The brochure for the group exhibition “White Noise,” now at REDCAT, begins with an apocalyptic quote from the Don DeLillo novel of the same name, which warns readers: “Forget spills, fallouts, leakages. It’s the things right around you in your own house that’ll get you sooner or later. It’s the electrical and magnetic fields.... Forget headaches and fatigue. What about nerve disorders, strange and violent behavior in the home? There are scientific findings. Where do you think all the deformed babies are coming from? Radio and TV, that’s where.”
The novel, published in 1985, follows an anxious college professor through a world literally overshadowed by a cloud of toxic waste and saturated with the static of late 20th century technology (the background murmur of televisions, computers and kitchen appliances; the drone of entertainment and advertising; the internal hum of over- and under-the-counter pharmaceuticals), all the while battling a looming fear of death.
The artists in this exhibition -- most of whom were children or teenagers when the novel was written -- approach similar phenomena but with notably less trepidation. Much like the assemblage artists of the 1960s and ‘70s, who concerned themselves with the material debris of society, these look to its visual, aural and spatial excesses -- its “noise,” which they incorporate as raw material.
Many artists do this, of course, and it’s easy to imagine an exhibition of the same name spiraling into curatorial chaos in an attempt to include every artist since 1980 who ever alluded to a soda jingle or a television commercial. Fortunately, this exhibition, curated by Clara Kim, is a relatively modest affair, thoughtfully conceived and evenly presented, with just enough artists -- five individuals, one collaborative pair and one three-person collective -- to sustain the theme without stretching or diluting its terms.
One relatively subtle distinction that all of the artists share is a conscientious economy of means. All of the works revolve around some element of appropriation, whether of images, objects or space, and a minimal degree of manipulation -- just enough to add a twist, raise a question or cast a new light.
The most obvious example is an untitled work by Rodney McMillian that consists solely of a wall-size piece of used baby blue carpeting, presumably resurrected from a dumpster somewhere. It’s an easy stroke -- perhaps too easy -- but it grows on you nevertheless, revealing a subtle pattern of stains, modulations of tone and a sort of grandeur reminiscent of an Abstract Expressionist painting.
Another McMillian piece in the show is a two-minute video that strings together landscape shots from F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film “Nosferatu” against a soundtrack of ominous organ music. Again, the means are simple: McMillian doesn’t add anything to the filmmaker’s shots. His accomplishment, rather, is in subtracting those shots from their original context and, as with the carpet, revealing a beauty previously buried in function and narrative.
“From A to B,” a video work by Ruben Gutierrez and Artemio (Artemio Narro Aguilar), takes a similar tack, stringing together two hours of incidental snippets from television shows and movies. Again, nothing is added, but the manipulation is more severe: Most of the snippets are only a second or two in length and repeat relentlessly for up to a minute, creating a strange and often unnerving rhythm in image and sound. Some segments are subtle, even delicate (a full moon pulsing like a heartbeat as it peeks over the horizon, the audible swallow of an actor with a surprised expression), but most are jarring and explosive (a dead body hitting concrete from a great height, a car accident at the moment of impact, an expression of terror on the face of a woman held from behind by a figure we cannot see). The result is grating in moments but utterly hypnotic.
The most intoxicating piece in the show is a video, Laureana Toledo’s “Mexicali Boogie-Woogie,” which combines a rich sound collage with blurry footage of colorful carnival lights. The piece appears on a monitor with headphones, which allows a satisfying intimacy, but it’s the sort of work one longs to see in its own dark room -- that is, a work to be surrounded and consumed by.
Toledo’s other contribution to the show -- a series of photographs of birds in flight from which she’s lifted portions of emulsion to create lively patterns of small white squares -- is quieter but equally lovely.
These images, many of which include glimpses of power lines, lead neatly into Shirley Tse’s clever and surprisingly evocative sculpture “Musical Straws Meets Power Tower”: a free-standing 12-foot replica of an electrical tower -- symbol of ingenuity, industry and the settling of the American West, as well as danger, pollution and disease -- constructed entirely in the neutral, nonconductive medium of plastic.
The remaining works, all of which concern issues of space, expand the conceptual scope of the exhibition but generally lack energy. Felipe Dulzaides’ photographs, which document abandoned structures on an old military base, raise compelling questions but aren’t very interesting as images. Stefan Bruggemann’s two wall-mounted neon text pieces -- one reads “This Is Not Supposed to Be Here,” the other “Delete” -- feel like recycled Bruce Nauman or Jenny Holzer works.
A site-specific installation by the collective Tercerunquinto (Julio Castro Carreon, Gabriel Cazares Salas and Rolando Flores Tovar) -- a small structure with no entrance and several narrow, mirrored-glass windows built into one wall of the lobby to look as though it belongs there -- is curious but inscrutable and ultimately unmemorable for that reason.
Although the fact isn’t emphasized in the exhibition literature, seven of the 10 artists involved live in Mexico and the other three, while residing in California at present, are from North Carolina, Cuba and Hong Kong originally. This diversity isn’t pronounced in the work -- the “noise” to which the artists respond, after all, isn’t so different in Mexico City than it is in L.A. -- but it does lend an agreeable sense of breadth to the project.
Where: REDCAT Gallery at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles
When: Noon to 6 p.m. (or curtain) Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays
Ends: Oct. 31
Contact: (213) 237-2800