ART REVIEWS : Hills Finds Simple Radiance in Flowers


If landscape painting conjures a Romantic past somehow at odds with the criticality of Post-modernism, then flower painting doesn’t even rate a discussion, so entrenched is it in the much-maligned category of the decorative. Julian Hills’ radiant flower paintings, however, toss this misguided notion out the window faster than you can say “unabashedly ornamental.”

Energetic while courting decadence, expressive while reeking of refinement, these mostly small oil paintings are remarkably consistent, adhering to a single, pictorial formula--a vase, some flowers, and a shelf or table, all set in an undefined space.

The simplicity of design is reiterated in the simplicity of execution; these works read more as drawings than paintings. In “Invented Flower Number One,” for example, strokes of pale-toned paint on a black background demarcate a pitcher and a cluster of flowers, like a faint chalk sketch on a blackboard. Modeling is entirely eschewed in favor of the suggestive, sensuous line.

Where a single, swirling mark defines an entire form, a debt is most probably owed to Matisse. In “Four Invented Flowers in an Invented Space,” a black circle metamorphoses into a flower pot, apostrophe-like strokes of red become petals, and streaks of green are transformed into leaves. As in the work of the French master, the appeal lies in the economy and the seduction lies in the speed.


* Newspace, 5241 Melrose Ave., (213) 469-9353, through Oct. 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Comedy and Tragedy: Nancy Burson’s computer-generated portraits insist upon voyeurism in order to encourage tolerance. Disembodied faces flattened into two-dimensional surfaces cannot easily resist our stares. And so we permit ourselves--unashamedly--to look, to scrutinize, to imagine.

Burson’s images are composites, produced via a computer program that allows the artist to scan myriad photographs of faces and to blend particular features into a single image. In the past, Burson has used the technology to comic effect, combining the facial characteristics of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to create an icon of martyred celebrity, or those of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman to suggest the oneness romantic love is said to engender.

With her latest 20x24-inch color Polaroids, taken directly from the computer monitor, Burson swaps comedy for tragedy, amalgamating images of birth defects and genetically determined malformations in order to produce an extraordinary portrait gallery. Some of the sights are aggressively disturbing: a cone-headed youth whose nose points in one direction, while his mouth twists in another; an older man whose mouth and jaw are severely swollen and distorted; a young woman whose face is covered by a transparent veil that is stuffed, inexplicably, into her open mouth.


What occurs in the very deliberate process of looking at these faces, however, is that difference slowly slips out of view. The concentrated gaze works here not to stigmatize, but to equalize, and thereby to exorcise our fears. Burson so powerfully throws into question the whole notion of what it is to look “normal” that the most eerie face in the show winds up belonging to a smiling blonde straight out of a Pepsodent advertisement.

The hauntingly transformative nature of Burson’s portraits is played out on a formal level, as well. Their format is uniform--an incorporeal face, mired in shadow, emerging from the deepest, darkest background. From a distance, the face appears to be drawn in black and white, enlivened only by multiple shades of gray. Close up, however, it devolves into a mosaic of minuscule, multicolored pixels that shimmer and vibrate as they are struck by the light.

These fantastic, computer-generated tesserae remind us that Burson’s portraits are not transparent renderings of the real--they are sophisticated technological fabrications. In this, they stand as a metaphor for photography itself, which invents virtual realities we too often mistake for our own.

Unlike photographic reality, however, Burson’s manipulated images do not conceal their status as such. Instead, they turn the question of reality back onto the viewer, quietly urging us to ponder why we construct our own realities upon a substructure of prejudice, ignorance and fear.


* Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 938-6834, through Oct. 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Embracing the Ridiculous: Phoebe Adams’ sly (but never shy) sculptures play with psycho-sexual forms without fetishizing them. Nothing is all that serious in Adams’ lexicon. A pair of stretched-out poplar cones--inverted, with sharp points at their ends--alludes to long, sexy legs, but also to potentially dangerous weapons; a blackened bronze crescent masquerades as a triumphant phallus, while simultaneously mimicking lowly excrement; a stack of encased spheres doubles as an oversized pea pod and an array of mutant testicles.

The links to Surrealism are clear. First, there is the metamorphic quality of the work--things transmuting into other things, and then, imperfectly back again. And then there is the sexual imagery, coupled with a warm embrace of the ridiculous.

Adams’ bronze, horsehair, mahogany and poplar sculptures, however, never permit their delightful impurity of sentiment to obfuscate their considerable purity of form. These works are minimal--simple, self-contained, cleverly balanced--although restricted to natural forms, unlike their industrially-minded, capital-M forebears.


“Drop Dead” is of a long strip of bronze, patinated to resemble a bolt of turquoise fabric, from which a pair of mahogany vessels drops. The work elegantly defies gravity, but it also defies logic: The vessels are sealed on either side, foregoing their status as utilitarian or metaphorical objects.

The vessel is a long-standing symbol for the female; but Adams’ vessels resist their role as containers for (male) hopes and fears. In mutilating them, the artist ironically empowers them, while simultaneously deflating her puffed-up male symbols.

It is, once again, a matter of balance--or rather, of righting an old imbalance. And what Adams’ work finally suggests is that politics--feminist or otherwise--may be most effective when presented in the guise of play.

* Pence Gallery, 908 Colorado Ave., (213) 393-0069, through Oct. 19. Closed Sundays and Mondays.