The first stop on the Los Angeles art tour has to be the Santa Monica gallery center known as Bergamot Station, where Patrick Painter recently showed new work by Mike Kelley. For this show Kelley lined the gallery with film posters with the actors' faces cut out, reminiscent of a classic trick of the grand-daddy of L.A. Conceptualism, John Baldessari. But whereas Baldessari made his pictures look static and ambiguous, Kelley has something far more kinetic in mind. The wayward faces are reincarnated by being attached to humanoid cushions elaborately arranged on the floor. And if this isn't kinky enough, sewn-on baby socks serve as all-purpose orifices. Homosexuality, pedophilia, vagina dentata, miscegenation and bestiality are all evoked by Kelley's animated pillow pileups.
Spinning on a turntable in the center of the installation is a gingham-dressed doll, the reversible kind that has a white face on one side and a black face on the other. Kelley has added his own opposites -- cutouts of a young woman's face and a ghoulish sun-glasses-wearing skull.
Few contemporary artists are more generous than Kelley to the stuff of low culture, whether it be the semiotics of thrift-store cast-offs or the materiality of squiggly yarn and silky pillows. Kelley is also determined to be fully synaesthetic, including a sound track with each work.
And Kelley is generous to his audience, too, here by offering complimentary posters. On one side, inflammatory texts in his best Communist red exhort us to exonerate Clinton in a Reichian rant against American sexual repression. On the flip side are the collected press clippings of the infamous attempted rape of Stephen Spielberg. The notorious role of Hollywood in the construction of sexual fetishism is the subject of this particular Kelley pantomime, which presumably aims to "loose the noose" of American repression.
While at Bergamot Station, sifting through a number of shows of varying qualities, one that stood out as a pleasant surprise was Nina Bovasso at Richard Heller Gallery. Bovasso produces what seems to be acres of small drawings done in gouache on paper. From molecular structures to spaghetti junctions, these urban mandalas are both contemplative and humorous, and inflected with the kind of decorative elan that is reminiscent of Hundertwasser, or even his artistic forefather, Gustav Klimt. Each organic sketch reveals the obsessiveness of Outsider Art, a kind of Watt's Towers in two dimensions. From African textiles to a refined Guston (if there could ever be such a thing), from Dr. Seuss to Joan Miro, all came to mind while viewing Bovasso's theme parks of line and color.
The only other show that really caught my eye at Bergamot Station on this trip was Matthew McCaslin at Shoshana Wayne. Once again the theme seems to be theme park (elsewhere at Bergamot Station were paintings of clowns). McCaslin's videos of Coney Island were arranged raggedly around the gallery, with cables akimbo over the floor. The artist seems primarily interested in light, and seems to be attempting to transpose the Impressionism to videotape. Movement and sound combine to recreate a fun-park atmosphere, a purely esthetic thrill of colored lights, merry-go-rounds and ferris wheels. The simple concept is perhaps appropriate for our time.
Interestingly, this fascination with the theme park motif resurfaced at Andy Alexander's graduate show at ArtCenter. The artist fashioned niches in the wall to hold video monitors showing tapes of a rollercoaster-eye view. The walls of this peep-show setup were painted in camouflage. Alexander seems to be fabricating some kind of pre-packaged psychedelic experience for the ecstasy generation. Add the fact that crystal formations appear upon close examination of the camouflage, or factor in the strange appearance of a larger than life set of pearly whites (all the bigger to grind as the drug takes hold!) I can only surmise that Alexander's project is to make complex in-jokes about psychoactive accessories; in other words; art as a pure fashion statement.
On the topic of the young and sassy, Chinatown has a new attraction -- China Art Objects. This new contemporary art space is run by a gang of four (mostly ArtCenter graduates), Steve Hanson, Mark Heffernan, Giovanni Intra and Amy Yao. It opened with a wonderfully understated show emphasizing the transformation of the space from an unkempt trinket store to a pristine gallery designed by local luminary Pae White. For his contribution, Hanson created a giant aquarium replicating the space down to every last detail (toilet, light fixtures and even the d.j. turntables in the basement, which see frequent use at various art/music events). The aquarium housed fish and crabs that unfortunately ended up eating each other over the course of the show. One can only hope this isn't some kind of Dorian Gray parable for the gallery's own collective!
The second China Art Objects show, "With/out Space," consisted of 21 artists from L.A. and Germany, and was co-curated by Tom Simpson and Valeska Peschke. Some of the standout pieces included an abject geological denim floor sculpture by Heike Klussmann, which was echoed nicely by ethereal wall drawings by Peschke. My personal favorite was the functional Bamboo Bar in the basement by Keith Freeman. This work came complete with free drinks on the opening night served by a deliberately surly barman who resembled Bryan Brown and wore a Hawaiian shirt. The show also included a video compilation of extremely mixed quality. After watching a long and dishearteningly bad skit revolving around fat women eating desserts, Jennifer Hollander's more abstract, contemplative piece worked better for me -- a looped shampoo ad amping consumerism and desire for all it's worth.
New on the same block is the Karen Lovegrove Gallery. Hailing from Melbourne, Lovegrove opened with the highly respected Australian photographer Bill Henson. Luscious large photographs depict two different subjects. The sexual scenarios with anemic teens struck me as a poor simulation of Larry Clark. Henson's images of deserted street scenes, empty basketball courts, train yards and trees in lamplight were limpid, humid, teeming portraits of a landscape with more untranslatable resonance than any staged sexual coupling could conjure.
Near at hand was Acme, so one could wander from the sublime Henson to the truly ridiculous -- "diva" paintings by Kurt Kauper in which the artist depicts imaginary opera stars in close detail. This artist is getting serious press, believe it or not. For really grand egos in acid hues, I'd recommend the painted self-portraits of notorious L.A. sexbomb Angeline at Art Lux on Melrose. Fluorescent, chalky and childlike, nevertheless there's something endearing about L.A.'s biggest sex bomb's portrayal of herself as variously a Hindu deity and a Catholic icon.
The current installation at Ace Gallery LA includes Dennis Oppenheim's marionette works from the mid-'70s. Without the creepiness of Paul McCarthy marionettes or the Dada sublimity of Bruce Nauman's wax self-portraits, these works nevertheless chatter, stomp and wail up a storm of mirror images based on the artist's own visage. Oppenheim creates a kind of psychological op art where the viewer gets lost in a vortex of the "self" as a non-stop performer, an empty cipher / decipherer of signs.
Also presented at Ace is a stunning series of mirror dome installations by John Armleder. Once again the beleaguered viewer is thrown into a tunnel of reflections, refractions and self-examinations. Unfortunately Armleder's elegant oeuvre is echoed by Red Balls, a flashy clothes store on Melrose that has also commandeered the in-store surveillance dome as a classy accessory.
Completing the Ace obsession with introspection was a small series of Jasper Johns-style targets; only these were made entirely from different colored match heads. Each bullseye was centered with the visage of the artist, David Mach. These flammable self-portraits seem to rely on a pun on the artist's name, and didn't manage to light the same spark of self-recognition of Oppenheim and Armleder. Nevertheless they created a warmly colored entry and exit in counterpoint to the typical austerity of the Serra works on display -- another set of cool and dangerous offerings from this heavy metal daredevil.