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A Shallow Pair Behind the Same Glib Smile

Steve Ilott and Kenneth Johnston are up to some sassy cerebral antics at the Dietrich Jenny Gallery (660 9th Ave.), but with little of substance to show for it.

The artists, both recent MFA graduates from UC San Diego, live on opposite coasts now, but they converse and correspond regularly. Thus, their pairing here--for the second time--is not fortuitous. Whatever other concerns they share, they both arrive at this show with visually facile work that relies entirely on a complex web of intellectual scaffolding for its credibility.

Ilott has turned out another set of generic paintings, this time in latex on large sheets of plywood. The thin white paint pools at the edges of the cloud-like configurations that occupy each panel, leaving the grain of the violet, olive or orange-stained panels clearly visible. This overlay of textures is about as deep as the paintings get, though Ilott aims for more profundity with his titles, given only in Italian. This pretentious posturing fails to imbue the work with real meaning, but it does clarify the artist’s intellectual stance.

Although the abstract shapes in the paintings evoke familiar forms--houses, a craggy landscape, burnt ruins--Ilott seems unconcerned with these as subject matter and is, instead, more involved with the expectations and meaning attached to the act of painting itself. His work reinforces the postmodern credo that paintings, too, are products, and artists manufacturers. Their wares come in all sizes, shapes and colors to satisfy a range of functions and tastes, just like other goods available on the market.

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There is no mystery here, and no preciousness, despite what history tells us about the visionary capacity of artists. With several bland and boring strokes, Ilott slashes that myth to pieces, leaving nothing in its place but the void of originality and imagination that characterizes his work.

Johnston makes curious wood constructions that hang on the wall like paintings, but uneasily. Spheres interposed between the wall and the rectangular works cause the sculptures to wobble slightly off center, and leave a wedge of open space from which to view the “backs” of the works. Cones and spheres adorn the sides facing out as well, and each of these elements is painted in solid black, white or a hot fluorescent color. Because the sides facing in and those facing out are equally finished, one must walk around each work to perceive it in its entirety. All the bending and peering adds up to little, however, for the objects are unfulfilling.

Just as a context can be established for Ilott’s work by relating it to the rash of current paintings that regurgitate wallpaper patterns, relinquishing authorship and relishing anonymity, so can Johnston’s sculptures be bolstered by comparison with similarly oriented work. Like the handful of New York “Neo Geo” artists, Johnston revives the geometric simplicity of 1960s minimal art, but with a self-conscious subversiveness typical of art in the ‘80s.

Although Ilott’s work has changed only superficially from that exhibited last year, Johnston’s has slid from the coy and intriguing to the esoteric. Now, they both hide the shallowness of their endeavors behind the same broad and glib smile.

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The show continues through Oct. 22.

Artschwager meets Duchamp in the recent work of San Diego artist Marjorie Nodelman, on view at Palomar College’s Boehm Gallery (1140 W. Mission Road, through Oct. 20). Nodelman continues to examine the roots of modernism in her paintings and constructions, instilling the legacy of cubism with a contemporary sensibility. In her large, round paintings of the past few years, Nodelman has engaged the codes of synthetic cubism, rendering forms and space itself as a tight mosaic of flat, colored shapes.

In her newest work, three-dimensional reality and pictorial space lapse into a playful tug of war. The facets of each image are now cut out of vinyl and stuffed so they extend forward into literal space, into three-dimensional reality. While the first generation of cubists began with a view of the real world and deconstructed it into a semi-abstract field of planes and facets, Nodelman begins with an apparently abstract pattern and renders it concrete.

Her “upholstered vinyl paintings” are wry examples of the contemporary artist’s freedom to reinterpret the materials and methods of making art. Her use of vinyl, an impostor for another surface, aptly and amusingly evokes the larger notion of painting itself as an artificial system of representation. Nodelman delves deeply into such fundamental issues, but the puffy, clumsy and somewhat comical look of her upholstered works assures us that she does so with a healthy sense of humor.

“Netherscapes,” a series of drawings and paintings by Los Angeles artist John Rand, shares the gallery with Nodelman’s work. Rand’s drawings, in pencil on small-format drafting paper, portray such industrial forms as water towers and smokestacks, truncated and isolated against a stark white ground. Rand crosses out or draws over the corner of the paper reserved for technical specifications. In direct defiance of the formality of his format, he dismisses all sense of scale and divorces his forms from their familiar context.

Industrial architecture and other human-made forms dominate Rand’s paintings, too, but here the forms are seen among desolate natural landscapes. The tension latent in the meeting of earth and machine is suffocated, however, by Rand’s fussy, stiff style of painting. “Bastion” has a crisp, Sheeler-like look to it, but the rest feel too contrived, sapped of the freshness and mystery that permeates the drawings.


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