BY Olivian Cha in Critic's Guides | 30 SEP 16

Critic's Guide: Los Angeles

Rebar snakes, Pre-Raphaelite sci-fi and rotating hats: the picks of the recently opened shows in the city

BY Olivian Cha in Critic's Guides | 30 SEP 16

Lari Pittman, 12 Verified Occurrences During a Full Moon, 2015, acrylic and lacquer spray over gessoed, heavy-weight paper board, 68.58 × 63.5 × 11.43 inches. Courtesy: the artist and Regen projects, Los Angeles © Lari Pittman

Lari Pittman
Huntington Library
3 September – 20 February

Lari Pittman’s meticulous and dense pictorial compositions now find form in six sizeable illustrated books. While his ornamental (some say democratic) treatment of personal and popular iconography remains consistent in serial format, the textural relief of his singular canvases is replaced by an extraordinary and seemingly impossible flatness. Fluorescent-hued pages resemble mechanical prints; sketchy marks appear as woodcuts rather than brushstrokes.

Visitors can access all 65 painted pages, which otherwise turn periodically throughout the duration of the exhibition, on a touch screen located in the gallery (and on the venue’s website). Is this a concession to impatient art enthusiasts, or Pittman’s commentary on contemporary modes of viewing? Many of the paintings exhibit peculiar, white flashes, painted in as if to resemble the glare of reflective surfaces – technical blips disrupting photographic relay. Pittman’s work has always demonstrated poetic narratives and technical ingenuity; here, his paintings continue to address aesthetic reception and physical intimacy in the fractious landscape of digital media. 

Julien Nguyen, Son of Heaven, 2016, oil on panel, 79 x 48 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles

Julien Nguyen
Freedman Fitzpatrick
11 September – 22 October

For his first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, Julien Nguyen presents a series of paintings populated with delicate, androgynous figures that simultaneously express the erotics of sci-fi fantasy kitsch and the whimsical longing of Pre-Raphaelite landscapes – illustrative scenes that seem to acknowledge the tedious but also revelatory history of painting. Recalling the geometry and compositions of Italian Renaissance works, Nguyen also employs architectural structures to create perspectival space, as in the receding, chequered floor of New World Order (2016). If the grid remains the historical anchor of Western painting, in Nguyen’s images it also suggests the rigged skeletons of digital bodies in virtual space, where gravitational orientation and physical form remain continually in flux. In Son of Heaven (2016), Nguyen’s muse is rendered in varied states of articulation: his torso, sketchy grisaille; his hand, cartoony illustration; his face approaching photorealistic completion. This is the elusive nature of desire, visualized through a body caught in the process of becoming.    

Hanne Darboven, 2016, exhibition view, Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles. Courtesy: Sprüth Magers © Hanne Darboven Foundation, Hamburg / ARS, New York 2016; photograph: Joshua White

Hanne Darboven
Sprüth Magers
9 September – 29 October

German artist Hanne Darboven imagines gridded forms as more conceptual and clinical expressions. Dating from the mid-1980s and 90s, the three separate installations on view at Sprüth Magers were generated from a single project: Darboven’s attempt to represent the subjective experience of time through a serial production informed by ‘mathematical’ methods. Her efforts manifest in hundreds of framed prints and collages arranged in tight configurations. In the main gallery, a group of freestanding educational illustrations depict sites of recreation, commerce and industry, adding pictorial levity to the otherwise austere wall works. 

It seems intentional that these minimalist aesthetics appear mismatched with the immeasurable historical, cultural and political themes that Darboven’s works subtly reference – labour, for instance. Upstairs, a less rigid arrangement of frames alongside dollhouses and scrapbooks offer the faintest hint of disorderly reprieve. Amidst this protracted labour, one wonders why the human figure feels so poignantly absent? Darboven seems to suggest that in the rare moments when we are able to transcend modes of production, our superbly imprecise bodies do not leave visceral traces.

