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by Jesi Khadivi
Two months ago, undeterred by the flailing economy, art dealer Charlie James and curator Dane Johnson teamed up to open the Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown in Los Angeles. Their first exhibition, with the straightforward title "Western Front: Inaugural Group Show," featured works by three Bay Area artists from the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco -- Packard Jennings, Ray Beldner and Kara Maria.

Despite current market woes, or perhaps because of them, "Western Front" delighted in cold, hard cash. The suggestive political and economic undertones in the exhibition (some more subtle than others), succinctly articulate the gallery’s post-pop conceptual focus, which mixes agit-prop, conceptual high jinks and bawdy imagery.

Packard Jennings, a collaborator with the Yes Men on last month’s New York Times spoof, contributes several bitingly acerbic culture jams, including his Anarchist Action Figure, the Molotov-cocktail-wielding toy-sized sculpture that has already gotten a certain amount of critical attention. Another standout is his Business Reply Pamphlet, which provides step-by-step pictorial instructions on how to refashion a soul-sucking corporate office space into a nudist utopia, a work that was originally designed to be "shopdropped" in junk-mail sorting centers. The action figure is $2,800, while the pamphlet is $850, framed.

Ray Beldner, a Bay Area sculptor and installation artist (who also shows with New York dealer Caren Golden) offers a sly exegesis of the intersection of art, commerce and appropriation in his "Counterfeit" series, recreations of contemporary blue chip artworks made out of dollar bills. His hanging quilt, Golden Rule (Hollywood -- After Ruscha) (2003), is a version of Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood Sign made out of sewn U.S. currency, while his 6 Squares of Cash (after Carl Andre) (2002) is an Andre floor piece redone in flattened singles.

Beldner’s work fuses the appropriational impulse of Sherrie Levine -- among her first works were presidential portraits taken from coins -- with the obsessive, craftiness of contemporary collagists like Jonathan Herder and Mark Wagner. Prices range from $950 to $12,000.

Like her colleagues here, Kara Maria could be called a political pop artist. Her work explores the popular, well-trodden symbology surrounding U.S. engagement in the Middle East in a series of paintings devoted to the obscene links between petro-commerce and war. In The Muddiness of Right and Wrong, a towering skull wearing camouflage and RayBans gives a toothy grin while two scantily clad women vamp in the foreground.

One figure, naked except for her hijab, throws a seductive glance over her shoulder while the BP petroleum logo encroaches upon her bare ass. The work is available for $8,500. While the relationship between pornography and violence is fertile ground and the cultural context of violence warrants discussion, Walker’s powerful paintings run the risk of inspiring the very "war fatigue" that she seeks to combat.

"Western Front: Inaugural Group Show: Ray Beldner, Packard Jennings, and Kara Maria," Nov. 15, 2008-Jan. 3, 2009, at Charlie James Gallery, 975 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, Ca. 90012.

JESI KHADIVI is an art and film critic based in Los Angeles and Berlin.