The Los Angeles Times

Around the Galleries
July, 2004

A lush landscape of vast alienation

Christopher Knight

A current of ominous dread skitters along the otherwise benign surface of suburban banality in Tom LaDuke’s landscape paintings, It’s a staple of his work.

At Angles Gallery, this conflicted motif of commonplace anxiety recurs in LaDuke’s new landscape paintings, whose chief materials are military enamel and aluminum panel. The work is almost always gray, with bits of blank architecture, isolated treetops and detached streetlights confined to a narrow strip along the picture’s bottom edge.

The composition is ambiguous and potent. Big sky often functions as an artistic metaphor for independence, a sign of liberation and spiritual possibility, and the vast expanses of silvery atmosphere in LaDuke’s paintings can’t escape that reading. But they’re oppressive, too – caustic in tone and visually weighty, as if pressing hard on the horizontal strips of human habitation below.
The paintings are joined by visually spare watercolors. Several show the upper portions of a single plant or tree, silhouetted against a blank background. The poisonous species in their titles – hemlock, sumac, nightshade, etc. – remove any doubt about the grimness of the environment that the artist means to chronicle. “Narcissus,” a gnarled image of a strangely doubled tree, even proposes a landscape defined by confusion of identity and profound alienation.
A compelling group of sculptures personifies those sentiments. Their source is a pair of influential performance pieces by artist Chris Burden, executed in Orange County three decades ago. (LaDuke did his undergraduate study in Fullerton.) In one performance, Burden stood at one end of a gallery while a friend, standing at the other, shot him in the arm using a rifle. In the other, Burden locked himself in a small storage locker at school for five days, with five gallons of water in the locker above and an empty five-gallon bottle in the one below.
For “Self-Inflicted Burden,” a 3-foot-tall self-portrait sculpture, LaDuke shot himself in the arm. The sculpture, made from lifelike plastic resins, shows him wearing gray sweatpants and bedroom slippers; isolation in the artist’s studio is crossed with an image of nocturnal solitude. His right arm hangs at his side, the hand clutching a Daisy pellet pistol, while a thin trickle of blood runs from the angry red hole just below the biceps in his upraised left arm (no exit wound is visible). The look on the artist’s face, examining the lesion, appears partly puzzled and partly annoyed.

“Hours Qf Operation” is an industrial landscape constructed on an 8-foot-square tabletop. This labyrinth is composed of row upon row of personal storage units, each of which holds a portion of a life-size mold LaDuke made from his entire body. Storage units don’t get more personal than that.

History is always a burden, and here the pun has special resonance for a Southern California landscape (artistic and otherwise) that has always been predicated on the roseate vision of a wide-open future, not an inescapable acknowledgment of the past. Chris Burden’s artistic legacy looms large, and we can’t allow ourselves to forget that his physically grueling, even traumatic. 1971 performance pieces arose within a society being shredded by unnecessary foreign war, bitter racial strife and economic hardship.

Now is not then, of course. In 1971, Burden asked a friend to shoot him so that, within a certain frame of safety, he could embody a daily horror abstracted in press accounts. In 2004, LaDuke chose instead to shoot himself. In the difference lies another level of meaning.
Angles Gallery, 2230 Main St., Santa Monica (310) 396-5019, through Oct. 16. Closed Sunday and Monday.