Critic’s Picks: Los Angeles

by eve wood

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“The Angelus Army (detail),” 2013, Gregory Michael Hernandez
Hand cut c-prints on archival mat board, 42″ x 208″
Photo: courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton Gallery

Gregory Michael Hernandez had an epiphany in his 35th year, which made him keenly aware of death: he realized that his two greatest influences, Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark died, in their 35th year. As a result, he embraced his need to do “inner work and seek solitude.” This self-awareness is reflected tacitly in his new exhibition of photo-based works titled “Angelus,” premiering this September at Roberts & Tilton. Speaking to issues of immigration and homelessness, the artist tackles these subjects with poise and tremendous intelligence. In Proposal for a Monument #2 (to Upward Mobility) (2013) the artist uses photomontage to present what appears to be an endless staircase, dissected and reassembled, while halfway up we encounter a sleeping homeless man strangely assimilated into that fractured landscape. Hernandez raises questions about responsibility, human vulnerability and civic duty while creating a structural framework that is visually stunning and constantly shifting. Other works, like The Angelus Army (2013), directly reference French painter Jean-Francois Millet’s famous 1857-59 work The Angelus, which depicts two peasants bowing their heads in a field–only here Hernandez has cast an Hispanic day laborer who assumes the pose of the male figure, also bowing his head, as though in supplication, his gesture further punctuated by an arid and starkly beautiful landscape. The final effect is a grid charting a multitude of vanishing points across a spectacular 365-degree desert expanse. From September 14 — October 26, 2013, at Roberts & Tilton.

“Darker… I’ll Try. Part 1,” 2013, Steven Hull
Mixed media, foam, wood, acrylic paint, Latex, 9′ x 8 1/2′ x 3′
Photo: courtesy Rosamund Felson Gallery and the artist

For decades Steve Hull’s work has been marked by a riotous comic sensibility, as though life itself were a meditation on the absurd; yet beneath the exacting wit and garish colors, one can clearly discern a passionate and committed mind at work. Hull has long been a “multi-faceted practitioner and curatorial figure” on the Los Angeles art scene and has been exhibiting at Rosamund Felsen since 1998. His projects are diverse and far-reaching and include long-term collaborations with other artists, musicians and writers, his own practice as an artist seemingly intensified by his interest in and support of other artist’s efforts. In 2010, Hull co-founded Las Cienegas Projects with a curatorial program that focuses mostly on more esoteric work and community participation. Working in both painting and sculpture, as well as assemblage and collage, Hull’s exhibitions are vast multi-media experiences that utilize rich cultural symbolism like the skull, the Sherman tank, or a simple cartoon devil’s face. Many of these images are psychologically charged and reference childhood constructions like train sets or toy cars, though Hull reconfigures these images toward a more earnest, authentic and self-reflexive sensibility that is at various turns strongly influenced by Mexican folk art and religious artifacts. His newest work will be on view at Rosamund Felsen Gallery from September 7 — October 12, 2013.

“Cat’s Cradle,”  2013,  Alison Saar,  Wood, tin, acrylics, graphite and cotton cloth,  33″ x 10″ x 8″ Photo: courtesy LA Louver

There is an old African proverb that reads, “Africa is a rubber ball. The harder you dash its people to the ground, the higher they will rise.” Alison Saar’s work bears testament to this powerful statement, as she is a supreme “object maker,” and a woman for whom identity and personal integrity comprise the core of her aesthetic. The daughter of the iconic feminist artist Betye Saar, Saar grew up immersed in a world where art was an integral part of everyday life. Her work demonstrates a strong sense of personal narrative as she uses allegory and metaphor to tell visual stories that celebrate women’s strength and endurance. Working in bronze and a variety of mixed media that also includes an active drawing practice, Saar continues to circumnavigate her own heritage in her newest exhibition at LA Louver. Poetic and often elegiac, Saar’s sculptures of African American women constitute a duel commitment to form and content. Through her use of familiar archetypal imagery and artifacts from Latin American, Caribbean, and African cultures, Saar creates large-scale semi-figurative sculptures that directly engage issues of race, gender and identity, and which are imbued with profound emotional resonance and unparalleled candor. Her new show, “Slough,” runs from September 3 — October 5, 2013, at LA Louver.

