"In-A-Gadda-da-Vida, Baby," Jan. 3-Feb. 14, 2004, at Western Project, 3830 Main Street, Culver City, Ca. 90232
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly was the first rock album ever to go platinum. For 140 weeks it stayed at the top of the Billboard charts and was spun millions of times in living rooms and at make-out sessions across the country. "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is also the title of a group show of 16 artists at Western Project in Los Angeles, a show that like the song is primarily about love. Organized by Western Project co-directors Cliff Benjamin and Erin Kermanikian, the exhibition expresses a sensuous appreciation for physical amour -- "the Garden of Eden" -- as well as a general nostalgia for the sexy and controversial esthetics of the '60s.
At the entryway to the show is Holly Topping's formally painted self-portrait, Me, a Water Buffalo and a Baby Pig, which shows the artist as a prepubescent teen queen, posing in a dark gown along with the two eponymous animals. As in the painting in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey (or, equally ominously, in the art of taxidermy), Topping here has preserved her youth forever. Topping's exploration is as creepy as it is inviting: she lies pinup-style on her stomach, her head cocked like a vampish Lolita, her high-heeled feet waving lazily in the air.
Drawings by Eve Wood (who writes for this magazine) and the late Tom of Finland are the love songs of the show -- they stand out as tributes to the song's lyrical statement, "Don't you know that I love you baby?" Although stylistically different -- Finland's line is akin to that of comic books while Wood's style is fast and loose -- both artists draw objects of personal affection. In Nose Bleed, Wood uses a deer's tragic stare to simulate the moment of devotion before the inevitable slaying. In What We Make Together, an elephant wraps his trunk around the neck of a fragile bird that has its head bent passively back in ecstasy. Wood's fragile watercolor teems with a kind of sublimated romance, as in a relationship that is just under the surface of things.
Finland on the other hand has a more aggressive approach to drawing; his controlled line makes a quick job of outlining the tumescent forms of a variety of handsome men. In a typical work, a mustachioed man stands in motorcycle gear at parade rest with arms crossed, winking at us from under his hat, proudly displaying his beauty. The Finland drawings displayed in the show are so handsome it's easy to imagine the artist's childlike adoration of his subjects; they are his rock stars and his heroes.
With its hammering bass line, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida has a psychological heaviness that is not entirely sweet. Carol Caroompas' Before and After Frankenstein: The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Bedside Vigil is a pictorial narrative that is, like the song, depicted in clear and bright colors. Caroompas' version, however, is a complex and perverse ode to twisted relationships; in her painting, Renaissance women holding men's severed heads cluster around a bed. Underlying these images is a patterned abstract field including a repeated image of a nurse holding a syringe, as if anxious to repair the handiwork of the violent green goddesses who stand in her way. Caroompas spins the love story on its head, literally ripping it apart and putting it back together.
Another standout in the exhibition is the works by Wayne White, whose altered prints have been seen at the Inman Gallery in Houston, Clementine in New York and Mark Moore in L.A. Like Edward Ruscha, White combines text and image to make a kind of concrete poetry that also provides a sly comment on the art world -- in White's case, by painting pastel-colored 3D letters on top of typical thrift-store pastorals and other prints.
His skillfully painted monolithic statements seem to pop off the surface, proclaiming things like "take your forms from the void and get the hell out" or "super uncool world." White's work seems a bit like a remix -- a new version of a favorite song that rocks in a new way as it hazily evokes the classic sound. Frankly, sampled or not, Wayne White's world is a place I'd like to be. A super uncool world man, what could be cooler than that?
MARY ANNA POMONIS is an artist and a writer living in Los Angeles.