Art review: Bas Jan Ader at Patrick Painter


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Bas Jan Ader arrived in Los Angeles in 1963 on a shipwrecked yacht. In 1975, he disappeared in similar fashion, trying to cross the Atlantic alone in a 13-foot sailboat. The remains of the boat turned up off the coast of Ireland, but Ader was never seen again.

This fatal journey was the second part of what was to be a trilogy of works titled ‘In Search of the Miraculous.’ The first part, a slide show with accompanying soundtrack, is on view at Patrick Painter along with a suite of works in which the Netherlands-born Ader addressed the legacy of fellow Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian.


In keeping with Ader’s maritime interests, the slide show is a series of photographs of a nine-person choir singing sea chanteys. The songs play in real time, creating a cognitive dissonance with the slide show, which advances only every 5 seconds. The singing seems to call for a moving image, but the slide show answers with only a stuttering sequence of frozen moments.

This gap between sound and image highlights the difference between the fleeting nature of time and our efforts to capture and represent it. It seems especially haunting in light of Ader’s subsequent disappearance: The sea chanteys take on an elegiac, disembodied quality as they carry on without the images.

In death, Ader’s short career took on a life of its own too. His work has become influential among a recent generation of artists interested in performance and the line between art and life. This intersection was of particular interest to Ader, whose best-known works explore the boundary between artifice and reality, control and inevitability.

In his short films the exceedingly tall, gangly artist performed simple but risky (and often slapstick-worthy) feats: falling off the roof of his house, dangling precariously from a tree limb or riding a bike into a canal.

Yet Ader had little reverence for his artistic forebears. The other works gently lampoon Mondrian, the iconic painter of austere grids of primary colors. Ader’s suite of eight gouaches interprets the elder artist’s trademark color blocks as maritime semaphore flags; each image features a capital letter, in negative on a field of primary color or black and white. Together they spell out the words ‘Piet Niet’ (‘Piet No’ in Dutch). This blunt negation is repeated in a neon floor sculpture, in which the letters glow in requisite shades of red, yellow and blue.

In another series, Ader takes on a recurring, early Mondrian subject: the Westkapelle lighthouse in Zeeland, a western province of the Netherlands. In one image Ader photographed himself falling down on the road to the lighthouse, holding a plastic yellow paint can, a red bag and a blue blanket. By again transforming Mondrian’s pure squares of color into useful, everyday objects, Ader poked fun at the reductive, idealized geometry that Mondrian prized by bringing it back down to earth. And, in the simple act of falling, he not only allegorized the failure of those modernist ideals but reminded us that life is governed not by right angles and perfect squares, but by the implacable force of gravity.


– Sharon Mizota

Patrick Painter, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-5988, through Feb. 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Images: ‘Untitled (Neon Sculpture)’, 1974. Photo Credit: Fredrik Nilsen. Image courtesy of Bas Jan Ader Estate and Patrick Painter Editions.