The subjects of Arie Galles' subtly devastating charcoal drawings look like industrial complexes, factories perhaps. Set within farmland dotted with small dwellings or edged by dense woods, the sites appear orderly, designed for efficiency rather than beauty or integration into the landscape. Long rectangular buildings repeat in rows or blocks, unsoftened by trees or other plantings. Seen from far overhead, the structures and their settings verge on abstraction. The buildings read as geometric pattern, the agricultural plots as mosaic tiles and the roads as mere design elements, graphic arteries articulating sections of relatively flat space.
The formal abstraction is a result of aerial perspective. The emotional detachment implied by that distance is something else. In fact, what makes these drawings so viscerally potent is the tension, the contradiction between the artist's cool approach and the horror of his subjects: Nazi concentration camps.
Galles used military reconnaissance photographs (made by German and Allied forces) as source material for the work in "Fourteen Stations / Hey Yud Dalet," at Soka University's art gallery. The drawings measure about 4 feet by 6 feet and are framed in wrought iron imprinted with fragments of barbed wire. The heavy-handed symbolism of the frames strikes the only discordant note in a project whose power derives from its restraint.
The images are, perversely, quite handsome, the blacks deep and inky, the contours just shy of crisp. In "Mauthausen," the stark geometry of what must be barracks or possibly crematories is offset by curving roads and a surrounding landscape of animate, pulsing plots. Some of the images generate a disorienting sense of slippage. The angle at which the source photograph was made causes the land to tip away from the picture plane, suggesting a horizon toward the bottom of the page, opposite where we expect it.
Galles draws with calm deliberation. He has channeled all of the emotional and historical urgency associated with the Holocaust into imagery that is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Instead of manipulating instant responses of shock and outrage, so easy to do given the subject, he presents the material and lets it simmer. Image by image, the effect builds, the benign accreting into an insidious malignancy. Hannah Arendt introduced the term "banality of evil." Galles renders it visible in his treatment of the topography of the killing industry.
Each of the drawings is accompanied by a brief, dense poem by Jerome Rothenberg, inscribed in charcoal on an adjacent, separately framed panel. Rothenberg's words, with their pungent vocabulary of fists, blood, plagues, silences, smoke, dust and emptiness, resonate provocatively with Galles' images. Galles may be the one using charcoal, but both artists compose in the ash of family and cultural history. Rothenberg, who has written extensively about the khurbn (Yiddish for "total destruction"), is the son of immigrants from a Polish town near Treblinka. Galles was born during the war, in Tashkent, in what is now Uzbekistan, to Polish parents fleeing German occupation. Both lost numerous close relatives.
In Jewish tradition, mourners repeat the kaddish, a prayer exalting God, to keep alive the memory and names of the dead. Galles has invisibly embedded a fragment of the kaddish in each of his drawings, so that the entire cycle amounts to a silent recitation of the complete prayer. As a child of survivors and a survivor himself, Galles assumes an obligation not just to keep alive the memory of the lost but also to keep current and relevant the questions raised by their destruction. His drawings assert the kinds of answers that can be plainly stated -- questions of location, appearance. The questions that resist such closure -- the whys and hows, the essence of what happened -- remain insistently open in this tremendously affecting work, as they do in the annals of history itself.
Founders Hall Art Gallery, Soka University, 1 University Drive, Aliso Viejo, (949) 480-4000, through April 28. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. www.soka.edu
The definition of drawing, expanded
A delicious bit of market-driven irony has boosted drawing, the oldest visual art form, into the limelight as the hottest new trend. The more attention drawing gets, the more new adherents it seems to attract. Never mind that some of them are working in paint and sculptural materials; if a work is in a drawings show, it must be a drawing. Cross-fertilization and discovery matter more than exclusionary definitions anyway.
The "Major Drawings" show at Carl Berg showcases nine artists who work large, either in the spirit of drawing, with directness and immediacy, or the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper. Versatility and vitality largely run high.
