally, Hours of Operation, a large 98″ X 98″ square table top installation of square parallel rows of small rectangular white boxes, shrinking in size towards the center of the table, The “boxes” are reminiscent of low, anonymous, blank industrial or storage buildings. Their slightly rounded roofs are brownish-grey, the color of tarred roofs sprinkled with gravel that have turned, over time, the color of the polluted atmosphere, They are peppered here and there with antennae, electrical wires, air conditioning units, lamps … Suddenly, “architectural” familiarity gives way to another eerie familiarity: the boxes/buildings actually each contain part of the surface of the artist’s body, carefully cut up to fit neatly into them, Tom La Duke has “boxed” his entire body, including back, knees, nose, penis and fingers, the whole tlung. The physical beauty, poetry and ingenuity of fhis work beguiles. Then, it
turns ominous as other more somber connotations such as fragmentation or incarceration, emerge.
La Duke’s technique is so consummate that he operates the most desired paradox in art: seeing as an act of love, seeing as all act of transcending what is gazed at. The work of art is the result of that transcendence. It has the effect of producing a greater ability to gaze in the viewer. Why? Because the contemplation occurs in an altered, atemporal space of ultra vision where oppositions merge or are reversed. The inner becomes the outer, the outer becomes the inner. Freed from our ordinary way of looking,
what do we see? In a zen sense, we simply, what is there. But the transformed is now seeing transformed objects. Here is a dangerous, seductive confusion between horror and beauty, and the transcendence of name, appearance and essence at their edge.