Still lifes from retail’s rejects

Times Staff Writer

The crockery and foodstuffs in Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s still-life paintings have been described as stand-ins for the slowly shifting social order of 18th century France. Peasant pottery mingles with aristocratic silver tumblers, while an emerging middle class of shiny copper pots adds an element of aspirational sturdiness.

If so, change as represented in Timothy Tompkins’ new still lifes, which the painter has said were inspired by Chardin, is accelerated to the pace of a seasonal shopping cycle. The seven works in his second solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects depict decorative arrangements composed from leftovers on Target department store clearance shelves.

Ceramic vegetables, artificial flowers, autumnal wreaths, ribbons, votive candles, tabletop holiday trees, glass vases -- they’re commercially mass-produced signifiers of celebration that failed to find buyers. In the wake of consumer rapture, think of them as the left-behind.

These and other accursed objects are carefully arranged on metal store shelves, huddled for collective warmth in decorative tableaux. Tompkins sometimes puts a bright red “sale” sticker front and center, so that the tag appears to be affixed to the surface not just of the depicted vase or knickknack but of the painting.

That gesture of knowing humility is one of the charms of this punchy and insightful work. It refuses to pretend that a commercial venue called an art gallery or a product like a painting stands outside the dominion of contemporary trade and exchange.


Tompkins employs the hard, shiny enamels used by sign painters, applying these vivid pigments to sheets of aluminum. (The largest works are more than 5 feet tall.) The industrial materials fit the subject.

His arrangements are self-consciously artful, suggesting that the painter intervened in the display of these found objects. Tidied-up department store compositions were photographed and the camera images cropped, greatly enlarged and otherwise manipulated as templates for the paintings.

One result of this digital finagling is that the pictures lose focus while the objects in them remain crisply defined. The enamel colors are not mixed or blended but instead puddle in discrete shapes that assemble the image. The result recalls something done with a paint-by-numbers kit.

The reference nods toward Andy Warhol. His 1960s paint-by-numbers pictures affirmed “My 5-year-old child could do that,” playing off conventional American disdain for postwar avant-garde art. But Tompkins, who wasn’t born when Warhol made those cheeky paintings (he’s barely 40), works in a different artistic universe. Today, new art is a multibillion-dollar entrepreneurial industry.

Tompkins’ paintings seem more interested in the budding historical intersection between art and commerce that prosaic 1950s toys epitomized in popular culture. To the degree that Target stores have made mid-20th century design a middle-class staple, in ways actual mid-century designers could only have dreamed of, Tompkins’ paintings advance the theme. His glossy depictions of commercial leftovers slyly track painting’s conflicted journey between then and now.

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5795 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 933-2117, through Sept. 1. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.

Light and playful, solemn and deep

The Koplin Del Rio Gallery is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a survey of the artists the gallery represents. In honor of the event, many of these artists submitted a new work incorporating silver color or the number 25. In some cases, such as the late James Doolin’s charcoal and pastel drawing of a strange rural landscape (the hills seem to have eyes), the work dates to the gallery’s inauguration in 1982.

As a summer celebration, the show generally deflects solemnity in favor of good-natured play. Twenty-five shorebirds are dispersed through Norman Lundin’s watery, low-slung, plein-air landscape painting. Ira Korman’s exquisite charcoal rendering of an ancient patriarch is dominated by a magnificent silver beard, hoary symbol of wisdom.

Darlene Campbell gives a conceptual twist to an otherwise innocuous roadside landscape painting, “25 Miles From Home.” Laurie Hogan’s fantastic, bug-eyed monkeys wearing party hats gorge themselves on anniversary champagne and cake, while Ron Rizk takes a self-deprecating bow in a funny, slightly creepy picture of a “Show Pig” that looks like something from a tatty carnival shooting gallery.

There are a couple of exceptions to the general aura of lightheartedness that rummage around in darker, more substantive issues.

One is Peter Zakosky’s hauntingly lovely “Aboriginal Skull,” a silverpoint drawing on a burnished silver panel set in a silver frame. As a drawing technique, silverpoint is atavistic, long predating the modern use of graphite. Coupled with the image of a skull, whose oddly shaped features likewise banish thoughts of “modern man,” Zakosky’s shiny reminder of death positions art -- and anniversaries -- as earnest, ritualized hedges against mortality

For a gallery whose program focuses on representational art, the picture also resonates in a particular way. After decades in the wilderness, relative to the primacy of modern abstraction, figurative art was on the comeback trail when this gallery was founded.

The show’s most mesmerizing work is Kerry James Marshall’s black ink-wash “Study for a Portrait of John Punch (Angry Black Man Year 1640).” A glowering, razor-sharp face appears to float amid a tangle of dreadlocks, atop a loosely rendered body swaddled in an oversize sweater.

The fluid, contemporary body is stylistically at odds with the crisply rendered, even old-fashioned visage (which looks almost like a wood engraving.) The dissonance is startling, as if an insistent face from the past had forced its way into present life.

The story of John Punch represents a turning point in the nation’s history -- one of the cruelest imaginable. Sentenced to slavery 467 years ago by a Virginia court, he marked the passage from an already evil system of indentured servitude to hopeless, permanent bondage. Punch’s fate is emblematic of a vicious inhumanity that we easily ignore in sentimental renderings of America’s origins.

Because of his wretched social station, no portrait of this pivotal figure from American history was likely made. (Marshall’s is surely fictional.) But the artist gives the otherwise anonymous figure a sharply drawn, indelible countenance. Inserted within the amorphous, liquid contours of contemporary black identity, Punch is a fierce and immovable anchor.

Koplin Del Rio Gallery, 6031 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 836-9055, through Sept. 1. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Colors that flutter in the outdoor air

French Conceptual artist Daniel Buren has inserted his signature stripes into the breeze above an outdoor dining patio in a Pasadena shopping arcade. Tight rows of triangular striped flags -- more than 4,000 of them -- form a slight if pleasant intervention in an otherwise rather bland environment.

Buren’s fluttering flags, commissioned by the nearby Armory Center for the Arts, are configured into a perfect square. During the day, the appearance of the colored stripes shifts between yellow/gold and orange/red depending on whether they’re backlighted by the sun or reflecting it.

In either case, given the slightest breeze, the horizontal, square plane undulates in irregular patterns. Currents of air that would otherwise be invisible become legible.

Buren began using striped fabric more than 40 years ago; presumably these flags employ bands of color exactly 8.7 centimeters wide, just like the stripes printed on linen that he originally found in the early 1960s at a Montmartre textile market. His selection of commercially manufactured “painted canvas” represented an attempt to shift viewer attention away from deducing the emotional temperature of artistic subjectivity and toward apprehending the structure of the environment in which art is produced and encountered.

And if these colorful banners recall those that typically festoon a used-car lot -- well, that’s probably just fine with the artist. At One Colorado, where the plaza is ringed with restaurants, bars, shops and a multiplex cinema, the ka-ching of social commerce undergirding the preponderance of art today is suddenly audible. Buren’s work participates in that entertainment and exchange, all the while floating above it.

The Courtyard at One Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, (626) 792-5101, through Nov. 11. Open daily.

christopher.knight@latimes .com