The title of Amanda Ross-Ho's intriguing new exhibition at Cherry and Martin bemoans the frustrations of communication. "Half of what I say is meaningless" is most recognizable as the first line of the Beatles' song "Julia," but it actually comes from a text by Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, in which the second line reads, "But I say it so that the other half may reach you."
It's a sentiment that Ross-Ho appears to have taken to heart. Her seemingly casual arrangement of objects and images -- some quite remarkable, others banal -- makes it difficult to separate the potentially significant from the superfluous. Reproductions of family photos and mass media images are haphazardly taped to slabs of Sheetrock leaning against the wall. Other found or slightly altered images are hung at different heights, interspersed with small objects: a triangular black pouch, a gold-painted rock, a homemade wooden camera. There's also a glamour photo of a young Ross-Ho, a brightly colored crazy quilt that reads "Pregnant again!" and a giant Formica model of the SIM card from the artist's BlackBerry (a repository of contacts marooned when she switched to an iPhone).
It's a motley collection whose highly personal references border on self-indulgence. But Ross-Ho's playful, open-ended juxtapositions invite further investigation, revealing a network of relationships that unfolds in a fleeting, almost subconscious way. For her, meaning is something to be made rather than imparted, and the experience of putting it all together is quite enthralling.
The show's Rosetta stone is a standard-size rectangle of wallboard that has been drilled to resemble pegboard (conjuring many a garage work space). Leaning against the wall, it bears a patchwork of seemingly unrelated images: an illustration of beavers, a staged photo of an elderly white woman baking cookies, a snapshot of a reclining tabby cat. All of the images have rather nondescript backgrounds, like those of stock photographs, making it difficult to tell which have personal meaning and which are generic.
Yet subtle pairings emerge. The lazy tabby bears an uncanny resemblance to a nearby photo of a girl lying on a sofa. The pair of beavers at the top are echoed in a photograph of two otters near the bottom. Other duos occur within the same image: the defunct BlackBerry and its charger, a bed covered with a quilt in the same bright colors as a poster of David Lee Roth.
These quixotic connections form a personal iconography in which the generic and specific are interchangeable. For example, a photo of a kitchen window that is a low-quality computer printout on the pegboard reappears in the back room of the gallery as a high-quality art print.
This larger version is titled, signed and dated by Laurel M. Ross, the artist's mother, signaling fine art aspirations that Ross-Ho reinforces by pinning a paint-splattered cloth to its wallboard support. The cloth is a cliché sign of an artist at work, but it also looks like a dishrag.
By presenting the same image in different contexts, Ross-Ho reveals how differences in scale and presentation determine whether an image is classified as kitsch, family souvenir or art. In the process, she not only questions the validity of these categories but also collapses the distinction between artistic and domestic labor.
Although her installations have always included a personal element, Ross-Ho's more explicit engagement with her own history gives this exhibition a surprisingly emotional charge. Tucked behind the wallboard that holds the large kitchen photo is a color printout of an empty pet carrier. Echoing the boxy shape of the window, it suggests confinement but also loss.
As it turns out, the missing dog appears in the front room, in duplicate: Two instances of the same German shepherd's head have been taped onto a photograph of a backyard fence and re-photographed to create a seamless image. The work's title, "Shepherds (Double Tragedy)," casts the print as a kind of memorial, even as the slapdash tape job reminds us that the infinite reproducibility of images can't make up for a singular loss.
Then again, we have no idea whether the German shepherd is Ross-Ho's dog or a generic photo of a dog -- but it doesn't really matter. What makes her work compelling is its ability to make us aware of our desire for connection and narrative, even as it frustrates and misdirects that urge. In other words, it asks us to hold up our half of the conversation, in hopes that something meaningful will reach us.
In her exhibition at Bank, "Foreign Exchanges: Galileo," Dorit Cypis calls for a more nuanced understanding of history. Spread across two walls, a constellation of variously sized discs bears photographic images, from green leaves and clumps of hair to crowd scenes and partial views of the faces of Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein and other famous figures. Interspersed among these images are several concave mirrors that create upside-down reflections of the viewer and the room. The result is a lovely metaphor for a more flexible structuring of history: a loose string of pearls that catches the light differently depending on your point of view.
