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FRAGILE PLEASURE
by Kathryn Garcia
 
Elliot Hundley, May 9-Sept. 3, 2006, at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca. 90024.

In Elliot Hundley’s motley constructions, paper cut-outs of classical nudes disport themselves in dense landscapes of tiny objects, colored yarn and bright abstract elements. Everything is skewered on straight pins, as if the product of a collector who has abandoned his insects in favor of assembling the flotsam of visual culture. Megalopolises of collaged minutiae, Hundley’s art is an obsessive meditation on the fragility of a world constructed purely for pleasure.

It’s a regressive world that sends us into our youth -- much of the technique suggests kindergarten-level craft -- and into earlier ages of history. Images of Etruscan sculptures share space with masked figures, photographs of friends, clippings from fashion magazines and homoerotica, all haphazardly set up against backdrops of painterly strokes, ranging from glancing to heavy impasto.

Hundley’s work has proved to have considerable appeal. Even before graduating last year from UCLA’s MFA program, Hundley had sold work to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and been called an "art-market-sensation" in the New York Times. On the evidence of scattered appearances in group shows, the London-based Art Review named him as one of its most promising contemporary artists.

What’s more, his first solo exhibition is being held not at a commercial gallery but at the Hammer Museum, as part of its series of "Hammer Projects" presentations of works by emerging artists. The survey offers a suite of four works, all of them courtesy of New York’s Andrea Rosen Gallery.

The first work in the Hammer installation is the massive collage Siren, two large, irregular panels flanking a freestanding sculpture. The panels are densely layered, filled with representational images clipped from art-history as well as contemporary fashion and erotica, all displayed atop a forest of abstract ephemera and other tiny elements. The works tap into a deep vein of figurative collage by artists ranging from Max Ernst and Robert Rauschenberg to Bruce Conner and the student work of Cindy Sherman, as well as the dense collage paintings of artists like Henry Darger and Lari Pittman.

The centerpiece of the show is Proscenium, a collage that towers toward the ceiling, with naked bodies excised from historical and erotic materials interspersed with two-inch-tall images of Doric columns ripped from antiquity. The work is built upon a haphazard infrastructure of light bamboo, and although it seems to aspire toward the monumental, it’s a contradictory form, also embodying contingency and fragility. Haphazardly constructed, covered sporadically in collage, the piece yields an art-object aggregate almost by accident.

Most successful is a work that does not hover on the threshold between sculpture and painting. A completely three-dimensional object, Garland is a non-representational composition of feathers and bits of plastic, its conjoined fragments delicately attached and strung precariously to the wall. It seems as if a single touch could destroy the entire piece, allowing it an eloquent delicacy, a vulnerable repose. This is where Hundley’s use of delicate, fragile ephemera becomes most gripping.

All the pieces in the show are lyrical, almost naïve expressions. And, though they all employ a similar methodology, they don’t come together into anything memorable, almost by design. The viewer is left to contemplate objects that are neither autonomous nor hybrid. In previous exhibitions, Hundley’s work succeeded on all levels, from perspectives both near and far, as paintings and as sculptures. Here, this master of instability seems to be resting on his laurels -- though there is excitement to the precariousness for precariousness’ sake that is his stock and trade.

Several readings of Hundley’s work are possible. With his copious -- one might say promiscuous -- art historical references, he could be attempting to debase the solid matter of art history through ephemerality. With his incoherent and inharmonious constructions, which are neither painting nor sculpture, Hundley could be embracing the avant-garde esthetic of anti-form. Or his free-form assemblages could be whimsical records of a consciousness overtaken by a fantasy world in which all hierarchies have dissolved. The artistic machine, then, produces a product that is unstable to the point of willed inconsequentiality.

In any case, these days, the limbo-like quality of the pieces at the Hammer seem poignantly emblematic of an uncertainty about how to move ahead.


KATHRYN GARCIA is an art writer in Los Angeles.