Five years ago, Josh Dorman bought some old topographical maps at a used bookstore and started to draw and paint on them. "I tilt these flattened lands into the frontal plane and then I seek routes and valleys back into space," he writes. "I'm hoping for vertigo."
And what delicious destabilization he achieves. In his entrancing work at George Billis Gallery, Dorman takes documents intended as definitive records of particular places and invests them with ambiguity, multiplicity, memory and fantasy.
"Lake Erie, Of Course" is typically absorbing. The foundation is a government survey map (issued in 1915, reprinted in 1945) of the area where Pennsylvania and New York meet and jointly border Lake Erie. The lake takes a slice off the top left corner of the map, its waters indicated by long, fine, wavering stripes of blue. Dorman takes linear patterns like these, denoting water or, elsewhere, changes in elevation, and uses them as the starting point to render images naturalistically, with dimensionality.
For instance, the lake's meandering shoreline doubles as the sloping ground supporting a whimsical, multicolored tower with keyhole windows. A railroad track that bisects the map just south of the lake becomes a tilted road for a parade of kooky bicycles and a bed on wheels.
Dorman, who lives in Brooklyn, revels in the dislocation (pun absolutely intended) that comes from reading a map's flat lines as both aerially imposed patterns and the scaffold of a fleshed-out landscape. Every mode of representation is also a type of abstraction, Dorman lightheartedly reminds us. And if every mark on the paper is abstract, what need is there for following rules of propriety, gravity, logic?
The maps begin with the known and, thanks to the momentum of free association, become destinations unknowable. In the most compelling pieces, Dorman leaves much of the map exposed beneath and between painted and drawn areas. The interplay between different treatments of space is delightfully fluid. In a few pieces, especially the larger ones mounted on canvas, painting takes over and the formal tension goes slack. The map underneath seems suffocated, its use as a foundation more gratuitous than generative.
Thankfully, Dorman maintains a balance worthy of the high wire most of the time. While he clearly loves the elegance of the obsolete maps, his nostalgia for their yellowed pages is spiked by irreverent wit and an occasional whiff of social commentary. He indulges in teasing wordplay, sometimes obscuring parts of place names to spell new words. Overlaid color whittles down the label for St. Armand to "arm," which is exactly what sprouts nearby, with a finger pointing downward. Another work is titled "DonQuix," after its Rorschach-like silhouette of a mounted man, born of the map's own contour lines.
Verbal and visual double-entendres abound. Wriggling concentric elevation lines double as wood-grain pattern. A dollop of white turns a river traveling down a map page into rapids delivering a speck of a kayak into a painted lake.
At least that's one way to read the image. Dorman loosens the maps' symbology -- he literally throws away the key -- so that they can be read in multiple contradictory ways. He skews scale, extracting and extrapolating from a map's given forms. Each work evokes multiple places, times and tales. Each one oscillates -- amusingly, poignantly -- between document and dream.
George Billis Gallery, 2716 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 838-3685, www.georgebillis.com, through July 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
A recycling center for memories
A collection -- as opposed to an accretion -- implies some consciousness in the ordering of gathered material. All of us accumulate memories, impressions and mementos in the course of experience, but few transform those accumulations into something with shape, purpose or external appeal. "Collected Recordings," a pleasant group show at d.e.n. contemporary art, is loosely themed on this enterprise.
Marc Dombrosky picks up discarded scraps of paper and embroiders directly over the markings on them, whether math calculations or casual jottings. He calls the project "Overwrite." Instead of canceling out the letters or signs, the stitches re-articulate them, endowing them with texture and a new intentionality. It's an earnest act of retrieval, taking what others have finished with and attending to it with the time and care associated with things of value.
Several others in the show present work that's neither ill-conceived nor poorly executed but simply slight. Glenn Bach collects sounds of the Big Sur River and translates them into schematic linear networks. Michele Costa Baron salvages tiny scraps of paper splattered with ink, coffee or correction fluid and pieces them together into benign collages. Peter Owen draws buildings with restless, repetitive lines on small panels painted putty, dun and taupe. And Virginia Katz affixes pens to branches and lets wind do the drawing, a lyrical (but hardly original) concept that yields chance calligraphy.
