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At once childlike and monstrous

Times Staff Writer

Nature is almost always described with feminine attributes, starting with motherhood. Perhaps that’s also why women are regularly assigned the role of civilizing agent for society’s brutal and authoritarian play of power. Tokyo-based artist Chiho Aoshima collapses these contradictory characterizations of nature and culture in her work, which is the subject of a marvelous solo exhibition at Blum & Poe Gallery (her second). The tensions between them develop within an apocalyptic narrative that, like all good fairy tales, is at once childlike and monstrous, innocent and grotesque.

The ambitious exhibition centers on a sculpture that is a life-size doll, an environmental mural that wraps around four gallery walls and runs underfoot on the floor and -- most impressively -- a seven-minute digital animation. The video is shown on five flat-screen televisions placed side by side (call it TeleScope, in honor of its CinemaScope roots). The wide, narrow row of TVs creates a postmodern Japanese screen painting.

Also included are seven glossy computer graphic prints, most related to the digital animation, which are sandwiched between large sheets of clear and white plexiglass. The format emphasizes their synthetic quality. Together these works form an epic that might be called “Revenge of the Vivian Girls,” in memory of those pre-adolescent waifs in the obsessive, phantasmagoric drawings of the late outsider-artist Henry Darger.

“City Glow,” the video animation, was produced with film director Bruce Ferguson. The story begins from the viewpoint of a worm -- not unlike “Dialogue of Insects” (1924-25), a dazzling transitional work by Joan Miro with one foot in the decorative manner of Catalan folk art and the other in the Parisian dream-world of Surrealism.

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Likewise, Aoshima shifts our perspective by collapsing genres high and low. Pop art fuses with kawaii, the “cute” imagery that virtually defines contemporary Japanese pop culture. (“Hello Kitty” was an early example exported to America.) As “City Glow” begins, you are down with the other bugs crawling around in the underbrush, looking up at a looming urban world that is at once mesmerizing in its enchantment and ominous in its capacity to destroy.

In the background, tall, organic structures wave slowly in the breeze, wrapped in illuminated checkerboard patterns and with faces dominated by big round eyes. Each one looks like a fusion of skyscraper, glowworm and young girl. The soundtrack mixes electronic music with ocean waves, like a new wave Genesis. The tale that unfolds is a simple life cycle, all dressed up in flat, vivid colors and dominated by sensuous, neo-Art Nouveau linearity.

The scene begins with an awakening down in the grass. Then it rains. Lush blossoms erupt. Cocoons open into butterflies. Night descends and plants begin to glow in unearthly hues of violet, red and magenta, as if irradiated. A cemetery suddenly appears in the forest, populated by death-heads. Fairies arrive -- and a rainbow, which rises toward a blue sky that fades to black.

The End.

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The beautifully crafted animation derives from an ancient Shinto mixture of nature worship, prophecy, fertility cults and shamanism. Aoshima takes this tradition for a dizzyingly contemporary spin.

Self-taught as an artist -- she studied economics in college -- Aoshima has been an in-house computer technician for Takashi Murakami, the progenitor of the art movement called Superflat, and she’s a whiz with the Macintosh. Her pretty, round-eyed girls with flowing hair are stereotypical ingenues in Japanese animation, and the rest of her visual vocabulary is drawn from similar sources, as well as from traditional Japanese art.

Aoshima layers the flat imagery so that movement on each plane occurs at different rates of speed across the field of vision. Without employing Western conventions of perspective and shading, this perpetual slipping and sliding suggests a floating world of three-dimensional space. It also adds to the dreamy, hypnotic quality of the video.

The wall-mounted individual prints are like outtakes from the story. The walk-in mural, composed from giant inkjet prints on paper and vinyl, is similar in theme to the video -- except here you move around within it, examining the action, rather than events unfolding before your eyes. (Don’t miss the “gushing zombies” that erupt on the floor.) And then there is the life-size doll -- the one element that doesn’t quite work.

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Reminiscent of Murakami’s sculptures, the life-size female figure sits atop a “glow city” pedestal that is illuminated from within. Clad in a buckskin loincloth, crowned with blue and pink synthetic hair and adorned with strands of shells, beads and feathers, it’s a post-Pop hippie-chick fetish-object. It is also inert. The sculpture deadens the magical, abstract spirit of Aoshima’s other delightful work.

