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by Michael Duncan
|Spring is here and L.A. is suddenly swarming with adorable kid-stuff. What's your treacle threshold? One man's cute can be the next woman's insipid. In our post-kitsch age, it's a question of connoisseurship.
The Santa Monica Museum of Art pushes the envelope with "Lullaby Supermarket," Mar. 24-May 27, a sprawling exhibition of sculptures and drawings by Yoshitomo Nara. Many may groove on the Japanese artist's big cartoon-headed teacups, doggie-face wall plaques and evil toddler ethos, but I prefer my Teletubbies straight up and without a twist.
Two long walls of Nara drawings and sketchbook pages do cut down on the sugar, adding a punky spiciness to the mix. In one collage, a precocious tyke confronts a kimono-clad geisha, shouting "Fuck 'bout everything!" Good idea, but I'm not sure Nara's kids can pull it off.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art features a large exhibition of the more austere, fun-house sculptures of Robert Therrien, Feb. 20-May 7. Therrien's gigantic ten-foot-high, wooden table and chairs, which have been shown at InSite and Site Santa Fe, have an undeniable Alice in Wonderland appeal. His 38-foot-long curly-cued bed is a technical tour de force that looks like a prop from Fantasia as conceived by Salvador Dali. And the 7 1/2-foot-high stack of tilted plastic dishes do cause vertigo when you walk around them.
New works in the show (most credited to Gagosian Gallery) include three bizarre 15-foot-high Santa Claus beards made from fiberglass and steel wire. Hung on t-bar armatures, the gargantuan beards look like ready-to-wear disguises for King Kong. Beautifully crafted, the pieces have -- like all of Therrien's works -- an immediate impact.
But for me, it's not a lasting one. Twenty minutes after leaving the museum, I started to think of all the other random objects -- a cat's paw, say, or a toilet paper roll, or an eggplant -- that would look startling if recreated 15 ft. high. (Calling Claus Oldenburg.) Finally the beards seem ... well, just cute.
Tim Hawkinson makes big scale installations with completely different standards of workmanship. At Ace through May 2000 is "Pentecost," the large sculpture that was exhibited last year at the Venice Biennale and Ace New York. The room-sized mechanical installation features 12 plaster figures who beat out rhythms with various parts of their body against the branches of a large central tree.
Creating a weird kind of dissonant human anthem, the large-scale rhythm box extends Hawkinson's excursions into the limits of language. (The title refers to the moment when the Holy Spirit caused the Apostles to speak in different languages.) Hawkinson's metaphorically resonant home-made installations are grounded by their plain-spun look and everyday materials -- here, the sound is made by whapping popsicle sticks. Although usually overlooked by the kunsthalle/project room crowd, Hawkinson remains probably the most inventive artist working today. (And he still does it all without an assistant!)
In a more synthetic mode are the works of Shirley Tse who in her first solo show at Shoshana Wayne lines the long gallery walls with "Polymathicstyrene," a running shelf of ice-blue polystrene that has been routed out to suggest overhead views of a variety of 21st-century structures. Various sections resemble computer graphic renditions of industrial complexes, sports arenas, shopping malls and convention centers. (The lengthy piece is being sold in 34 sections ranging in price from $1,000-$2,200.)
Tse thrusts her supremely artificial materials out into nature in the photographs from her "Diaspora? Touristry?" series. These cibachromes feature solar blankets folded into simple geometric sculptures and placed obtrusively -- and comically -- on cliffsides of National Parks (editions of three, $2,500).
The paintings on masonite of newcomer Tam Van Tran at the new Wilshire space of Susanne Vielmetter more intimately describe the overbearing systemization of urban experience. Map-like grids in industrial shades of orange spread across horizontal fields like toxic webs. Vibrant squares of blue are scattered across the grids and connected by lines to spider-like transmitters. More gritty than the luscious sci-fi landscapes of Adam Ross, Van Tran's paintings present a similarly intense vision of the near future. (Paintings still available for $1,200-$1,800.)
Back to the cute, there are a couple of shows that feature more interesting examples of adorable art. Los Angeles County Museum of Art is showing the Tony Oursler mid-career survey that was put together by Deborah Rothschild for Williams College (Apr. 2-July 9). Although confusingly displayed and difficult to hear in the echoey galleries, Oursler's trademark talking pillow-headed people are here, along with other well-known video-projection sculptures such as the roving eyeballs, chatty flower bouquet, and hostile little people hiding under a couch and mattress.
It's great to see these funny works but in this sprawling show their easy immediacy seems to impede engagement with the more time-consuming and complex installations and single-channel work.
At Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Tim Ebner presents luscious new oil paintings of irresistible animals in fantasy poses. He confidently walks the kitsch tightrope, deftly skirting Beanie-Baby sentimentality and Discovery channel insights with bears and birds that suggest psychologically complex, human surrogates. Ebner's painterly chops are everywhere evident with skies and ocean waves of exuberant brushwork and gorgeous color.
The paintings play off their iconic immediacy. In one, a big grizzly pauses in the surf to wave hello as if for a happy snap. In another a drenched bear pauses just before shaking himself dry, seeming overwhelmed by the weight of it all. In another a whole den of bears stand along the beach enjoying a moment of male bonding. A sci-fi landscape hints at the fantastical weirdness of this entire project. As eccentric in their own way as the works of John Currin, Ebner's paintings thrive on their outsider quality and kooky accessibility (to April 22).
Last -- and sad to say least -- are new photographs by Cindy Sherman at Gagosian, Mar. 23-Apr. 29, that seem a jaw-dropping misstep. Just in time for Oscar season, the photographer makes herself up as grotesque actresses who are wannabe versions of Hollywood stars. The shot of one crop-haired gamin with hideous painted-on freckles looks like a warped version of the young Shirley MacLaine. A brunette with wobbly eyebrows and a steely expression evokes the young Liz Taylor. A blousey type with a big nose and attitude resembles a '70s Barbra. Others seem like parodic versions of Carol Channing, Carol Kane, Dyan Cannon, Cher and Juliette Lewis.
Sherman's lame parodies are variously decked out in warts, prosthetic breasts, nose putty, bad tattoos, fright wigs, cheap clothes and runny makeup. The photographs seem condescending and misogynistic in the extreme, devoid of empathy for their subjects and filled with an odd kind of venom.
Unlike the subjects in her parodies of Old Master paintings, the sources for these photos are living human beings. Why savage movie icons in such a hamfisted way? The "Film Stills" clearly showed respect for the mythmaking power of Hollywood. Why try to "debunk" these prototypes? (Let's hope Steve Martin doesn't have anything to do with this.) After this, cute seems profound.
MICHAEL DUNCAN writes on art from Los Angeles.