Ninety miles of used irrigation stripping, 33,000 pounds of corn kernels, 21 9-foot-tall bales of dried cornstalks -- the material remains of Lauren Bon’s 2005 “Not a Cornfield” project, created in an abandoned rail yard just east of Chinatown, have resurfaced in the considerably tonier milieu of the Ace Gallery, recycled into autonomous works, for Bon’s first solo show since before that project began.
It is a peculiar fit: Bon’s organic materials, ritualized methods and communitarian ethos in the elegant but decidedly cool environment of the gallery. With more than two dozen works dating back to 1992, the show is a substantial production that spans the whole of the vault-like space without seeming to entirely fill it. Many of the smaller pieces feel somewhat unmoored, even dilettantish, adrift in a sea of white plaster and polished concrete.
At the same time, the setting underscores a quality that’s likely to be lost in her larger public projects: an urbane sort of formalism, with cool, architectural tendencies and a highly focused emphasis on materials.
But for a handful of early pieces, the show consists primarily of works that evolved out of the Cornfield project, either physically -- in the form of recycled materials -- or conceptually.
The former are eloquent in their simplicity: distillations of the project rather than documentation. The irrigation stripping, for instance -- a massive tangle of crumpled black plastic -- spills from a corner of the gallery like a drawing in three dimensions. The corn kernels fill an entire room, 1 to 2 feet deep and rippling like a choppy sea.
The conceptual evolution revolves largely around the motif of the honeybee, a creature that played its own role in the Cornfield, as it does in agriculture of all kinds.
Hundreds of jars of honey -- samples gathered from around the world and stacked in 11 1/2 -foot shelving units -- greet viewers as they enter the gallery; dozens more appear wound into a beautiful series of twine “chandeliers.” In one of the show’s most extreme pieces, “Meat and Honey Fountain,” the liquid drips from the skinned and preserved carcass of a lamb, which Bon apparently killed herself and, in a sort of performance that the show refers to only in photographs, suspended from an oak tree with a beehive inserted in its abdomen -- a nod to the myth of Aristaeus, the god of beekeeping.
The piece is audacious in concept but surprisingly tame, even tranquil, in person. Far more unsettling is “Bee Box,” a glass cabinet containing two active hives with tubes leading outside the building to allow the bees to gather pollen from the neighborhood. It’s not easy to get close to this, but once you do the spectacle is astonishing: more than 100,000 industrious drones (according to gallery estimates) toiling away at a pair of sculptures -- the hives themselves -- as elegant, intricate and strange as anything Bon herself could conceive.
The piece epitomizes the most admirable aspect of Bon’s work: a respect for the profundity of natural processes and an instinct for framing them gracefully with little interference.
Ace Gallery Los Angeles, 5514 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 935-4411, through Jan. 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.acegallery.net
Stark film simply mesmerizes
The basic elements of Adria Julia’s “A Means of Passing the Time,” a terrific six-minute film commissioned by LAXART, could hardly be simpler: one camera and two performers, both male, middle-aged and informally dressed. Shot in 16- millimeter black-and-white, the film cuts between them as each addresses the camera in a monologue that appears to range from casual conversation to melodramatic performance.
It’s difficult to make sense of these monologues because of the conscientiously disjunctive editing, but it hardly matters given the men’s magnetism: Whatever they’re doing, they’re mesmerizing. (In actuality, they’re former USO entertainers, discussing -- and demonstrating -- performing for military personnel.)
There are a number of compelling conceptual layers to the piece, relating to the culture of the military, the nature of place, the function of spectacle and the history of folk theater traditions, among other things, but what makes it really riveting is the sheer magic of performance, which Julia’s editing seems to distill to its essence.
Also on view at LAXART is a seductive solo debut by recent UCLA grad Michael Rashkow involving several delicate, found-object floor sculptures and a series of seemingly abstract photographs, each depicting a sphere of pale color floating against a field of white. The photographs are actually portraits, made with a camera that was specially equipped to rotate 360 degrees over the course of a long exposure, and the sculptures -- composed largely of glass jars, other roundish vessels and avocado seeds -- echo this trace of human presence, creating an atmosphere of enigmatic sensuality.
LAXART, 2640 La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 868-5893, through Jan. 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.laxart.org
Old-fashioned text messaging
The continuing relevance (and pleasure) of a show like “Text Works,” a microsurvey of text-based art from the late 1960s through the 1990s at Norma Desmond Productions, can be seen in the title itself. Just look at it for a while, repeat it a few times in your head and watch the word “works” flicker from noun to verb, verb to noun.
Words are strange, slippery little things, and there is a particular, sometimes perverse, satisfaction in watching visual artists pull them apart to see what they’re made of.
Some of the works in this small but thoughtfully assembled show stress the visuality of text to such a degree that it overwhelms the sense. Hanne Darboven’s 1971 “Drawing” is a chart of script-like loops and curls. Guy De Cointet’s 1983 “I Have Been an Insomniac for Many Years” involves a gracefully inscribed but virtually illegible passage of mirror-reverse cursive with an array of geometric, text-like notations.
Other works draw out the tension between word and image. In a deliciously deadpan series of prints from the late 1970s, for instance, Douglas Huebler pairs flat, nested, Josef Albers-like squares with passages of text that describe them (in exhausting detail) as though they were three-dimensional.
Olivier Mosset echoes the flickering effect of the show’s title in his “Exit,” a 1995 print that, but for its purple hue, would be indistinguishable from an actual exit sign and that also happens to hang just above the gallery’s door, thus functioning as word and image, information and icon, simultaneously.
All of these works expand in your mind upon further contemplation, but none more beguilingly than Robert Barry’s 1970 “Something that to know of it is to be part of it,” which consists solely of that phrase typed on a once-folded sheet of paper. So slight as both an object and a sentence that it hardly seems to exists at all, it has the air, nonetheless, of encapsulating volumes.
Norma Desmond Productions, 2654 La Cienega Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 280-0833, through Jan. 12. Closed Sundays through Wednesdays.
Viewer-lighted glade rises again
In its original form, Barbara T. Smith’s 1968-71 “Field Piece” involved 180 translucent resin blades, all 9 1/2 feet tall and about as wide as the trunk of a sturdy aspen. They were vertically aligned at a distance from one another of a foot or two and, activated by sensors in a Styrofoam-padded floor, lighted up in a variety of colors when a viewer moved between them.
Given how enchanting the piece is now, reassembled at the Box with only 16 blades, 180 must have been a veritable wonderland -- as indeed it appears to have been judging from all the happy naked people tangled up in it in photographs on display from that era. (Ah, the ‘70s.)
The press release for the current show states that Smith envisioned the piece as “a field of grass, symbolizing freedom,” which is a pleasant thought, though it’s difficult to block out another, much less chaste association. Whatever it looks like from a distance, however, it’s irresistible from the inside: a glade of light that responds to your movements with what feels like supernatural exuberance.
Also on view, installed around the circumference of the gallery, is another body of work that incorporates the presence of the viewer: a series of predominantly black paintings, made in 1965, whose highly reflective glass frames mirror their surroundings, containing the image of the viewer while simultaneously keeping him or her outside the work -- a curious inversion of “Field Piece.”
Smith is known primarily as a performance artist, and these pieces, on display for the first time since the early ‘70s, attest to an acute exploration of the experience of the body.
The Box, 977 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, (213) 625-1747, through Jan. 5. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays. www.theboxla.com