Clearly a reference to the show's namesake -- the Renaissance scientist who upheld the dogma-shattering theory that the Earth revolves around the sun -- the arrangement appears to emanate from a clump of mirrored discs, each etched with a word in dainty script. It's a dazzling object (a sun, perhaps?), providing something like a fly's-eye view of, again, one's upside-down reflection.
By disorienting the viewer, Cypis attempts to subvert a straightforward reading of the words "memory," "myth," "history," "fantasy," "dream," "family" and "desire." Unfortunately, it's not enough. Although the mirrors work well amid the photos, their combination with such loaded words lacks the same subtlety.
Other inversions are more successful. "Tree Tree" is a diptych photographed from both outside and inside low-hanging branches, which form a kind of tent. This visual flipping makes plain the ability to see two sides of any given situation and how views of the same thing can be radically different.
Although her delivery may be a little heavy-handed, Cypis' message is clear. In a political climate that is perhaps more balkanized than ever, it behooves us to try to see things from our opponents' point of view.
Bank, 125 W. 4th St., No. 103, L.A., (213) 621-4055, through Oct. 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.bank-art.com. The details tend to accumulate
Known for working photographs of everyday objects into her dense, moody paintings, Brenna Youngblood moves in a lighter, more expansive direction with a gorgeous exhibition at Margo Leavin. Whereas previous works had a visceral, sometimes ponderous weight, the new images -- though more layered and visually complex -- seem to breathe easier, revealing an artist completely at home in her medium.
In addition to paint, that medium includes photographs, paper money (both real and fake), graph paper, wallpaper and photocopies that Youngblood uses to create an all-over patchwork pattern that is stained, painted over and covered with drips and splatters. Both mundane and politically charged, the images -- decorative flowers, portraits of Abraham Lincoln, geometric patterns, bits of the American flag -- emerge through layers of residue that betray the painter's hand but also suggest accumulation and a mournful deterioration.
The effect is not unlike the collaged elements of Robert Rauschenberg's "Combines" -- an influence Youngblood seems to acknowledge in "STATION," a two-sided painting with a busted-up frame, perched on a wooden stool. Similarly, "A Special Way to Fold the Flag," with its sideways clock and truncated U.S. flag dollar sign, rests on the floor, pushed out from the wall on a metal support, as if standing at attention.
Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., L.A., (310) 273-0603, through Saturday. www.artnet.com/gallery/174240/margo-leavin-gallery.html. Pieces of America become talismans
Sarah Cromarty's kooky, glitter-encrusted paintings summon a mix of festivity and decay in her debut solo exhibition at the Circus Gallery. The Los Angeles artist paints over photographic images of cowboys, tropical landscapes and other popular motifs, cuts them out and pastes them atop layers of cardboard so that they stand out from their backgrounds like crude reliefs. Gouged or pierced with large holes, their wooden supports are embellished with sequins, string, feathers and fringe to create images that are part pop-cultural homage and part hippie talisman.
It's hard to use cowboy imagery without evoking Richard Prince's appropriations of the Marlboro Man, but Cromarty's hippie-kitsch aesthetic is more personal than critical. In a way, the paintings celebrate stereotypes, matching their superficiality with the fey techniques of a 1970s arts and crafts class.
In the best works -- such as an image of a shiny red car adorned with feathers and sequins -- consumer and New Age fetishism become one. But in others, particularly Cromarty's images of women, the technique simply reinforces an unsavory objectification.
Other paintings of a canoe, DJs and dancing ravers seem out of place amid all the classic Americana. In the end, the work is spread a little too thin in this exhibition, which would have benefited from a tighter focus.
Circus Gallery, 7065 Lexington Ave., L.A., (323) 962-8506, through Saturday. www.circus-gallery.com.