No fees, no permits, no kidding

Special to the Times

High Tech Hillbilly is not a style you’ll read about in art history textbooks. But it describes the look and sensibility of Chris Burden’s “Small Skyscraper,” the prototype of an affordable structure you’ll be able to build from a kit as soon as a few kinks are ironed out of the design.

To fit his four-story tower into the back gallery of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Burden has laid it horizontally. To ensure that it’s not mistaken for a Minimalist sculpture, he has propped up one end on a sturdy sawhorse.

This makes it easier to imagine what his do-it-yourself skyscraper will look like when it’s installed outdoors. It also allows viewers to run their hands over its streamlined aluminum girders, to examine the simplicity of its bolted fittings, to test the efficiency of its high-tension cross wires and to get a feel for its four floors and sun deck, all made of ordinary two-by-fours tightly sandwiched together.

In the front gallery stands an L-shaped section of one floor’s walls, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors that meet in the corner. Sixteen drawings display various stages of Burden’s quietly diabolical project, and a huge color diagram inventories (in pragmatic detail) most of the components used in its construction. They include aluminum beams (originally designed to be the frames of interior office cubicles), lightweight T-bolts, turnbuckles, ferrules, small solar panels and lots of sexy Scandinavian hardware.


Burden designed his mini-skyscraper in collaboration with TK Architecture, a new Los Angeles firm run by Linda Taalman and Alan Koch, formerly of New York’s OpenOffice, which they founded in 1997 and left in 2003. Additional drawings and models of Burden’s skyscraper are on display in a group show at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House on Kings Road in West Hollywood.

Ten years ago, when Burden began building a studio behind his house in Topanga Canyon, he was frustrated by the Byzantine codes and numerous permits required by Los Angeles County. He fantasized about how much easier -- and cheaper -- it would be to build something that satisfied his desires but wasn’t up to code.

“Small Skyscraper” is that building. An instance of down-to-earth Utopianism, it’s the biggest, most impressive-looking structure an individual can construct without breaking the law.

Burden discovered that if his building didn’t exceed 35 feet in height and had no more than 400 square feet of floor space, he could build it without permits -- or the fees, inspections and delays that go with them. With his tongue playfully planted in his cheek, he says that he is just an artist who has made a sculpture that happens to function like a house that happens to look like a skyscraper.

As an artist and as a citizen, Burden is a renegade for the Information Age. He combines the leave-me-alone attitude of a backwoods recluse with the bend-the-law savvy of a successful attorney. He adds the sleek stylishness of a modern architect’s high-end designs to give good old American ingenuity a new face. Although self-sufficiency and stand-alone independence may be more complicated than they used to be, his art shows that they are virtues worth fighting for.

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., L.A., (323) 957-1777, through July 27. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.


Calder’s mobiles don’t rely on tricks


Generally speaking, sculptures look better than paintings do at the Beverly Hills branch of Gagosian Gallery, which was designed by architect Richard Meier. As for specifics, no sculptures installed there have looked better than mobiles by Alexander Calder (1898-1976). To step into the high-ceilinged main space is to be transported to a lighthearted realm of playful weightlessness and simple joy.

The best thing about Calder’s modestly scaled sculptures that hang from strings and balance on bent wires is that they hide nothing from viewers. Playing no tricks on the eyes and providing no definitive knowledge for the mind to contemplate, they tell the truth about the world our bodies occupy -- that it’s a sensual space suffused with little mysteries too wonderful for words and all the more satisfying for being so simple.

Literally lightweight, Calder’s ever-changing constellations of abstract shapes occasionally include a crescent moon, a bright red heart, the silhouette of a mountain, a regal crown or a few puffy clouds. The outlines of each are no more complicated than a 5-year-old’s drawing.

Using wires, fishing line, paper-thin sheets of tin and thicker sections of metal, Calder draws in space. His shapes are essentially vertical or horizontal, although none stays that way for long. Otherwise imperceptible breezes cause them to tip and waver, as if adrift on invisible currents or dancing to their own silent melodies.


Red, yellow and blue, as well as black and white, form the lion’s share of Calder’s palette. He also judiciously tosses in an occasional orange form, gold disc or set of shiny silver circles, just for fun.

These 17 works were made between 1946 and 1974. No two look alike or convey the same sensations. The oddest is a colorful collage of bits of broken glass Calder suspended inside the wiry outline of a cartoon fish in 1952. An untitled work from 1949 contrasts brightly colored, balloon-like blossoms and ghostly black shadows, suggesting the cyclical nature of things by playing day against night. Others are masterpieces of lyricism, giving eloquent form to intuitive balances arrived at by trial and error, one little step at a time.

Calder’s delightfully benign art shies away from confrontational arguments and solemn aesthetic discussions -- not because it’s light and frivolous, but because it’s based in the conviction that if you have to win by arguing, you’ve already lost. The idea of pleasure is worth fighting for, but that experience is never as pleasurable as simply stumbling upon the delightful. In this sense, Calder’s art is a gift.

Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through June 21. Closed Sundays and Mondays.



Enchantment in dramatic scenes

Fantastic things happen in Nancy Jackson’s paintings, drawings and sculptures. At Rosamund Felsen Gallery, most of Jackson’s figurative images depict scenes that would be scary, or at least sensationalistic, if not for the deep calm that descends upon them. Cloaking dramatic narratives and fabulous landscapes in an atmosphere of everyday ordinariness, her art gives supple form to a world that is both emotionally reassuring and philosophically profound.

On one level, it’s hard to beat her pictures for the cheesy, B-movie stories and stock Surrealist scenarios they deliver. One untitled drawing is a close-up of a slimy green creature whose tooth-filled mouth forms a pink orifice in a writhing mass of seaweed-tinted tendrils that resemble an underwater version of Medusa.


The creature holds its hand close to its face, as if it were about to pop the woman resting in its palm into its mouth, like a handful of popcorn. But the vulnerable figure’s outstretched arms suggest that no fear fills her heart, and that she’s embracing her fate with more enthusiasm than most would muster. The longer you look, the more it seems as if she’s not in danger but engaged in a spirited conversation with an equal -- someone bigger, but not necessarily more powerful, than herself.

Similar scenarios unfold in other works. A life-size sculpture made of clay and papier mache shows a young woman walking a male lion as if it were a household pet. In a 3-D triptych, a doll-sized version of the same woman subdues her fears of a trio of long-beaked birds that resemble the offspring of penguins and flamingos.

Jackson’s large oils on canvas do not feature humans or animals, imaginary or otherwise. In them, the landscape takes on a life of its own.

In one, the bark on a towering tree describes worlds within worlds, intimate microcosms that expand toward infinity. In another, twisting rivers of lava pour down a mountainside as fiery flowers bloom through the spill, sometimes shooting skyward like fireworks.


A three-part sculpture that folds up like a briefcase captures the magic at the heart of Jackson’s art. This tabletop piece consists of 40 little compartments that frame a central stage. Each matchbox-sized inset is a model aquarium, filled with fanciful sea creatures, some no bigger than pinheads. The decorative abstraction in the center has the presence of a lavish chandelier and an exquisite wedding cake.

The diminutive scale of Jackson’s sculpture keeps it humble. Like all the works in her third solo show in as many years, it gives the imagination plenty to play with. Loveliness and enchantment are rarely served up in such accessible abundance.

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through May 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.



The unmemorable now unforgettable

The name that most often comes up in discussions of Brian Calvin’s paintings is Alex Katz. And there’s something to the comparison: It isn’t difficult to see that the young L.A. painter has learned a lot from the veteran New Yorker, especially in terms of gestural efficiency, compositional clarity and knowing just when enough is enough.

But Calvin’s seven casually disciplined paintings of people and beaches and a solitary seagull at Marc Foxx Gallery are too strange and multilayered to be updated versions of Katz’s masterfully simplified images. The ghosts of Philip Guston and Milton Avery haunt his variously scaled acrylics on canvas, which are also visited by the slippery spirit of John Wesley’s Pop masterpieces.

Katz, Guston, Avery and Wesley all paint people and landscapes, but their styles and sensibilities mix like oil and water -- or kerosene and fire. It’s a measure of Calvin’s accomplishment and originality that his spunky works make bedfellows of these powerfully idiosyncratic artists.


Calvin is a master of in-between moments. In “The Open Window,” a young man and woman stand face to face, their body language and facial expressions suggesting an awkward pause in the conversation. But Calvin has painted his slender, cartoon-inspired figures with their wide eyes closed tightly, as if he just happened to catch them blinking in unison. The unlikely coincidence creates a sense of uncanny ease -- of long afternoons whiled away lazily, halfway between contentment and lassitude.

If his other pictures of people were snapshots, they’d be duds or seem to be the work of someone with a mile-wide mean streak. In one, a man standing in a stream gets all tangled up in the long-sleeve jersey he’s trying to pull over his head. In another, a nude woman bends over ungracefully as she washes the sand off her legs while wringing her hair dry.

As paintings, however, they work wonders. Each transforms an otherwise insignificant moment into an image you can’t stop looking at, despite its simplicity. With the deft touch of his brush, Calvin turns seemingly unmemorable incidents into unforgettable experiences.

The largest painting, “New Morning,” is so wrong it’s right. Cropped like a photograph, Calvin’s close-up of a seagull coming in for a landing on the tip of a white fencepost is initially disorienting. But as soon as you tune into the loopy rhythms of its funky formalism, what once seemed awkward and ungainly suddenly becomes graceful and soothing, surprising because it’s both mundane and extraordinary.


Marc Foxx Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-5571, through May 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.