Ironically, the most intriguing work in the show involves the acts of disassembling and reordering rather than gathering anew. Suzanne Bocanegra repainted, petal by petal, each of the flowers in a lush Jan Brueghel still-life of 1606 and hangs them by individual fabric tabs on the wall, according to where the corresponding flower appears in the painting. The clusters of petals are displayed as inventory, like with like. It's a sprightly piece that gives a colorful twist to the term "deconstruction."
d.e.n. contemporary art, 6023 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 559-3023, through Aug. 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
These new prints are a big deal
The British photographer Bill Brandt may have died more than 20 years ago, but his work remains fresh and current. His estate, apparently, is determined to keep it so.
Last year, the Brandt Archive issued a batch of the artist's most stunning nudes in a new format: large-scale carbon pigment prints. Is the artist turning in his grave?
Probably, to get a better look. The prints are lush and velvety, his characteristic strong tonal contrasts well exercised. Whites are relentlessly cool, the blacks inky, portentous.
During his lifetime, Brandt (1904-83) generally printed his photographs no larger than about 14 by 11 inches. These new carbon prints measure a commanding 40 by 35 inches, succumbing to the demands of the moment for large-scale spectacle. The images work dramatically well sized up, mainly because they worked so well on a modest scale.
The compositions are rich, brooding, exquisitely realized. Brandt used a wide-angle lens to distort the scale of the nudes, shot in the 1940s and 1950s. Interlaced fingers echo the elemental roundness of the beach stones they rest on in one print. In another, a nude woman seated at a table stares soberly toward us, extending her hand. Her arm is so elongated that the gesture turns emblematic.
A smattering of Brandt's work in portraiture, landscape and social documentation (some of them vintage prints) hangs opposite the surrealistic nudes. But it's the nudes, with their psychic intensity, elegance, disarming immediacy -- and, yes, their size -- that steal the show.
Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 934-2250, through Aug. 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
What's consistent here is change
Two striking video installations at SolwayJones apply high-tech visual seduction to the ancient wisdom of Heraclitus: You can't step twice into the same river.
Jim Campbell and Shirley Shor employ software that precludes the same combination of images and patterns from repeating in their work. Both installations evoke time's persistent forward momentum. From one moment to the next, neither we nor the river remain the same.
The Israeli-born, San-Francisco-based Shor showed a similarly engrossing piece at last year's California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art. While that work had political undercurrents, this one is a more open-ended meditation on structure, stability and change.
The installation consists of a black box (3 feet by 4 feet, 1 foot deep) sitting on the floor. It's filled with fine white sand, but that surface is a vehicle for something more amorphous -- an animate field of energy, colored lines coursing back and forth, horizontally and vertically, continuously weaving and reweaving a dense, luminous tapestry. Projected from above onto the miniature hills and plains of the sandbox, the grid of gold, black, caramel, lipstick, acid yellow, persimmon and olive represents serious, efficient play. The lines of traffic move smoothly, some faster, some slower, reiterating the basic structure but ever altering it. The installation, "Liquid Architecture," a beautiful enactment of fundamental processes, induces a hypnotic trance.
Campbell's piece also sustains long attention. Five monitors stacked one atop another present an ongoing sequence of overlapping images. Some are unified images -- a nude figure, marble column or tall saguaro cactus -- spanning the height of the tower. Others, of windblown cornstalks, a clear running stream, birds in flight and petroglyphs, fill a single frame and repeat across the five screens.
When viewers approach the installation, their abbreviated image appears on screen, thanks to a small camera mounted on the side of the monitors. The live presence appears in motion and then stilled, lingering then dissolving, like the layers of images it overlaps. Campbell, a Bay Area artist, has long engaged issues of memory and time in his work. In this piece, called "Ruins of Light," he stages a stirring meditation on permanence, transience and the nature of the traces we leave.
SolwayJones, 5377 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 937-7354, through July 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.