Adam Fuss' photograms of flowers, viscera and falling water at Thomas Solomon's Garage enact the Romantic myth of the beauty of death. This is, on the one hand, stating the obvious, for all photographs traffic in this myth. Photography memorializes something that once was, but no longer is; photography packages the past as aesthetic form.
Fuss, however, resists the temptation to bury these ideas. Instead, he pulls them up to the surface of the work, questioning under which conditions the morbid becomes exquisite, the exquisite becomes morbid, and whether this alliance is necessary or unholy.
Fuss' technique bears some explanation. The photogram is a photograph made without a camera. Pioneered in the 1920s by Man Ray and Lazslo Moholy-Nagy, the photogram results from placing three-dimensional objects on light sensitive paper which, upon exposure to light, records contours, shadows and textures.
Photograms look like dead pictures, ghost images with forms traced onto dark backgrounds in milky white tones. In this sense, Fuss' flower images are emblematic--translucent blossoms etched in light and color tangled in opaque stems that seem to be there rather than here, to mark out absence rather than presence. One image of a single calla lily recalls Robert Mapplethorpe's isolated blossoms. Yet where Mapplethorpe celebrates the perfection of form, Fuss conjures loss, the flower's dangling roots suggesting the manner in which it was wrenched from nature in order to serve the (fatal?) cause of art.
If the flower pictures aestheticize death, the more spectacular images of rabbit entrails muddy up the equation. Spread all over the depthless surface, these blue, pink and yellow strings of blood, veins, and intestines less resemble their viscid referents than they do Jackson Pollock's pneumatic, colored webs. Caught between abstraction and representation, they demonstrate the extent to which the beauty of death is not inevitable, but willed. What is aesthetically pleasing here, then, is not decay, but the artist's spin on it.
The large, silver print photograms, which record the moment when water hits light sensitive paper, go a step further. Unlike Harold Edgerton, who used a millionth of a second exposure to freeze a splash of milk into a single, geometric form as unyielding as porcelain, Fuss fractures the moment into an infinite number of forms, sites and incidents. Before these images, then, we are drowned in shifting details--waves radiating outward, irregular striations, odd spots, overlapping concentric circles, opaque patches and scattered bits of translucence.
Here, the lure of death has become the seduction of chaos, the chilly grace of the silver print heightening the anxiety generated by its surfeit of information. This anxiety suggests restlessness rather than quiescence, movement rather than ossification. The water images are beautiful, then, while refusing the Romantic mandate to be still. And so they work--quietly and deftly--to sever the relation between beauty and death, and further, to break one of photography's most recalcitrant myths.
* Thomas Solomon's Garage, 928 N. Fairfax Ave., (213) 654-4731, through Nov. 1. Closed Mondays.
The Computer as Art: Most of us who are not at home in the cybernetic universe become visibly anxious at the mention of circuit boards, capacitors, micro-processors and cathode ray tubes--much less at the sight of them: sleek metal boxes housing who knows what, fat generators, shiny clamps, aluminum conduits, flickering monitors, that low but insistent hum.
What this techno-inventory signifies is the horror that there are things in the world we don't understand that are being used to quantify, circumscribe and control us--and that we need those things (no exaggeration) to live.
Alan Rath, a young artist whose computer-driven sculptures are currently on view at Dorothy Goldeen Gallery, assembles hardware that conjures "wetware"--computer slang for people. Digitized images of body parts--waving hands, blinking eyes, moving lips--appear on cathode ray tubes that are affixed to wood and metal armatures. Other works feature thumping audio speakers that seem as though they are breathing.
While by no means cute in the manner of Nam June Paik's robotic families, Rath's anthropomorphic sculptures are quirky and accessible. The obvious question, however, is why give technology a human face? Is it indeed as vulnerable as the body? And whose purposes might be served by having us believe so?
"Ultra Wallflower" features seven pulsating audio speakers spread against the wall, as if their shy hearts were madly aflutter. "Couple" features two cathode ray tubes, one featuring the image of a man, the other a woman, conversing easily across a heap of electronic and computer equipment. What these works do is make technology benign. They break down its mysteries by baring its devices. They demystify those devices by likening them to the body. But the thing about technology is that it's not always your friend--and if it isn't necessarily your enemy, it's quite likely to be your enemy's friend. This work encourages us to let down our guard. This critic prefers to remain vigilant.
* Dorothy Goldeen Gallery, 1547 9th St., Santa Monica, (310) 395-0222. through Nov. 14. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Naughty, but Nice: A trio of cherubs, dimpled arms spread to catch the wind, soars high above the green trees, houses and winding roads of the ordinary world. These angels, however, are not powered by God's ineffable energy; their engines are the white clouds of gas discharging from their adorably pink posteriors.
Stopping short of comparing artist Megan Williams to a flatulent seraph, it is true that "Boys Farting" is probably the most telling drawing in this show of drawings and sculpture. For the salient characteristic of Williams' work has long been the artist's delight in her own, often quite remarkable powers. Indeed, this is Williams' great strength--and her great weakness.
When things are working as they should be, Williams offers pastel drawings that are literally roiling, swirling and churning with manic energy, crossing the slap-happy cadence of vintage cartoons with the muscular rhythms of Baroque painting.
When they are not, Williams offers these wonderful drawings plus everything else she can do (and she seems quite able to do it all): sculptures, installations, conceptual tropes, optical illusions, feminist ripostes, etc.
In this exhibition at Roy Boyd Gallery, we get lecterns balancing dictionaries whose covers and pages have been adroitly cut to mimic topographical maps, hillside lots, tunnels and lakes. These sculptural pieces are skilled; but they are uncomfortably sterile. They are witty; but dryly so, with no need to direct themselves outward because they are so self-contained and so self-satisfied.
By contrast, the drawings strike a delicate balance between knowing cynicism and contagious naughtiness. The best are those that deal with the body--a wide-eyed little girl staring at a massive, wriggling worm in a textbook Freudian moment; a luscious strawberry sundae whose mounds of cream turn out to be pairs of plump buttocks and arms; a man whose body is made up of intestines, tossing pencil and paper about as only a blocked writer can. Williams shows us what an artist who is unblocked can do, especially when she is in full command of her technique. All she needs now, it seems, is a bit more self-control.
* Roy Boyd Gallery, 1547 10th St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-1210, through Nov. 7. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Three for the Show: Dispensing with the overkill logic of too many group shows (as much as possible by as many as possible), "Theatre-Verite," an exhibition of work by Christopher Williams, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Albert Oehlen at Margo Leavin Gallery, is unusual for its economy, wit and style.
The work of each of these artists has certainly been seen to better advantage elsewhere--but that is not the point here. Neither is it to forge some complex, but half-baked connections between Gonzalez-Torres' politicized Minimalism, Williams' deadpan conceptualism and Oehlen's lush abstractions. Instead, the show seizes upon one, two or maybe three points of juncture (formal tropes and visual puns) and arranges the art to play them up--for no reason other than the sheer pleasure of it.
The main gallery is the most arresting--a massive room containing a large canvas, a small photograph and a garland of 15 watt light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. Here, the multicolored flowers in Williams' archival photograph find their biomorphic equivalents in Oehlen's purple, red and yellow painting, while Gonzalez-Torres' bouquet of incandescent bulbs suggests the poverty of beauty these days, following the wholesale collapse of nature into culture. Throwing out tantalizing clues while insisting there is no mystery to be solved, this exhibition is a model of less is more.
* Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson, (310) 273-0603, through Nov. 7. Closed Sunday and Monday.