Four exhibitions, all in the mid-Wilshire district provide a wonderful opportunity to see thoughtful and challenging art. Good exhibitions are avaialble 365 days a year here in LA, further proving that the “cultural season” is a thing of the past. Here are four reviews of worthwhile exhibitions that stirred all sorts of resonance. I’ve limited the illustrations, but I encourage you to click the links for more examples of the work discussed. Happy TruffleHunting!
Kenton Nelson at Peter Mendenhall Gallery
The line between illustration and fine art becomes blurry sometimes. When this happens, both categories can benefit. The specificity and narrative potential of illustration’s paradigm can infuse fine art with a matter-of-factness so often missing. Conversely, fine art’s pretension can lend resonance to illustration’s cul de sac pleasures.
This “both/and” synthesis is in ample evidence at Kenton Nelson’s solo exhibition at Peter Mendenhall Gallery through July 13th.
The exhibition consists of one large oil painting and more than 20 watercolors in either of two rather intimate scales (10.25 x 7 or 12 x 9 inches.) While the oil painting is of a scale and consistency of Nelson’s aesthetic trajectory, it is the watercolors that sing and by their sheer quantity, take center stage. Nelson has developed a style and an iconography that has a decidedly post war baby boomer veneer. The populated tableaux are laced with sex but are seldom sexy. The landscapes are muted and clean and pregnant with narrative potential. The mood is close to the tension found in Todd Haynes Far from Heaven.
The Still Life watercolors play with out-sized scale. The thermos in Red Top has the same monumentality as William Eggelston’s tricycle on a Memphis sidewalk. In another titled Absent, we see an empty school desk with a blackboard in the near distance. A raking diagonal shadow cuts the scene into light and dark. The compositional approach of Absent is part interior and part still life. The planes of color, squares, rectangles and triangles deconstruct nicely into a quasi-Diebenkorn structure.
Nelson handles watercolor in a singular manner. The surface is chalky and matte even behind the glazing of the frames. The touch is deliberate and controlled. Improvisation is not in Nelson wheelhouse. But this level of control is at the behest of mood. It never feels restrictive
The titles are mostly succinctly descriptive: Lean, Setting Up, Wash Line and Front Yard. The only dissonant chord is struck with the title Strange Fruit which depicts a pair of sneakers hanging from a telephone wire. Not only is the image more rooted in a contemporary setting, but the quotation from Billie Holiday’s haunting elegy to lynching seems not only oddly insensitive but also out of character with the rest of the exhibition.
The star of the show is a watercolor titled Blue Dress. Compositionally rigorous, narratively comely, and striking a balance between the aforementioned Fine Art/Illustration polarities, Blue Dress packs a wallop. For it’s intimate scale, it works on nearly operatic terms. And the Blue of that dress, it’s tangible translucence and texture, exists only in the realm of aesthetic imagination.
Kenton Nelson at Peter Mendenhall Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., through July 13th, 2013
Ron van der Ende at Ambach & Rice
The pleasures of trompe l’oeil effects are immediate. However the gee whiz marvel over the technical ability to optically deceive fades fast like the precipitous drop in earnings of a wide release film in its second weekend receipts. In a new exhibition at Ambach and Rice, Ron van der Ende races headlong towards this cliff but miraculously never falls into a non-resonant abyss. Don’t let the double negative deceive, this is an excellent show.
The best diagnosis for van der Ende’s visual success may lie in the fact that he doesn’t traffic in narrative or naturalistic depiction. More often than not, these approaches become trite and cliché faster than summer lightning.
The boxes, cubes, letters and I beams that are van der Ende chosen subjects are, for all intents and purposes, abstract. In such, the artist can flex his sizable skill set of forced perspective and have the head-scratching charm of trompe l’oeil deception be the subject matter itself.
The second marvel in evidence in this fine exhibition is that these images are made of veneers of recycled wood nailed into an armature no more than four inches thick. No effort is made to conceal the flat head nails, which attach the veneers of colored wood to the structure and thus become part of the tone and rhythm of the piece.
A curious viewer yo yos back and forth, examining the sculptures up close to see their meticulously constructed feats and then slowly retreats perpendicular to the wall until the perceived three dimensionality snaps into recognition. Move side to side and the illusion continues to a point when it disintegrates again. The act of seeing and engagement is essential to the appreciation of van der Ende’s work and thus his art becomes a collaborative experience. This dance is particularly effective in the east gallery where four pieces are installed on opposing walls.
The color palette is distinctive. Weathered hues lend an air of the antique. Furthermore, no paint is applied to the patchwork quilt of wood and color. This artistic restriction is also a gift to the viewer. Perfection is eschewed in favor of approximation.
The I Beams in the west gallery are bombastic and macho. They seem tailor made for a trading room of a hedge fund where positions of perceived strength can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Perhaps most satisfying is to witness exquisite craftsmanship at the behest of substantive aesthetic inquiry. In Los Angeles, where artifice in the film industry (matte painting and model building) were once the tools of cinema’s magic, it’s lovely to be seduced by magic for magic’s sake.
Ron van der Ende at Ambach & Rice, 6148 Wilshire Blvd. through July 27th, 2013
Mathias Merkel Hess at Acme
Mathias Merkel Hess demonstrates an impressive power of aesthetic transformation with a contemplative and intelligent solo exhibition at Acme Art on Wilshire Boulevard. One of the foremost principles of art is an act of transformation. This can be as basic as observing the three-dimensional object and rendering it in two dimensions. Of course it can include transformations of scale, content and narrative. Imagined into reality; fact into fiction; low into high. At its core essence, Art is interpretation through transformation.