Blum & Poe, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 836-2062, blumandpoe.com; through July 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Composition from decomposition

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Los Angeles artist Ingrid Calame has indirectly spawned a number of artists who do variations on her well-known technique of transcribing stains found on city streets and sidewalks. Among the more interesting is Matthew Picton, a London-born, Oregon-based artist having his first solo show at Solway Jones Gallery.

Where Calame uses her “found drawings” as raw material for carefully composed, even precisely manufactured paintings, Picton seems more directly interested in natural processes. (Perhaps that’s the British connection, from Richard Long’s “landscape sculpture” in the 1970s to Andy Goldsworthy’s today.) His work charts decay and dissolution.

The show includes four wall sculptures made from Mylar thickly painted in black or red enamel. The Mylar has been cut with a knife into fragile webs whose linear shape derives from the intricate pattern of cracks and fissures in asphalt or concrete on roadways, parking lots, alleyways and playgrounds. The jagged webs, formed by expansion and contraction in response to shifts in weather, are a kind of anonymous diary of material collapse. Picton turns their negative space into positive form.

Suspended from straight pins, the webs stand a few inches out from the wall. One looks like an EKG, another recalls snakeskin. A third suggests a road map. These references don’t go very far, however, and a sameness undercuts the work.

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More provocative is the fifth wall sculpture, which is made from a sickly orange resin. “Interior Cracked Roadway Sculpture #2, Medford, Oregon” is a chunky, spindly form cast from a mold made directly in the roadway. The resin glows from within, capturing ambient light, while its muscular form gives the object an aggressive, even vaguely alarming quality. When faced with this particular lesion, decay hardly seems benign; meanwhile, its candy-colored physical beauty makes for a contradictory attraction.

Solway Jones Gallery, 5377 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 937-7354, through June 18. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Bacon, pork and just plain piggy

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Robert Russell wasn’t born until three years after the Beatles recorded their “White Album” in 1968, but everything old gets new again. His paintings in “Pink,” a solo exhibition at Anna Helwing Gallery, will put you in mind of George Harrison.

“Everywhere there’s lots of piggies, living piggy lives. You can see them out for dinner, with their piggy wives. Clutching forks and knives / to eat their bacon.” Given today’s rampant consolidation of wealth and the corporate structuring of everything from government to the art world, the timing couldn’t be better for a hoggish image of greed devouring its own tail.

Russell’s oil paintings were based on random images that came up when he typed the word “pigs” into Google. Four of the canvases show packed clusters of the blank-eyed barnyard animals, seen from above and filling the frame. Using various shades of pink, white and gray-brown, Russell paints in thick, quick, linear brushstrokes, which replicate the high-contrast tonal shifts in documentary photographic data. The fifth image -- a diptych hanging alone in a separate room, as if enshrined -- is a small surprise. A double portrait of JFK and Fidel Castro, it of course portrays the iconic Cold War protagonists in the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Google searches across many fields, giving a techno-spin to the old game of chance. History painting, the genre Russell evokes in a cockeyed way, is always more revealing of present than past. So it is with “Pink,” a painting-installation whose Pepto-Bismol hues italicize today’s pervasive sense of nausea.

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Anna Helwing Gallery, 2766 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 202-2213, annahelwinggallery.com; through July 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Photographs that try to branch out

New photography has been feeling tired and adrift for quite some time now. In her second show at Sandroni.Rey Gallery, Soo Kim admirably attempts to inject some life into the medium.

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Ten photographs of dense tree branches, some dusted with snow and most clustered with small birds, suggest the familiar renewal of life from winter to spring. Expansive time, which a photograph collapses into a split second, is pictorially represented. Kim then uses a sharp blade to cut out the lacy networks of branches, turning positive form into negative space and transforming the object into a hybrid -- part photograph, part drawing. The paper is sandwiched between sheets of glass, so that the cutouts cast shadows on the wall behind. Photographic images, made with light, mingle with actual light.

The work is conceptually thorough but rather bloodless. In short supply is the vivacity and spirit that make time -- and great photography -- compelling.

Sandroni.Rey Gallery, 2762 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 280-0111, sandronirey.com, through July 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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