Modern experience, dissected 11 ways

Times Staff Writer

Art that grapples with questions of human consciousness often risks devolving into sentimental riffs on cosmic wonder. Doug Aitken is an artist who rigorously avoids that pitfall. If his show at Regen Projects isn’t fully satisfying -- it’s the acclaimed young videographer’s solo gallery debut in his hometown -- it is only because Aitken steadily pushes the envelope with his provocative work. Taking risks is, well, risky.

It’s refreshing too. Titled “The moment,” the 11-channel video installation continues Aitken’s exploration of his subject in terms that are distinctly modern, urban and gritty.

The modern architectural landscape arose from egalitarian optimism, but in practice it didn’t work out that way. Aitken’s video installations, including “The moment,” often visualize the modern urban landscape as simultaneously exquisite and bleak, sensuous and threatening, resolutely empty yet filled with meaning. There are haunting images in “The moment” that can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

In a gallery painted pitch black and with black carpeting underfoot, 11 plasma screens are suspended from the ceiling. (The top of each screen is a bit more than 5 feet off the ground.) The back of each screen is mirrored. The screens are positioned in an S-curve that begins at the entry door and extends diagonally across the room, all the way to the far corner.


This configuration is something that reveals itself only slowly, given the darkness of the space, as you explore the environment. The mirrors reflect fragments of the video imagery on the screens in front of them, shattering and rearranging the floating pictures as you move around. When the compositional S-curve becomes clear, for a moment it seems that the mirrors should reflect that line, creating a figure 8. This symbol for infinity, however, exists only as a concept here, not as a visual experience.

Instead, the mirror reflections create curves, loops and arcs of repeated pictures. Many of Aitken’s images are close-ups of the rigorously rectilinear facades of modern skyscrapers in downtown L.A., so their grids are cast about in curved space. You chase them around the room, going from plasma screen to plasma screen, stepping back to take in the full view, getting enticed by reflected fragments that are purely chimerical and starting the process all over again.

The video also repeats, creating a looped narrative.

Figures sleep. Their body parts twitch involuntarily, as if dreaming. They awake. Lights are switched on. The editing pace builds into a frenzy of kinetic activity, but the action shows mostly individual men and women alone drifting along urban streets. There are lots of shots of street lamps, light bulbs, telephone wires and power lines -- the infrastructure of civic energy and communications -- and close-ups of eyes. The day ends. Figures sleep.


The soundtrack includes pulsating electronic music, intermittent pops of static and a whispered monologue that can be hard to decipher. “I want to see everything,” the voice seems to say. “I want to be everywhere.”

Aitken has explored principles of fractal geometry in his work before, and it operates in “The moment” too. Fractal patterns contain littler copies of themselves buried within the original. (The operative term is “self-similarity.”) The closer you zoom in on a fractal, the more detail you get -- a process of collapsing and unfolding patterns that continues ad infinitum. Among additional works in an adjacent gallery, Aitken has fabricated a marvelous vertical wall relief of floating mirrored shapes that appear to launch your reflected body into just such a peculiar dimension.

The fractal structure, as a model for modern consciousness, is both absorbing and enervating as deployed by Aitken. (It would be interesting to pair his work with that of Danish light-and-space artist Olafur Eliasson, who manipulates similarly extraordinary mathematical structures.) My only reservation with “The moment,” which embeds itself in a wonderfully cogent and evocative experience of time, is that the physical space of the particular gallery room seems incidental -- an unconsidered contingency and perhaps a wasted opportunity. But that’s a slight if notable blemish in an otherwise vivifying show.

Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive, West Hollywood, (310) 276-5424, through Oct. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.



A digital lily pond

Something’s rustling down in the metaphoric bushes of media artist C.E.B. Reas’ L.A. gallery debut. The floor at Bank is dotted with 19 white disks, each slightly raised off the concrete and scattered down the narrow room in a long, gently curved arc. The pale, dense, crystalline images seem to bristle.

The images are constructed from computer software programs and are projected from above. (The disk format no doubt alludes to the software source.) It puts you loosely in mind of a high-tech version of Monet’s lily pond at Giverny, where clouds reflected on the broken surface of the water confound perceptions of spatial normalcy.


