Artists at play in the world

Special to The Times

A Dutch exhibition with a Brazilian title at an American gallery, “Capoeira,” at Roberts & Tilton, is a decidedly 21st century construction. The exhibition points to a framework of national identity, only to reveal, perhaps inadvertently, the limits of that framework as an artistic category.

What distinguishes these artists as Dutch isn’t immediately apparent and doesn’t seem as important, ultimately, as what distinguishes them as individuals against the backdrop of a global culture. The title refers to the Brazilian martial art developed by slaves in the 16th century, the basic strategies of which curator Stijn Huijts sees as analogous to those of the show’s eight artists.

“Just as original Brazilian Capoeira is a crossover between dancing and fighting,” he writes in the show’s catalog, “there is a cross-over between art and play in these artists’ works in which the artistic representation of the place of the individual in this world is marked by a playful, contemporary existentialism.” The analogy is a bit of a stretch, but the play concept is compelling and certainly holds true throughout.


The most absorbing works mimic the structure or feel of a game. One of these, cheekily titled “Ceci n’est pas une game,” even includes a joystick, with which the viewer is invited to manipulate the movement of a pipe (a la Magritte) through a series of virtual spaces on a large screen above the gallery’s front desk. Designed by Maurer United Architects (husband and wife team Marc and Nicole Maurer), it’s a relatively simple concept but, like many video games, very difficult to put down.

Less interactive but equally mesmerizing is a video by Jennifer Tee depicting the artist being pummeled with onions shot from an automatic pitching machine. Crouched against a wall, armed with nothing but a single saucepan to defend herself, she presents a picture of such pathetic earnestness that one can’t help but sympathize with the sublime absurdity of her plight. (Two additional works by Tee -- a hanging tapestry and a sculpture resembling a large board game -- are significantly more cryptic and would have benefited from more space and a little context.)

An engrossing installation by Serge Onnen draws viewers down a long, narrow hallway wallpapered with tiny, cartoonish heads; two small video monitors flush with the wall play charmingly rendered animations of those heads spinning in circles and muttering fragments of confused conversation. Outside the hallway, an assortment of witty drawings and two more animated videos play with issues of consumerism and materialism.

Wouter van Riessen taps into the associative potency of toys with a series of inexplicably creepy photographic self-portraits involving stiff, wooden masks. Bas de Wit also incorporates toys and cartoonish figures into his paintings, which are looser and more gestural than Van Riessen’s works, but similarly grotesque.

The digital collages of Donya Saed are large and eye-catching but more diffuse and less humorous than most of the other works. Like Tee’s non-video pieces, they feel a little lost in the crowd.

Dominating the main gallery is a sculpture by Folkert de Jong made from carved Styrofoam and rubber, portraying a life-size figure holding a lantern and a megaphone, seated on a pile of gasoline containers and wearing an expression of ecstatic rapture. De Jong’s elusive statement on the work suggests an act of martyrdom: “In this divine moment,” he writes, “the flame of the oil lamp will not guide him only through the darkness ... but it will also set off the explosion of the pile of gasoline containers where he’s sitting ... an inferno will blow him to the heavens above... “


It is here, in the sympathetic ambiguity with which De Jong characterizes the act, that the exhibition feels furthest removed from an American sensibility, to our own discredit. Where we are likely to see only horror -- in the figure’s hooded cloak, for example, an allusion, it seems fair to assume, to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photograph -- De Jong suggests a more complicated and humane dimension, describing the garment as “a beggar cloth, a minimal protection against the roughness of life in a complex, materialistic world.”

Roberts & Tilton, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 549-0223, through April 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Monsters lurking in plain sight

The photograph on the invitation for Kenyan-born, Brooklyn-based Wangechi Mutu’s second solo show at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects depicts the artist standing in front of one of her paintings, engrossed in something she’s doing with a pair of scissors and slightly blurry, as if in motion. The figure in the painting, however -- a strange, somewhat monstrous creature with mottled skin, shifty eyes and thick, glossy pink lips -- is in sharp focus, its gaze alert and alarmingly direct. Peeking out from behind a hanging sheet of vellum, she gives the impression of a crafty Caliban slinking behind the back of her captor.

