Art review: Joel Tauber at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

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Pumping water, pumping oil and pumping a railroad hand car -- those are the central images in each frame of a film triptych in a layered and marvelously provocative new sculptural installation by Joel Tauber. What emerges is an unusual meditation on history.

The triptych is projected large on a big wall in the main room at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Each black-and-white film -- made with an antique, hand-crank tripod camera briefly glimpsed at irregular intervals -- is grainy and scratched. Shown as a short loop, it italicizes the repetitive rhythm depicted in all that pumping, as well as heard in the film’s rumbling and dirge-like percussive soundtrack.

The loop gets manifested in the imagery too. Water provides human sustenance the way oil provides machine sustenance, while the railroad provides the engine (you should pardon the pun) for population growth, which requires more water. Tauber is visualizing L.A.'s origins, of course, layering oil fields with an unquenchable thirst for water in a semi-arid desert landscape fueled by the power of the railroad trusts. Film makes a resonant vehicle to tell the tale.

That vehicle takes shape in the installation, where a massive length of actual steel railroad track bisects the gallery on the diagonal, leading into a second room. Tauber has built a hand car --also known as a pump trolley -- for the track, its flatbed perforated along the edges like the sprocket-holes of film stock. It hauls a big jug of water, while off in the distance a tumbleweed of debris blocks the path.


The tumbleweed is actually a dense tangle of steel strips, their width not coincidentally echoing film stock. On screen, the operator of the pump car wrestles with the clump to clear the way. The conceptual loop is completed by the emerging power of mass imagery, here set against an artist’s singular vision.

-- Christopher Knight

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 6006 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 837-2117, through Jan. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.