Reas’ imagery is intriguing. Each disk features a thicket of linear and planar marks, in colors that tend toward the autumnal -- brown, green, orange, violet, gold -- like a weedy patch of late October grass or a spore seen through a magnifying lens. The center rustles, opening with small flashes of white (the color of the disk on which it is projected), and waves seem to ripple outward through the thicket toward the perimeter. It looks something like what happens when pebbles are dropped into a pond.

But it’s also oddly carnal, as if a glimpse into an originating womb. According to a gallery handout, Reas, who teaches at UCLA, wrote computer code as a set of precisely detailed instructions similar to those given to fabricators of Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings. Because computer code can be dynamic, while the data for a wall drawing remains static, the experience that results for a viewer is dramatically different. No origin reveals itself, only perpetual, elusive movement.

Bank, 400 Main St., (213) 621-4055, through Oct. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.



Possibilities at play in fields of color

Joe Novak is an unabashed Color Field painter. His paintings and aquatints at Bert Green Fine Arts -- the Santa Fe artist’s third show there -- feature works that will call to mind abstractions as diverse as those by Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko and Morris Louis and the landscape abstractions of Joe Goode.

The show surveys a dozen canvases from the last 18 years. The most dynamic is “Libica” (1997), which can be described in two ways. It’s either a burst of shimmering golden atmosphere from within a dark amorphous plane or a dark cloud encroaching from the edges to swallow up a field of shifting light. Novak’s best works revel in this sort of ambiguity, in which allusions to creation and destruction balance on a knife edge.

The paintings are made by diluting acrylic paint and applying it to a wet surface, then manipulating the canvas or the paint using a relatively dry brush. “Libica” -- the title suggests an Arabic reference to Lybia -- is not an illustration of some celestial phenomenon but instead asserts itself as a vivid chromatic form that has found its shape through a combination of natural accident and human intercession.


This is a difficult feat to pull off, and a few of the paintings feel inert. (The smoke drawings, in which candle-soot creates the tornado- and thundercloud-like images on the paper, seem like old-fashioned Surrealist tropes.) The more uniformly uncanny works are several beautiful aquatints, made with multiple printing plates that somehow merge atmospheric halations of color in a way that makes each hue distinct, transparent and inseparable from the others -- all at once.

Bert Green Fine Art, 102 W. 5th St., (213) 624-6212, through Nov. 19. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Bold forms, elusive colors


For several years Monique van Genderen has been making remarkably engaging murals with adhesive vinyl, cutting up the material or using leftover scraps and assembling them into iridescent abstractions that fill the wall. For her second solo show at Happy Lion Gallery, she’s done something new: plain old paintings, some with watercolor and others with oil and enamel.

Still, the work’s relationship to Van Genderen’s unusual vinyl murals is clear. In the small but beautiful show, eight bound volumes of watercolors on paper, tucked into a wall-bound bookcase the artist built specifically to hold them, continue her mural exploration of transparency and color. Even the bookshelf -- a long wooden plinth that ends in an open cubicle, where the volumes are stored -- participates: Attached to the wall, like the vinyl murals were, the wood is stained with a dark but transparent matte-brown.

A similar logic informs the paintings, which are executed on wood panels. Van Genderen paints big, broad shapes whose thick, clean edges suggest the use of tape to plot them out in advance, and these intermingle with other flat or brushy marks that are free-form and insouciant. Color and space become tactile materials, with a wide range of physical properties, anchored to the wall by the panels.

The knockout work is "... the bather ...,” whose nominal subject nods to the Edenic tradition that launched Cezanne, Picasso and Modern painting. Van Genderen’s work is non-figurative, but the graceful linear swaths of green against a layered off-white ground almost seem like a luxurious, reclining body regarding itself in a hand-held mirror -- an abstract “Rokeby Venus,” perhaps, in which palpable form and elusive colored marks share the painting’s stage.


The Happy Lion Gallery, 936 Chung King Road, Chinatown, (213) 625-1360, through Oct. 15. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.