Barbara T. Smith, 'Words, Sentences & Signs', 2016, exhibition view, The Box, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and The Box, Los Angeles

Barbara T. Smith
The Box
17 September – 29 October

Bodily traces abound in ‘Words, Sentences & Signs’, Barbara T. Smith’s fourth exhibition at The Box. Known primarily as a performance artist, and a key figure in the Southern California art scene, her recent exhibition features an eclectic and candid collection of works spanning from the 1960s to the present. While the show’s title alludes to more conceptual implications, Smith trades in formal and thematic coherence for a pleasantly imprecise approach to language and display. Her intimate drawings, snapshot photos and ephemeral souvenirs are like the awkward pauses or moments of unruly stutter that emerge before more concrete expressions. Here, formal inconsistencies can be either banal or exhilarating; some paintings are well-meaning but dated and gauche, while the comic strip stickman and fish scene in Petroglyph: Solitude, Perception, Communication, Incorporation (date unknown) is a refreshingly strange and potent example of idiosyncratic techniques and imagery. 

Betye Saar, When Cotton Was King, 2009, mixed-media, 29 x 25 x 18 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Robert & Tilton, Culver City; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

Betye Saar
Roberts & Tilton
10 September – 17 December

LA-born Betye Saar continues to enrich the history of West Coast Assemblage, a tradition that includes the likes of Bruce Conner, Edward Keinholz and Noah Purifoy.  Simply titled ‘Black White’, the show fills the gallery’s project space and initiates a two-part survey that continues with Blend (opening 15 October). At the heart of the modest number of mixed-media works on view is a challenging proposition: approaching conceptions of race (and attendant prejudices) through an examination of the linguistic and aesthetic valences of two colours. Saar has, in her now-characteristic style, transformed thrift store knick-knacks into something close to sacred reliquaries. A birdcage filled with a black fist and die; a pale cherub atop a rusty white scale. All but one of the works are from 2016, while the found fragments date back to earlier decades; they provide a brief yet vital visual history of iconographic representations of race since the Jim Crow era, but also the material and psychological gravity of ‘black’ and ‘white’, which long precede our present moment. 

Rafa Esparza and Timo Fahler, A Post-Industrial Snake, 2016, installation view, Club Pro, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artists and Club Pro, Los Angeles

Rafa Esparza and Timo Fahler
Club Pro
16 September – 16 October

Located in the garment district of downtown Los Angeles, Club Pro is nestled on the second floor of a building surrounded by stores selling mannequins, display fixtures and all manner of clothing for retail distribution. Taking this commercial and architectural context into consideration, Rafa Esparza and Timo Fahler’s current exhibition, ‘IN’, places viewers amidst a playful game of post-industrial chutes and ladders. The aptly titled installation, A Post-Industrial Snake (2016) grounds the exhibition’s theme of ‘urban renewal’. Comprising a group of rebar pipeline sculptures arranged strategically, as if twisting and turning throughout the two-story space, individual pieces also act as display structures: one exhibits a grid of construction lights, another Fahler's linen and plaster cast body. Its zoomorphic form is finally revealed when a steely snakehead faces us in the last gallery.  

Chris Domenick and Em Rooney, After the Sun, 2016, exhibition view, The Vanity East, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artists and The Vanity East, Los Angeles

Chris Domenick and Em Rooney
The Vanity East
17 September – 23 October

After the Sun, Chris Domenick and Em Rooney’s meta-contribution to The Vanity East, wryly addresses the architectural specificities of exhibiting within a gallery that is located inside a veritable closet flanked by bookstore Ooga Booga and 356 Mission’s massive exhibition space. Extending the Russian doll theme even further, the artists have created a collection of seven hats with accompanying hatboxes. Each is inspired by a notable ‘ancestor’ and is unique in its material composition – the ‘Margaret Thatcher Hardhat’ is made of glass and collaged images, while its complementary box is made of steel, foam, packing pillows and shrink-wrap. Everyone loves a good list, and the inventory of materials comprising all works, subtly and smartly address the more economic and ecological implications of our globalized present: ‘goods, their containers’, disposable packaging, branded plastics, landfills and trash. The six millinery-inspired works will be shown one-by-one, on a rotation, marking this ritual progression of time as a form of protest against the mindless cycle of consumption and waste. 

Olivian Cha is a curator and critic based in Los Angeles.