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Articulating Grief Through the ‘Art of Loss’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An absorbing group show at the Municipal Art Gallery titled “The Mourning After: Art of Loss” highlights 12 contemporary artists who explore the complex psychological undercurrents involved in experiences of melancholia, mourning and loss.

It sounds like a high-concept group-therapy session, led by the ghost of Sigmund Freud. Indeed, guest curator Susette S. Min relies heavily on the Viennese psychoanalyst’s essay “Mourning and Melancholia” for her curatorial premise. In her cogently written catalog essay, she explains that mourning is a strategic process that allows the grief-stricken to release their attachment to a person, object, event, or even an abstract concept that they have lost. Melancholia is likened to a heightened or perpetual state of mourning, in which the mourner internalizes trace elements of the lost person or object, which live on in memory. In each case, grief (the recognition of loss) is either released, or is perpetually kept at bay.

Min argues that aesthetic strategies can mirror these psychological processes. Accordingly, she has assembled 20 works (comprising photography, video, installation and drawing) that suggest objects or experiences that are irrevocably lost, yet eternally longed for.

Appearing swollen with myriad frustrated desires, Charles LaBelle’s “Restless Mass” (1999) is made from strips of red fabric torn from thrift-store pajamas and bedding, which are wrapped around each other to form a giant ball-shaped knot. Suspended from the ceiling and spanning more than five feet in diameter, the sculpture’s apparent stolidity is belied by the frenetic thrashes of tangled fabric that twist around its circumference.

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Laid out horizontally across the wall like a calendrical sequence of lonely nights, Dean Sameshima’s 15 8-by-10-inch color photographs depict a series of empty twin beds located in the private rooms of underground gay sex clubs. These cubicle-sized, makeshift “bedrooms” are sites of covert intimacy, at once filled with expectations, and utterly depleted of them. Oddly, they recall the space of the confessional, an idea that is further elaborated in Liz Young’s crypt-shaped installation. Inside this sparse wooden interior lies a cruciform-shaped divan upholstered with a flesh-toned latex fabric commonly used for women’s corsets and girdles.

The gothic and vaguely sadomasochistic undertones of Young’s claustrophobic installation play off the suffocating sensory excess of Ann Daly’s all-white bedroom, which is filled with wax flowers that emit a sickeningly sweet aroma. A halting monologue, delivered from speakers hidden in different corners of the room, is barely audible. As you move about the installation in an attempt to catch the words, the voice seems to shift elsewhere, like a memory that fades at the exact moment of recall.

True to its title, “The Mourning After” is a mostly solemn and contemplative affair. What little humor there is leans toward the perverse. Robert Blanchon’s two-minute videotape, displayed on a 4-by-7-inch, cubbyhole-sized screen, depicts a trapped moth listlessly flapping its wings as Marlene Dietrich’s rendition of “Falling In Love Again” plays in the background. Two powerful videos by Hilja Keading dramatize absurdist scenarios of failed personal idealism set against backdrops of public derision. In one, Keading wears a carrot suit while trying to clap her hands and swing from a trapeze simultaneously. Particularly chilling is a tape featuring clowns and elephants forced to repeat their tricks over and over within the confines of the circus ring--and Keading’s video loop.

If your therapist designed your home for you, it might look something like Arthur Aghajanian’s graphite drawings, which schematize plans for a single-family home according to various family members’ competing emotional needs. A different sort of psychic geography is outlined in Ingrid Calame’s three “Working Drawings” from 1997. They are a more down-and-dirty, explicitly cartographic version of this artist’s juicily vibrant, abstract paintings of randomly encountered street spills--oft-exhibited works that are becoming the art-world equivalent of Rorschach blots, used to shore up an astonishingly diverse array of curatorial endeavors.

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Like Sameshima’s empty beds, Allan DeSouza’s 18 color photographs of depopulated airport and train-station waiting rooms suggest profoundly existential (and thus incurable) forms of homesickness. Installations by Kira Lynn Harris, Carole Kim and Khanh Vo locate this experience more explicitly in terms of cultural exile. The latter three remind us that the concept of mourning has far more resonance when approached as a culture-defining ritual, rather than one individual’s psychological coping mechanisms.

In the end, you don’t need to give a hoot about Freud or psychoanalysis to fully engage with these richly provocative works, but those who do find Freudian concepts persuasive will discover much here with which to bolster their views. As in many theme-oriented group shows, the works in “The Mourning After” are deployed in an illustrative fashion, in order to validate a preexisting theoretical framework. To Min’s immense credit, however, her show is not so narrowly curated as to preclude a range of other, equally compelling interpretive possibilities.

* Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 485-4581, through April 18. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.


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