Merkel Hess’ chosen subject matter is the anvil. Each life size replica is rendered in slab-constructed ceramic covered sumptuously with a host of luscious glazes. The power of Merkel Hess’ transformation lies in a faithful depiction of the immutable in a medium of vulnerability. One faint blow from a hammer would shatter these sculptures. But the original objects are not only meant to withstand such abuse but their very shape and raison d’être is to work in concert with the blows of artisan crafting iron and steel into forms mostly for utilitarian use.
Here then a brief (and uncommonly well written citation from Wikipedia): “An anvil is a basic tool, a block with a hard surface on which another object is struck. The block is as massive as is practical, because the higher the inertia of the anvil, the more efficiently it causes the energy of the striking tool to be transferred to the work piece. In most cases the anvil is used as a forging tool. Before the advent of modern welding technology, it was a primary tool of metal workers.”
There are many reasons to admire this exhibition. The objects are indeed beautiful and elegant. Of course this beauty emanates from the source form itself. But the execution that Merkel Hess exerts on the ceramic medium runs the perfect tight wire between accuracy and approximation. The glazes, some matte and sensual, some glossy and pock marked, flirt with the viewer’s eye like a comely lover. Indeed the desire to run one’s hand over and under these objects and caress the surface can make you blush.
The exhibition is perfectly and humbly installed on sawhorses with functional plywood tops. Most are placed at hip height where they would reside in their functional setting. I have no doubt that they will work equally well in a vitrine or on a coffee table but this will be their second life in a collectors home. For the gallery setting, this is the perfect display methodology. It strips pretension while simultaneously engaging intellect.
Merkel Hess has assembled a diverse selection of anvil forms each with a specific origin of trade. Metal smiths, blacksmiths, saw makers and farriers all rely on this basic tool. Yet each form references function particular to the trade. This variety of forms is nice, for as the focus remains honed, Merkel Hess avoids the drone that variations on a theme so often devolves into.
Lastly, because the anvil and its historical purpose have largely been usurped by mechanical manufacturing and contemporary welding techniques, the show bears a subtle elegy to manual fabrication. This wistful scent can occur hours after one visits the gallery. Thankfully neither the work nor the press release drums this possible interpretation into the viewer’s frontal lobe. Merkel Hess thankfully is an artist of evocation and not dogmatic illustration.
Mathias Merkel Hess at Acme. 6150 Wilshire Blvd. through July 6th, 2013
Windshield Perspective at A+D Museum
I’m a sucker for sidebars. Small boxes filled with tantalizing stats about a certain topic, augmented by a pie chart or per cent breakdown lure my eye away from a substantive narrative article almost every time. Now imagine an exhibition based on the sidebar concept and you have an approximation of Windshield Perspective currently on view at A+D Museum through July 9th, 2013.
The topic of the exhibition is a stretch of Beverly Blvd. here in Los Angeles. The windshield in question acts as framing device, lens and shield in the act of viewing this segment, from Normandie to Virgil. The framing device restricts our field of vision. The lens magnifies and focuses our attention on the stories contained in each building. The shield inevitably distances us from the immediate experience of both the present and the history. Driving is different than walking.
Any exhibition which takes a drive, both literally and metaphorically, owes a huge debt to Ed Ruscha who in 1966 created a photographic project documenting every building on the Sunset Boulevard. Along with artists like Lee Friedlander, Vija Clemins and Dennis Hopper, Ruscha created a visual language based in the experience of “behind the wheel” perspective. It is unfortunate that this exhibition doesn’t touch on the artistic precedence especially since it is such an inherently west coast if not Los Angeles experience. That said, the premise and the exhibition yields rich and unexpected rewards in ethnographic, demographic and anthropologic veins.
The exhibit presents a wealth of information on the city blocks of its focus. It would be an amazing IPad App especially if one were on the actual street and the narratives would unfurl as one ambles down the block. In such, the show, expertly curated by Greg Golden, acts like an ethnographic Zillow. Ownership trajectories, occupant vocations and geographic arcs unfurl in front of you. The history of development and neighborhood identity reveal themselves while reading the copious information.
The exhibit makes excellent use of large scale printing. These are not only applied directly to the wall but also to cut outs that create jarring and engaging tableaux. One can spend hours digesting the facts and stories and lists.
As fascinating as all this information is, the question that arises as one leaves the exhibition is “Where’s the thesis?” With such an abundance of information and history, there doesn’t seem to an actual conclusion. While the dispassionate presentation of materials is thoughtful, well organized, visually engaging and to the best of my acuity, accurate, there doesn’t seem to be a strong narrative voice. Seeing Alex Gibney’s riveting documentary Park Avenue recently on Netflix streaming I was struck by this fact in stark relief. If a filmmaker would fail to come to a conclusion after a tsunami of research, the film would be deemed a disappointment of misplaced potential. Gibney states his conclusion in them first five minutes and lets the assembled material, statiscal, interpretative and anecdotal, support his thesis.
But maybe it’s visual journalism that A+D is after rather than the editorial column. If that’s the case, then kudos and congratulations are in order.
The wistful suspicion though is that the exhibition is the love child of a talented graphic designer and a hyper zealous fact checker. A cantankerous opinionated author is nowhere in sight.
Windshield Perspective at A+D Museum, Through July 9th. 2013
-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, July, 2013