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    L.A. Confidential
by Michael Duncan
 
     
 
Paul McCarthy as a demented Santa
at Blum & Poe
 
Paul McCarthy's rubber monkey
at Blum & Poe
 
Rico Lebrun
at Koplin
 
E Chen's installation
at Richard Telles
 
Peter Voulkos
at Frank Lloyd
 
Jeff Price
at Newspace
 
William Claxton
at Craig Krull Gallery
 
Jeff Gillette
at Dirt
 
Jeff Gillette
at Dirt
 
Blame it on millennial self-absorption. As the new century looms, Los Angeles galleries are filled with dismantled and fragmented human bodies, faces and limbs. The figures seen in these exhibitions bring to a climax many of the past decade's ideas about the distressed state of the human psyche. Can the art of the new century pick up the pieces?

At Blum & Poe, Paul McCarthy mounts his first L.A. installation in four years, providing a roomful of relics and props from his 1996 Tokyo performance as a demented Santa Claus. Augmenting the documentation, McCarthy crowds into the gallery 21 damaged but fully-decorated Christmas trees ($2,500 each), whose lumbering, misshapen forms seem the perfect audience for the gruesome ketchupfest documented in the startling large-scale cibachromes that line the walls.

Performance relics include paintings smeared in acrylic and the artist's trademark Hershey's chocolate ($6,000 each). The demon Santa's mascot -- a hideous grinning rubber monkey -- comes gift-boxed, ready for holiday giving.

More sober -- but equally out-there -- are the masterful pen and ink drawings at Koplin by the key 1960s L.A. artist Rico Lebrun (1900-1964). Inspired by sexually perverse scenes from the Marquis de Sade and Dante's Inferno, these virtuosic drawings present fornicating bodies as grotesque hulks of flabby flesh punctuated with engorged private parts.

Extraordinarily tough-minded, Lebrun's drawings reveal a dark sexuality tapped by artists such as Hans Bellmer, Antonin Artaud and Pierre Molinier. Dismissed for his "European" sensibility in the '60s, Lebrun is overdue for reevaluation. These grimly comic drawings in the spirit of de Sade couldn't feel more contemporary ($975-$7,175).

In his gallery-sized installation at Richard Telles Fine Art, E Chen creates a kind of cross-species salad, scattering sculpted human torsos among an array of cheerfully hand-painted cast fruits and vegetables. The sexually entwined, fiberglass torsos are neatly cut off at chest and thigh levels and painted white, evoking both classical plaster casts and Brancusi abstractions.

Transforming the pantry into a kind of Plato's Retreat, Chen arranges zucchinis, eggplants, bananas and melons in orgiastic groupings that accentuate their anthropomorphic and sexually evocative shapes. The sprawling still life freeze-frames human coitis amidst a sea of fully sexualized vegetival playmates (entire installation: $18,000).

In what is only his second gallery show in L.A. in 30 years, ceramic legend Peter Voulkos presents a grouping of his rough-hewn sculptures, pots and plates at Frank Lloyd. With their raw, piled-up hunks of clay, the master ceramist's four-foot-tall "Stacks" have a kind of gutsy, gestural volume that makes them seem like Ab Ex creatures of the deep-kiln.

At Newspace, Jeff Price offers an elegant group of swollen female torsos sculpted in fiberglass and covered with a layer of gritty dirt. These pregnant earth goddesses seem to have transcended their empty shells to enter some higher realm. Price's interest in the beauty of the earth-based torsos reflects a spiritually enhanced esthetics grounded in the human form. For his showstopper, titled Lubber, Price installed an opaque fiberglass torso in fetal position on the top of an eight-foot stack of flat cardboard boxes. Finding poetry in the most reduced human conditions, he elevates the lumbering form on the humblest of pedestals.

At Craig Krull Gallery, William Claxton's vintage photographs of the fabulous Peggy Moffitt modelling Rudi Gernreich mod fashions offer a much more upbeat and raucous vision of the human figure in action. From the mono-kini to an incredible op-art shawl, Moffitt shows off to advantage Gernreich's revolutionary and vastly underrated couture.

In his smaller gallery, Krull also shows a group of photographs by Julius Wasser documenting a variety of '60s L.A. events. His subjects include the "Pet Sounds"-era Beach Boys and Sonny & Cher as well as the Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol exhibitions at the legendary Pasadena Art Museum. From the Duchamp show are pictures of a nosy museumgoer inspecting Duchamp's urinal as well as a variation of the well-known photo of the artist playing chess with the nude Eve Babitz, framed through the glass of Duchamp's famous Bachelors.

Finally, at Dirt, L.A.'s most energetic new gallery, Jeff Gillette presents two wildly different bodies of work that both stretch the limits of their genres. In cityscape paintings of Bombay and Mumbai, depictions of vast fantastical slums fill the frame leading back to distant modern skyscrapers. The only signs of human life are a solitary Coke machine in one slum and an arched McDonald's sign in another. The pop referents startlingly interrupt the expressionistic grey slum expanses, capturing the surreal and obscene juxtapositions inherent in the corporate exploitation of the Third World (paintings $199-$599).

For the holiday season, Gillette and Dirt also offer a "$10 Blasphemy Blowout" of collages that mix cartoon characters with classic religious iconography. All are guaranteed to enrage the New York mayor and his supporters. Cartoon Mickeys and Minnies attend Old Master crucifixions; Peter Rabbit denies knowing Christ; Jesus receives his special powers from Tinkerbell; the Grinch literally steals Christmas in the form of a Renaissance crucifix. At $10 a pop, Gillette sends up the mythmaking pomposity of not only Disney and Christianity but of the art market itself. (Christmas confession: I myself bought the Grinch collage and wouldn't trade it for a Damien Hirst.


MICHAEL DUNCAN writes on art from Los Angeles.