James Buss draws innocuous roadside scenes with exquisite finesse and sets them, like snapshots in oversized mats, within huge panels that telescope our focus deep into the details. Chelsea Dean is also a technical wizard, building up images of plants from loops of hair-thin lines. Engaging drawings by Margaret Griffith and Timothy Nolan play with pattern and deviation, repetition and improvisation.
Of lesser interest are watercolors of burst balloons by Neha Choksi, which barely transcend the level of sophomoric exercise. Steve Schmidt's manic, skittering line (made by attaching his pencils to power tools) has more energy than purpose, and John Geary's charcoal drawing of a young chimp is accomplished but dull. Gelah Penn has spun a frivolous stream-of-consciousness doodle in the space of the gallery's front window using colored plastic thread that's been strung, knotted and whipped into frizzy tumbleweeds.
The most stirring piece in the show is Tony de los Reyes' "Trinidad," painted in bister, a pigment made from soot. The drawing consists of a single gesture, a large, swift comma the color of dried blood. The pigment has pooled in several areas and dried to a glossy dark crust, but in between, where the paint is translucent, De los Reyes has conjured faint images of ships, perhaps in battle. The history of conquest wafts through, within the pure potency and fury of the physical mark.
Carl Berg Gallery, 6018 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 931-6060, through Saturday. www.carlberggallery.com
as well as space
In a few of Amanda Sefton Hogg's lovely paintings at d.e.n., the shape of a chandelier is evident. In the rest, the light fixture is implied, and Hogg's gestures work toward evoking luminosity through a grisaille palette of blurred strokes.
The chandelier form serves as skeletal filigree throughout, an ornamental scaffold for exploring atmospheric effects. "Nuance: Crystal" is particularly absorbing. The Scottish-born, L.A.-based Hogg defines structure through a vague calligraphy of curves and loops. The rest of her brushstrokes are straight and short, pulling downward as if gravity were playing tug of war with light. Dense passages of black soften to gray, accented by sharp inhalations of white. The eye rides the painting like a musical score, continuously rising and lowering.
It is a testament to the lyricism of Hogg's paintings that they evoke time as much as space. Light appears to elapse, to be in constant motion. The photographic blur comes to mind and the partially erased chalkboard, both having to do with traces left behind. In this, Hogg's first Southern California show, the surfaces are rich and the associations too.
d.e.n. contemporary art, 6023 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 559-3023, through April 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.dencontemporaryart.com
A sculptor who loves to play tricks
In a series of photographs in Nathan Mabry's debut solo show at Cherry and Martin, several figurative sculptures are shown wearing grotesque masks. A Zuniga mother with child balanced on her hip sports a Halloween headdress of horns, furry golden hair and a mouth like a vertical gash. The incongruity jars for a moment, but the moment passes and the work ends up feeling more like a prank than a deliberately layered dialogue.
Mabry is a clever and agile trickster. He's prone to facile gestures such as the photographs but is equally capable of teasing out more subtle frictions. In his wonderfully dissonant "Peace Pipes," Mabry translates generic fluorescent light bulbs (the favored material of Minimalist sculptor Dan Flavin) into textured bronze, attaches feathers and beads a la Native American ceremonial objects, and garnishes the whole with glitzy rhinestone dog tags and a roach clip.
A 2004 master of fine arts from UCLA, Mabry is well-schooled in irreverence, and well-schooled in general about art's multifarious functions as consumer object, cultural artifact, fetish. He takes appropriation art several steps further than its first-generation practitioners, borrowing from the store of art in the Modernist canon and art of indigenous cultures and melding them with humor and smart craftsmanship.
When Mabry uses a Minimalist sculpture as a base for ancient Peruvian fertility figures, for instance, he reassigns the traditional roles of each and revels in the contradiction. But he also hints at a deeper, unifying factor: that all art, whatever form it takes or status it's given, reflects the rituals of its time and place.
Cherry and Martin, 12611 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 398-7404, through March 25. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays. www.cherryandmartin.com