“3 (Backyard),” 2013, Leon Benn,
Oil, acrylic, pastel, spray paint on linen, 90″ x 78″
Photo: courtesy the artist and Carter & Citizen

The paintings of Leon Benn rely primarily on the artist’s own personal reflections and perceptions, as he examines the smaller moments when life passes unnoticed, as when a leaf falls to the ground or a bird takes flight. Snippets of common everyday experience are celebrated and explored, and eventually poeticized; his first solo exhibition at Carter & Citizen deftly reflects the simplicity and splendor of common life situations. Benn, a 2013 MFA recipient from UCLA, describes the process by which he came to these paintings as a “definitive spiritual journey,” an attempt to go beyond his own staid experiences living as a white American man in Los Angeles, to encompass a wider range of visual and auditory considerations. The paintings are relatively small, mostly 20-by-24 inches, and reflect a primarily dark color palette as well as a disquieting exoticism, as though Benn were somehow channeling Paul Gauguin’s Polynesian fascination. The figures represented here are mostly women, loosely painted, and Benn captures them in strangely offhanded moments, raising an arm perhaps to gesture, or drinking from a bottle. The images are meant to appear “in process,” as though at any moment the figures might recede or deepen further into the landscape from which they came, expanding the implied narrative a little further out from itself. On view from September 7 — October 12, 2013, at Carter & Citizen.

“Sunny lands,” 2012, Mark Dutcher
Oil, charcoal, tinted gesso on canvas, 52″ x 65 1/2″
Photo: courtesy Coagula Curatorial

At first glance, Mercedes Helnwein’s fourth solo exhibition at Merry Karnowsky Gallery might appear to be an obvious foray into straightforward portraiture, but on closer examination, Helnwein’s intense and oddly unsettling portraits of pretty young models with aquiline features, mostly done in black pencil and oil pastels, pack a real punch. The daughter of spectacularly irreverent, Austrian-born artist Gottfried Helnwein, Mercedes is no stranger to difficult imagery, though unlike her father, her work is less obviously brutal and more enigmatic and mysterious. In the oil pastel First Aid, for example, a young woman is seen bandaging another woman’s arm, yet the weirdly seductive smile on her face betrays another more aggressive agenda perhaps. Helnwein’s images posit odd, vaguely disturbing relationships between people and objects, and often the viewer is left to fill in the blanks. These drawings are fierce, elegant, and beautifully rendered, and derive from a multi-layered process that involves filming models in a vaguely film noir style with mood music accompanying the scene, then extrapolating her selected still images to further translate them into drawings. The work betrays a luminous theatricality, a real flair for the dramatic, and there is always a hint of a suppressed narrative lurking just below the surface. The show runs October 5 — November 2, 2013 at Merry Karnowsky Gallery.

“Sunny lands,” 2012, Mark Dutcher
Oil, charcoal, tinted gesso on canvas, 52″ x 65 1/2″
Photo: courtesy Coagula Curatorial

Mark Dutcher’s paintings are visual testaments affirming Franz Kafka’s “axe for the frozen sea within us” in that they deliberately challenge our stolid notions of what it is to be alive, expressing those sometimes painful moments in abstract form. Originally from Long Beach, CA, Dutcher briefly attended Cal State Long Beach where he studied with Roger Herman and Rachel Rosenthal, and was heavily involved in the punk scene in the 1980s. His upcoming fall show, titled “Transfer,” contains that same energy and raw power that marked the punk movement and are pure and honest reflections of the artist’s deeply rooted personal and philosophical concerns. Through these images, made of such humble materials as house paint, wax, cardboard, glitter and string, Dutcher achieves a strange and sometimes uncomfortable redemption. Several works directly reference the recent death of his sister from cancer, her name floating, half obscured behind a veil of thick paint. The paintings are mostly abstract, though one can tease out words and images here and there, suggesting that Dutcher perhaps wants us to create our own narrative of loss and celebration. On view from September 14 — October 19 at Coagula Curatorial.