ART REVIEWS : Baldessari Reinvents Himself

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In John Baldessari's playfully engaging exhibition of mixed media images at Margo Leavin Gallery, the artist who almost single-handedly invented L.A. Conceptualism in the '60s once again reinvents himself. Quirky, tourist-like snapshots he took on a recent sojourn in India replace the anonymous B-movie stills and news photographs Baldessari had employed as his exclusive source of images for more than a decade.

Paintings on rubber mud flaps and Formica doors taken from motorized rickshaws, as well as photocopies on handmade paper usually used in religious ceremonies, make Baldessari's use of his own photographs look less like a major shift in his working method than it really is. His new materials are so unexpected that only later do you realize you're not looking at images he has pillaged from obscure films, but pictures of a foreign country as seen through the eyes of a visitor.

This surprisingly elegant, yet strangely comical, series of works clarifies Baldessari's abiding interest in art's formal properties. Although formalism is usually derided for rejecting content, narrative and the everyday world in order to endlessly fuss with hermetic issues, in Baldessari's hands it becomes an effective means for revitalizing vision. His version of formalism is an open-ended one in which nothing escapes art's ability to change it.

In a typical work, elements "in" a photograph are echoed by, or balanced against, the components that make up the rest of the collage. For example, a photograph of kids flying a kite includes two girls, one wearing a blue baseball cap, the other a red one. He has painted over a third figure, leaving only a yellow silhouette. A separate but abutted picture of a single peacock feather mirrors the shape of the kite and its string. And a dangling mud flap that depicts a galaxy of floating commodities completes the fragmented picture by representing his art's ability to suspend things, both literally and figuratively, between reality and something else.

Unlike most types of collage, Baldessari's does not function by overlapping fragments or forcing things together to create an overarching narrative. In his art, everything occupies its own space. Even his reused mud flaps divide into three distinct categories of meaning. Their existence as formal elements in his art is predicated on the necessity that we momentarily forget they were once functional elements of a foreign means of transportation. Paradoxically, this transformation reflects and respects their historical contexts: In India, mud flaps are often painted and utilized, both practical and decorative.

Baldessari's snapshots do not record his personal experiences in India as much as they allow distance to enter his pictures. In the same way that his appropriated B-movie stills let him engage the world by holding it at arm's length, his most recent pieces remain intentionally out of sync with their subjects, drifting in the space between forms and their transformations.

* Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 273-0603, through June 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Going for Effects: Cindy Sherman's latest body of work delivers a fatal blow to the idea that artistic beauty is based on the human form's perfectibility. Since the Renaissance, the body's harmonious proportions and idealized composition have served as a standard against which paintings and sculptures could be judged. The New York-based artist's exhibition of monstrous color photographs at Linda Cathcart Gallery makes mincemeat of this tradition. It relentlessly demonstrates that pictures of the human anatomy bear no intrinsic relationship to the real thing.

Ugliness, disgust and repulsion run riotously through her carefully staged and luridly lit photographs of plastic and rubber mannequins. Sherman buys these training dummies from medical-supply companies and lays them out in positions common to hard-core pornography, sometimes adding theatrical masks, fake body parts, wigs and garish makeup. The one-act dramas that result are utterly cliched but no less gripping in their intensity. Both ordinary and demented, they give physical form to the terror that lurks beneath the surfaces of everyday experience.

The blatant fakery of Sherman's images battles with the nastiness of illicit subject matter. Although you know that you're looking at cheap props, artificial limbs and exaggerated theatrics, their effect is undeniably real. Her color-saturated photographs cause your stomach to twist into tense knots. The smirks, snickers and guffaws Sherman's pictures elicit represent your body's attempt to release the pressure that's building inside, to find some relief in humor from the deadly seriousness of their viciously truthful vision.

In this ruthlessly focused body of work, Sherman brings her career-long dissection of the stereotypes that distinguish women from men onto the ultimate ground of gender difference: female and male genitalia. What distinguishes these maniacal photographs from her earlier work is their inescapable claim that human flesh offers no stable basis for the meanings and values we usually ascribe to the sexes.

In the late '70s, Sherman created a series of fictitious black-and-white film stills in which she portrayed herself as a seemingly endless--but also dead-end--series of feminine characters. She wore the B-movie uniforms of aspiring career women, jaded Playboy bunnies, worn-out housewives and defiant hustlers as if these costumes totally compensated for the missing, singular selves that were supposed to exist under their exchangeable exteriors.

