Troubling Flashbacks From Dennis Hopper

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One can be fairly certain that were Sylvester Stallone not an international superstar, his big and very bad paintings would have gotten absolutely no play. With Dennis Hopper, the opposite may well be true.

Though Hopper did make the cover of Artforum magazine two times, it's been about 30 years now. And while it's surely an exaggeration to say that his relative obscurity as a visual artist is because of his celebrity as a filmmaker and actor, one among the factors is certainly the art world's cultivated aloofness from media feeding frenzies not of their own making.

The last decade, however, has seen a change in Hopper's reputation, with a slew of solo exhibitions and his inclusion in a number of important group shows, most recently the Whitney Museum's "Beat Culture and the New America," the Museum of Contemporary Art's "Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945," and this summer's "Sunshine & Noir: Art in Los Angeles 1960-1997" at Denmark's Louisiana Museum.

At Fred Hoffman gallery, a mini-retrospective of Hopper's photographic, sculptural, mixed-media, performance and installation work from the 1960s, the 1980s and the 1990s continues in this wake. Yet, there is something troubling about the particular works selected for display, most of which are of recent vintage.

On one hand, these works play up the popular conception of Hopper as a histrionic daredevil, and on the other, Hopper as someone whose visual art is parasitically dependent upon his film work.

The show includes a neon sign taken from "Red Rock West" (1993), in which Hopper appeared; a 1997 triptych of digitized video stills on canvas taken from Hopper's 1969 "Easy Rider"; a rather ghastly six-canvas pastiche that includes graffiti on simulated stucco and photographic imagery derived from Hopper's "Colors" (1988); and finally a three-channel video installation that features sequences from "Easy Rider" and the lesser-known Hopper films "The Last Movie" and "Out of the Blue." It probably would have made more sense to schedule a film series.

More appealing (if equally problematic) are the distillations of Hopper's bad-boy antics. These include the 16-millimeter film projection of a 1983 performance at Houston's Big H Speedway, in which Hopper seemed to blow himself up; and the 1967 "Bomb Drop," a Claes Oldenburg-scaled Plexiglas, neon and stainless steel replica of a World War II bomb-drop switch Hopper inadvertently found, which--after being exhibited the following year--was left to rot in the New Mexico desert, where it acquired a patina of dirt, rust and moldy leaves.

The most important work in the show is much less flashy and far more edgy: a 1963 suite of eight gelatin prints called "Kennedy Funeral." Images taken directly from the TV screen of the flag-draped casket, the procession, Kennedy's face bracketed by the dates "1917-1963" and so on suggest an alienated mode of mourning engendered by the contemporary media spectacle.

Indeed, it was as a photographer that Hopper did his best work, chronicling in black-and-white images throughout the 1960s the creative and political world around him. One wishes more of those seminal images had been included here; their wry wit, not to mention their modesty, is sorely missed.

* Fred Hoffman Fine Art, 1721 Stewart St., Santa Monica, (310) 453-3330, through July 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Young Ideas: At Dan Bernier Gallery, a show of work by five emerging artists suggests that the much-lambasted identity politics of the late 1980s and early 1990s have morphed into a full-blown aesthetic of narcissism--which is not an uninteresting thing, depending on precisely whom you're talking about. Some people are simply more interesting (perverse, peculiar, witty, whatever) than others.

Scott Wagner's work tends toward the sophomoric, though it's not as ludicrous as it probably should be. A recent MFA from Claremont Graduate School, he makes knee-high "band geeks" out of paper and big white latex balloons; poised on the floor they seem like leftovers from a party that never happened.

Evan Holloway, an MFA from UCLA, gets more into the spirit of things with a grid of anagrams of his name. Their patent absurdity--Now a Holy Veal, Honey Lava Low, etc.--almost offsets the egomania of the project.

Kori Newkirk, a recent MFA from UC Irvine, and Susan Choi and John Demos, both having just received BFAs from Otis Art Institute, all use ethnic identity as a point of departure. Newkirk, for example, makes paintings out of hair pomade; one depicts a vintage Cadillac, the others show the first names of eldest sons in African American sitcoms of the 1970s (Lamont, Lionel, JJ, etc.)

If his works are meant to conjure his coming of age and media-fabricated ideals, Demos traffics more directly with desire. His suite of color photographs mimics generic scenes from martial arts movies in which the artist's own rather ordinary physique is juxtaposed to that of the sculpted, eminently graceful hero--not necessarily to get a laugh but to evoke some kind of longing.

Choi's work likewise begins with the tyranny of mass-marketed perfection, though she goes somewhere else entirely. "Candy," "Cherry Bomb" and "Whore House," her huge, mixed-media paintings on paper, ape the imagery and tawdry colors of soft-core film posters, while pumping them up to the nth degree, studding the surfaces with tiny Japanese comics, pink gumdrops, appliqued stars, etc. The work revels in the luscious excess of what are clearly insidious stereotypes, making it more complicated than you might expect--and Choi the one to watch.

* Dan Bernier Gallery, 3026 1/2 Nebraska Ave., Santa Monica, (310)264-4882, through July 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Little Stars: On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, Couturier Gallery is showing the ceramic work of Otto and Gertrud Natzler, Viennese expatriates who came to this country in 1938 and revolutionized their field with Gertrud's simple but astonishingly thin forms and Otto's exquisite glazes. The names given to the glazes--mustard hare's fur, cat's eye, gray earth crater, old turquoise and sang nocturne--offer perhaps the best approximation of their poetry.

These finely toned finishes, like Gertrud's double curve vases, teardrop bottles and footed bowls, don't solicit your attention. They win it by subterfuge, creating effects that appear subtle until they become nothing less than marvelous.

Some of the vessels look as though they had been dredged up from molten lava. Others bear striations that conjure the layers of the earth. One, with its milky blue and gold swirls, mimics the movement of the cosmos; another, a Pompeian artifact; yet another, the view through a kaleidoscope.

Certainly the most incredible of the effects the Natzlers were capable of were their crystalline glazes, in which crystals would actually appear just beneath the surface, like tiny, nearly invisible white stars. This is the closest they ever got to being decorative; their work suggests that anything more would be gratuitous.

* Couturier Gallery, 166 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 933-5557, through July 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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