Certain themes--the impossibility of knowledge, the inevitability of loss, the futile search for meaning--allow certain artists to get away with murder. For those of a Post-Conceptual bent, for whom implication outranks plain speaking, coolness can become a commentary on ennui, vagueness a manifesto about indeterminacy and the absence of perceptible subject matter a wry statement about the emptiness of both art and life.
At 1301 Gallery, Thaddeus Strode talks the talk and walks the walk, but he isn't interested in getting away with anything. His work is unexpected--laconic but generous, sincere but unsentimental.
Less interested in making objects than in provoking situations, Strode offers little to look at. The main room is dark, the windows covered in black foam-core. In one corner is a stack of white T-shirts embossed with a typically oblique passage from "Alice in Wonderland." In front of the fireplace is an amplifier blaring illegible sounds. By the ceiling are two colored lights, spilling reflections of red and blue onto the floor.
Elsewhere is a large photograph of an overflowing coffee cup, as well as a double image of the late Kurt Cobain. Upstairs, according to the checklist, is a dry-ice machine, which Strode has entitled "Swamp Bog."
The machine, however, is missing, having appeared only at the opening of the show. Its absence--like that of Anna in Antonioni's "L'Avventura"--is crucial, throwing into relief all the things and relationships which surround it.
Suddenly, the overflowing coffee mug, imprinted with the phrase, "Some Guys Have It All," becomes an ironic rejoinder about desire, fulfilled and otherwise. Meanwhile, the amplifier's tiny red and green lights become an allusion to any number of binary pairs: on and off, stop and go, here and there.
Like the two colored bulbs that provide the room's only illumination, they announce a theme of doubling, which always has to do with the splitting of the self; and simultaneously, a theme of pairing, which has to do with the need to overcome that very trauma.
If all this sounds like a demonstration of the key tenets of contemporary theory and/or psychoanalysis, Strode is careful to frustrate such promises of narrative coherence. Like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, from whom his work borrows a great deal, Strode accepts with bemused grace the fragmentary nature of both experience and art.
In moments of recognition, rather than in recognizable objects, he makes this palpable, though not necessarily visible.
* 1301 Gallery, 1301 Franklin St., No. 1, Santa Monica (310) 828-9133, through Oct. 29. Closed Mondays through Wednesdays. *
Birk's Best: Coming on the heels of his flamboyant, equal-opportunity history paintings, in which gang-bangers appropriate the poses of art history's most revered heroes, Sandow Birk's drawings at Koplin Gallery are positively restrained.
Each of these painstakingly rendered images depicts an isolated figure leaping, crouching, spinning or flying through space. The ubiquitous costume--low-riding jeans, baggy T-shirt and tennis shoes--gives it away. These are skateboarders, caught as they execute backside nose grinds, fakie ollies, alley oop kick flips and other maneuvers as ritualized as their clothing.
Birk titles this series "Men in the Cities," making reference to Robert Longo's eponymous group of larger-than-life figure drawings. Like Birk's skaters, Longo's writhing men and women (garbed in regulation Soho black) are pictured in the absence of any narrative context: They look as though they are dancing--or dying. Though Longo referred to them grandiloquently as "fallen angels," they quickly became icons of the relentlessly hip ennui of the 1980s.
Birk means to deflate Longo's pretensions, but he is too late, and he's as much a romanticist as Longo, shamelessly idealizing his youthful athletes, who are pictured as paragons of grace and street chic.
No matter, because this is Birk's best work--as "Men in the Cities" is Longo's. It is indeed romantic, but canny enough to reject baroque theatrics for something a bit more understated.
* Koplin Gallery, 1438 9th St., Santa Monica, (310) 319-9956, through Oct. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Just Glancing Blows: In recent paintings at Herbert Palmer Gallery, master satirist Peter Saul--whose work of the 1950s and 1960s was featured in the Museum of Contemporary Art's "Hand-Painted Pop" exhibition--turns his brush on art history's sacred cows. Animal metaphors are particularly appropriate for Saul, as he has long been fond of beasts, whose absurdity, venality and/or dumbness make them perfect surrogates for human beings.
With his plaid beret, droopy eyes, and multicolored coat, "Rembrandt Dog"--much like his cinematic compatriot, Beethoven--naughtily domesticates artistic greatness. The befuddled duck-artists of "Pop Art II" wield dripping brushes and splash thick paint all over a pointillist map of the United States--a triple-headed blow aimed at Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Kenny Scharf, whose comic-book psychedelia owe a strong debt to the older artist.
Yet Saul's blows are merely glancing, more affectionate than anything else. A Day-Glo version of Picasso's "Girl Before a Mirror" is visually arresting, but it falls flat, as it's difficult to render any of Picasso's hyperbolic images more so.
Such tepid art-about-art is especially disappointing in relation to Saul's earlier paintings and drawings, several of which are also on view here. These are emphatically raw--abbreviated, cartoon-like shapes; deliberately unresolved surfaces, and a total eschewal of finish.
In formal terms they are flat, especially compared to the sculptural idiom Saul adopted in the 1980s. In terms of satire, they are anything but.
Crude, nasty and highly political, they depict sex deviates being executed by fantastic killing machines, complacent businessmen shooting themselves in the head and Chinese Communist soldiers as indestructible tag-team wrestlers. They have something to say about something, rather than nothing new to say about art.
* Herbert Palmer Gallery, 9001 Melrose Ave., (310) 278-6407, through October. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *
Wit Via Pencil: At domestic setting, Wendy Furman is showing wonderfully stark pencil drawings of pairs of Greek vases: an amphora coupled with a kylix, a krater with an oinochoe, and so on.
Rendered in silhouette--pure black against unmodulated white--the images possess a somber authority. They are incontrovertible. Push-pinned to the wall so that they form a grid, the 30 drawings of 60 vases conjure all manner of lexicons, axonomies and tables of elements. However, there is no system in play, merely the notion of a system and the seductive promise of total knowledge.
Seduction is a tricky concept here since the vessel, with its undulating contours and hollow spaces, has long served as a metaphor for the female body, thereupon deriving its beauty. Furman begs the comparison by drawing the vases as silhouettes, so as to emphasize their contours.
Yet, she coyly frustrates any notion of ideal proportions, feminine or otherwise. Seen in the context she fabricates, the forms are less beautiful than idiosyncratic: truncated, splayed, elongated, foreshortened.
As pairs, they more closely resemble Lucy and Ethel than Athena and Aphrodite. Furman's gift is two-fold: a low key wit, and a wicked way with a black pencil.
* domestic setting, 3221 Sawtelle Blvd. No. 1, (310) 397-7761, through Sunday.