It’s an unnervingly evocative image and an apt epithet for this fascinating exhibition. The characters who populate these works are a peculiar breed -- part woman, part animal, part machine -- and a potent presence on the walls of the gallery. Composed primarily of wet, swirling pigment and collaged fragments of photographic images -- mostly nude, female body parts -- they have a dark, Frankenstein-like quality, as if conjured from the swamp of contemporary culture, dripping with collective anxieties about race, sexuality, media, technology and consumerism.

Among the most dazzling works is “She’s Egungun Again,” a roughly 7-foot portrait of a single figure leaning provocatively on a slender staff of wood. Her torso and thighs are a blaze of red, orange and pink; her feet and arms are covered in long, lush fur; her biceps are wound round with snakes; and her head appears to be exploding, though her gaze is cool and sexy. A collaged patchwork of breasts, buttocks, thighs and other obscure swaths of flesh around her pelvic region lend an air of dangerous, grotesque sensuality.

On view alongside Mutu’s work and also worthy of mention, though very different in tone, is “Suicide Bomb,” a haunting five-minute video by Dutch artist Mathilde ter Heijne in which she fabricates and actually detonates a life-sized model of her own body in an effort, one senses, to comprehend the magnitude of the phenomenon to which the title refers.


Suzanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5795 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 933-2117, through March 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


A museum full of curiosities

Vienna’s Natural History Museum -- the subject of Kaucyila Brooke’s recent work at Michael Dawson Gallery -- is the sort of magnificent European structure that makes even its grandest American cousins look rough around the edges. Opened in 1889, 30 years after the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” it’s a monument to the natural sciences, but one gilded in continental artifice, with inlaid marble floors, vaulted ceilings, towering columns and extravagantly ornate entablature.

More than a century later, the building is still in use but, judging from Brooke’s photographic portrayal, remains bizarrely out of scale with contemporary life.

Brooke began her exploration of the museum, according to a press release, during a period of major renovation. She clearly relishes the gaps and fissures such activity is capable of revealing. She lingers on empty cabinets and vitrines, accentuates vacant spaces and emphasizes discordant combinations of objects: a ferocious looking crocodile in an elegant glass case, for example, or a model clipper ship appearing to float past a gathering of ostriches. (There are no live human beings in any of the works.)

In one especially clever photograph, a small family of our own prehistoric ancestors huddles together on a low platform at the back of a large and otherwise empty hall, encircled by a rather absurd set of stanchions. The room has very high ceilings and reads like an archaic diagram of heaven, purgatory and hell: the top third loaded with elaborate moldings, graceful caryatids and pastoral murals; the middle third blank and bisected by several bars of clumsy track lighting; and the lower third lined with bland, empty cabinets. Compounding several layers of time in a single photograph, the piece epitomizes the intelligence of this unassumingly astute body of work.

Michael Dawson Gallery, 535 N. Larchmont Blvd., (323) 469-2186, through April 2. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.



Delight is the icing on these cakes

Made with pigmented silicone and cake decorating tools, the works of London-based artist Neal Rock are giddily beautiful constructions hovering gracefully on the line between painting and sculpture.

The first of the three in his show at Kontainer Gallery takes the shape of a downward-pointing triangle, about 4 feet across, and clings to the surface of the wall like a wasp’s nest or a clump of exotic moss. The triangle itself -- built up from undulating strips of corrugated silicon resembling broad lasagna noodles -- is white in the right corner and shifts into a delicious turquoise in the other. Looping, multicolored cords of the same material hang from a top ledge like vines, tumble down the face of the triangle, and spill out beyond its edges onto adjacent walls.

The other two works are slightly smaller but similar in structure. One is predominantly pastel -- pink, pale green and lavender -- and takes the shape of a horizontally elongated heart. The other is closer to round and cast in deeper, richer tones of red and mauve. Fantastical yet elegant, the works are a delight to encounter.

Kontainer Gallery, 6130 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 933-4746, through March 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.