In her second solo show in Los Angeles, Kristen Morgin strips away the sentimentality that made her earlier works look nostalgic -- so obsessed with yesteryear that they seemed to have been made by someone with her heart set on turning the clock back. Her new works are timely and pointed, born of a sensitivity to the trauma of the real world but tough enough to know that fantasizing about the good old days too often goes nowhere.
At Marc Selwyn Fine Art, the sentiments Morgin's clay sculptures trigger are social, complex and open-ended. Unlike conventional trips down memory lane, her fired and unfired works treat the present as a treasure that can disappear in an instant, due to a moment of inattentiveness or for no fault of one's own, much less any good reason.
Injustice, mortality and fate are typically the stuff of Greek tragedies. Morgin brings viewers to these big, often portentous subjects by way of humble, readily accessible things: cartoon characters, paperbacks, toys and doodles.
The installation is about as glamorous as yard-sale leftovers. In the center of the gallery stands a pair of makeshift tables, pushed together and covered with coffee cups, puppets, figurines, comic books, pulp novels, children's books and boxes of playing cards, candies and cigarettes.
All have been handcrafted by Morgin, shaped in clay and meticulously painted with acrylics and ink or glazed.
The playthings have the look of 1930s and '40s Americana, before the toy industry was a billion-dollar enterprise and dolls, spaceships, race cars and ducks were pretty simple. Not especially realistic, they required lots of imagination on the part of the kids and were made to last.
The coffee cups are a little funkier, with such cartoon characters as Goofy, Tweety Bird and Bugs Bunny sharing space with Frankenstein, Pebbles, Snoopy and Hello Kitty. Not one of Morgin's cups matches another in size, shape or subject. Each embodies the pathos of a retail store's remainder bin and the loneliness of the last surviving relative.
Morgin's clay replicas of comic books, storybooks and paperback classics are stranger still. Made of unfired clay, each wears its fragility on its sleeve. Many look water-damaged, their yellowed pages stuck together. The most fascinating are the ones with which Morgin takes the most liberties, mixing up the story lines of the original comic strips, drawing other cartoon characters -- in fine black lines -- over brightly colored compositions and adding depictions of Charlie Chaplin and images borrowed from Philip Guston, Keith Haring and Dr. Seuss.
The rest of the gallery is chockablock with Morgin's eccentric diptychs, each combining an original book with her haunting rendition of it in clay and paint. The pairings invite before-and-after comparisons.
Morgin's skills as a realist recall works by contemporaries Steve Wolfe and George Stoll. But verisimilitude is only a starting point for Morgin, who piles up references in a terrifically mismatched mess that captures the complexity of the present and the way the past lives in it.
The five largest pieces give the poignant poetry of her small works greater physicality. Two extraordinarily detailed board games, a life-size bicycle, a nearly 4-foot-tall Mighty Mouse and a 5-foot Popeye put Morgin in league with such California heavyweights as H.C. Westermann, Ed Kienholz and George Herms. It's heady territory that is as risky and thrilling as the real thing.
Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 101, L.A., (323) 933-9911, through Aug. 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Where insight rules over logic
At a time when professionalism seems to be choking the playfulness out of life -- and when people can hire specialists to walk their dogs, buy their art and train their kids to sleep through the night -- it is refreshing to come across Jean Conner's quirky collages. At the Michael Kohn Gallery, the 75-year-old artist's cut-and-paste pictures celebrate the virtues of amateurism -- of doing something neither for fame nor because it's your job but simply because you love to do it.
The 22 modestly scaled and quaintly framed pieces in the San Francisco artist's first solo show in Los Angeles were made between 1959 and 1996. Each is animated by a wonderfully cockeyed view of the world -- a generously sensual vision in which vertigo and serenity combine to form quiet little epiphanies of off-balanced enchantment. Intimacy and insight take the place of drama and logic.
The visual power of Conner's collages is remarkably consistent.
In some, such as "Voo Doo," "Venus" and "Angel in the Stable," Conner makes topsy-turvy spaces by juxtaposing aerial views with close-ups. In others, such as "Madonna of the Roses," "Arrival of the Magi" and "Adoration," she turns each viewer into the center of the universe, the still point around which the crazy pageantry of civilization swirls.
Still others leave plenty of the plain white paper visible. "Two Way Collage" creates a whimsical arrangement of antique furniture and exotic animals. "Pouff" transforms images clipped from the Sunday comics into an outlandish creepy-crawler with meteorites for eyes, a military tank, roller coaster and T. rex as its midsection, and three fish, each with the head of a beautiful woman, as spiritual guides.
This exhibition is Conner's fifth solo show and only her second in a commercial gallery. Her first three took place in a San Francisco bookstore, a university medical center and a public library. No matter where her deliciously idiosyncratic images are shown, they hold their own and attest to the pleasures of looking at the smallest details while pondering the big picture.
Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (323) 658-8088, through July 19. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.kohngallery.com
Experiments move over to art
Pat O'Neill is an internationally renowned experimental filmmaker who, over the last few years, has been projecting his densely layered films in darkened galleries alongside, on top of and through a variety of found and handcrafted objects. His latest installation, at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, is his most successful. Neither resolved nor polished, it's terrifically stimulating in its uneven, hit-and-miss experimentation.
O'Neill's untitled exhibition appears to be the offspring of a backwoods cabin and a laboratory where surveillance tapes are analyzed. The combination of beautifully carved, sanded and finished walnut, oak, pine, acacia, basswood and sycamore burl with beautifully shot, edited and scored DVD projections jars a visitor's expectations and suggests a pretty sophisticated sort of folk futurism. It's high-tech primitivism.
As a filmmaker, O'Neill never believed in technology for its own sake. He always used whatever gizmos he could -- often adapting them to do things never imagined by their manufacturers -- to capture life's cyclical rhythms: day into night, winter to spring, ripening to decay, death to regeneration. For O'Neill, recycling is not simply something you do with cans and bottles. It's the very pulse of the cosmos.
As an installation artist, he still is finding his footing. Some pieces fall flat. Others fall short of transforming repetition into the mesmerizing flow of his films. But many work brilliantly, blending old-fashioned craftsmanship and digital wizardry to show that real inventiveness never goes out of style.
Intimacy is Nancy Jackson's forte. Each of her seven diorama-scaled sculptures and page-size drawings in another room at the gallery creates such a convincing little world of its own that it's easy to forget yourself in its presence -- not to mention where you're standing and everything else around you.
Jackson's meticulously rendered gouaches are all about contemplative solitude, of following one's own path and meandering through out-of-the-way places. "Crossroads," "Hard Rot" and "Bird Mountain" suggest that difficulty, luck and humility may lead to self-knowledge, but only if the self doesn't get in the way.
The two best pieces are the most elaborate. "Ka" is a wall sculpture that mimics the format of a ceremonial mask but also embraces the nestled complexity of multiple realities, its eyes and mouth opening onto worlds-within-worlds.
The only free-standing sculpture, "Oum," is more than 6 feet tall. But it is made of such fragile materials -- string, wire, clay and porcelain -- that it doesn't tower over viewers, but rather seems to be the model of a solar system inspired by dangling earrings and delicate chandeliers.
As a group, Jackson's low-tech, handcrafted works engage viewers -- and the world around them -- by making room for respite.
Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through July 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times