In the late '80s, Sherman dressed up as characters from art history. Rather than recapping the grandeur of past masterpieces, she used the techniques of Surrealism to reconfigure these images into a nightmare of fragmentation and dissolution. Her luscious photographs fused works of art and blatantly exploitative depictions of women. Plump, Rubenesque stomachs mutated into Bruegelesque distortions of skin diseases; and Ingres' sexy, fetishistic portrayals of prostitutes merged with David's restrained renditions of prudish Neo-classicism.

Anatomy and destiny could not be further apart in Sherman's exposures of the difference between men and women. The medical dummies that star in her one-shot performances have detachable genitals, organs that literally can be plugged in and removed at will, depending upon one's mood or proclivity. Her latest works use physical dismemberment to play out the differences not only between men and women, but between flesh and its significance, between different bodies and their social meanings.

If anything undermines Sherman's insistence that the human corporeal form does not automatically distinguish men from women, it is her demand that ugliness completely replaces beauty as the basis for meaning in the visual arts.

Although her photographs give stunning form to the divorce between flesh and its representation, they are inconsistently nostalgic in their insistence that these fictions are necessarily fraudulent. If Sherman continues her scathing portrayal of gender differences, this sort of overstatement will disappear along with other more unjust differences.

* Linda Cathcart Gallery, 924 Colorado Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 451-1121, through June 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Pharmaceutically Funny: Mind-bending drugs take the place of paint in Fred Tomaselli's exceptionally clever send-ups of abstract and representational painting. Whereas these art forms struggle to interrogate perception by playing out subtle optical conundrums, his surrogate works combine these visual tricks with enough perception-altering substances to make painting's power look pale in comparison.

From across the Christopher Grimes Gallery, "Big Speeding Comet" looks like a gorgeous night sky across which shoots a brilliant comet. Up close, each star is revealed to be a hit of speed, and the comet's blazing tail a pile of powdered amphetamine. Likewise, "Feels Like Candy" appears to be a sky full of fireworks or an overcrowded galaxy of mandalas, but is in fact a stunning array of a pharmacy's most visually alluring medications.

Tomaselli's delightfully funny conflations of art and drugs side-step the cynicism that usually accompanies Conceptual art's claims about painting's supposed death. Although many of his works contain enough chemicals for a lethal overdose, they are as concerned with visual beauty as they are with the referential possibilities offered by aspirin and antacid, Dexadrine and decongestant.

Safely encased under a thin layer of transparent resin, the drugs enter your bloodstream only through your eyes. They work on your mind visually, not physically, referring to the utopian impulse that guided abstraction at the beginning of the century as well as to this art's tendency to degenerate into escapist decoration.

Tomaselli's wickedly humorous images protest the fact that painting, especially abstraction, is often dismissed for being conservative and decadent by those who otherwise decry the moralistic sobriety of the '90s. By using marijuana leaves, saccharin and a colorful panoply of pills, tablets and capsules in his irreverently mutant paintings, he plays this art's stodgy supporters against its equally squeamish detractors in works whose hallucinatory beauty is both literal and depicted.

* Christopher Grimes Gallery, 1644 17th St., Santa Monica, (310) 450-5962, through June 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Tawdry Elegance: Patrick Morrison's paintings of gaudy bordellos and flashy cabarets, luxurious hotels and grand theaters, return to the settings of a lifestyle of elegance. The characters that inhabit this world, however, seem irredeemably alienated from its pleasures. Its men, in trench coats and wide-brimmed hats pulled down low on their heads, invariably hold cigarettes to their mouths and look as if they're taking their last smoke-filled breath. Women, in feathered, dance-hall regalia or skin-tight dresses, wear faces of the permanently jaded, as if they've checked out of their bodies so they can go through the boring motions of their dull performances once again.

If Morrison's paintings existed in Weimar Germany, they would be seen as timid criticisms of bourgeois decadence. Today, they simply seem lost.

Though they are competently composed and executed in a palette that is mildly dissonant, their subjects and style lack conviction and interest. Like their figures, they have the presence of being out of time and out of place, as if their nostalgia trapped them not in the good old days of excitement and amusement, but in the bad old days of broken dreams and shattered fantasies. The staleness of the paintings exactly matches the torpor of their mechanical characters.

* Earl McGrath Gallery, 454 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 652-9850, through June 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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