Back to basics, with one exception

Times Staff Writer

Like P.T. Barnum, Salvador Dali, Muhammad Ali and Cirque du Soleil, Matthew Barney is not known for understatement.

Five years ago, he was bigger than art. His lavishly meandering five-part film, “The Cremaster Cycle,” combined the grandiosity of Wagnerian opera with the enigmatic arcana of Duchampian scholarship while serving up the pretentious elegance of a spare-no-expense perfume commercial and the corny hokeyness of backwoods Surrealism. Barney’s over-the-top survey at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, complete with a phone book-size catalog, led to speculation about what the 35-year-old would do next -- about how he could ever top the spectacular extravaganza of his farfetched output.

At Regen Projects, the San Francisco-born, New York-based 40-year-old goes back to the basics. Page-size drawings, medium-size photographs and a videotape of a summer performance reveal that what is basic to Barney is mind-blowing to the rest of us: a fearless sort of scrambled pageantry that plays fast and loose with history and myth to suggest that everyday reality is so dense with significance that we are all fools for accepting ready-made stories and not making up our own -- as wild and weird as necessary to let our imaginations live fully and freely.


In the main gallery, 24 pencil drawings on black paper show Barney developing his interpretation of Norman Mailer’s “Ancient Evenings.” Scribbly images of Mailer appear amid such Egyptian gods as Horus, Thoth and Ptah as well as dung beetles, bulls, American automobiles and a phoenix or two. Gold and silver leaf, along with smears of petroleum jelly, adorn some of the drawings. The story that unfolds traces the soul’s journey through death to eternity.

Interspersed among the black-on-black drawings are nine silver prints. They depict props, scenes and characters from one installment of “The Cremaster Cycle.” Four of the plastic-framed photographs are wrapped in synthetic sashes, as if mourning the death of that body of work.

The video in the adjoining gallery steals the show. In fairly straightforward fashion, it documents a performance that Barney, in collaboration with Jonathan Bepler, staged on July 12 at England’s Manchester Opera House. In contrast to the way it was enacted and shot, nothing about “Guardian of the Veil” is straightforward or simple, rational or reasonable.

It begins with a veiled woman being carried into the opera house, where she is laid atop a wrecked Chrysler Crown Imperial. No words are spoken throughout the 40-minute ritual, but an orchestra plays a dirge as men in military uniforms, New York Sanitation Department outfits and Egyptian costumes perform burial rites on the car. They go through the motions of mummifying its engine and then attempt to transform it into a Pontiac Trans Am (a.k.a. Firebird), so that it might be reborn, like the legendary phoenix, as a vehicle that transports us beyond the limits of believability.

The performance does that in spades.

Buckets of petroleum jelly, a stream of what appears to be chocolate syrup and a pair of naked contortionists, who urinate on the stage, all play important roles in Barney’s performance. So does a prize-winning bull adorned with a garland of flowers and a paper-plate tiara. Despite the enticements of a swatch of cowhide soaked in the appropriate pheromones, the bull cannot be tricked into mounting the car. “Guardian of the Veil” ends without climax as the tape loops back to the beginning.

It’s all carried out with humorless solemnity. There’s a rough, anything-can-happen rawness to the perverse proceedings, which share less with polished Hollywood productions than with the rituals of underground sects. It’s enough to make world-weary urbanites shudder -- or shriek with delight at the vitality of Barney’s imagination.


Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive, (310) 276-5424, through Jan. 20. Closed Sundays, Mondays.

Union of realistic, abstract inspires

“Utopias,” at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, pairs two painters whose works are not usually linked: Robert Olsen and Adam Ross. The unexpected juxtaposition of Olsen’s realistic pictures of the urban landscape at night and Ross’ abstract paintings of fractured space is flat-out inspired: It makes the rock-solid compositions by the L.A. painters even more captivating than they are on their own.

The main gallery features six oils by Olsen. In the three largest, bus shelters emerge from pure inky blackness. Each Spartan structure is illuminated by the kind of wall-size light box on which advertisements are usually displayed. Olsen seeks out off-duty shelters -- no people appear in any of his pictures, and no company or corporation is renting the advertising space when he takes the snapshots on which his paintings are based. The blank rectangles of bright light have the heavenly presence of infinite possibility.

In his three other paintings, the spherical sign for “76” gasoline similarly emerges from the blackness of starless night skies. One orb is orange, one red and the other unilluminated. The narrative suggested -- of corporate redesign and lights-out failure -- is less compelling than the stark anonymity of the bus stop paintings.

Olsen transforms bare-bones architecture into a fascinating essay on the inhospitality of Modernist architecture and the chilly beauty of geometric perfection. These paintings turn overlooked bits of cities into mirages, shimmering illusions that make one aspect of public trans- port seem a portal into the future.

Although Ross’ palette is brighter and more electrifying than Olsen’s, Ross’ nine paintings, hung in trios in three small side galleries, are darker, meatier and more troubling. Each looks back on the history of abstraction -- particularly its wildly optimistic promise to deliver viewers to a new and improved world -- and sees ruin, failure and folly.

Many of Ross’ paintings have the presence of gorgeous train wrecks, their sumptuously poisonous colors, explosively fractured compositions and piled-up painterly techniques suggesting breakdown, derailment, devastation. The aftermath of the crash may be beautiful -- with expansive blue skies and fluffy clouds visible between broken columns and twisted conduits -- but it also looks toxic, aglow with a gaseous palette of mutant tertiary colors. If Fernand Leger and Wyndham Lewis were to paint the apocalypse, this is what it might look like.

Paired, Ross’ and Olsen’s works draw visitors into a wide-ranging conversation about where people -- and painting -- fit in the digital age.

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5795 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 933-2117, through Jan. 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.vielmetter .com

A silly and mean stab at celebrity

Like most jokes, Alison Jackson’s photographs have a fairly short shelf life. The best place to see them is on the Internet or in attachments to e-mails sent by friends who share your taste for newsy humor and celebrity misadventure. In a gallery, the superficial silliness of Jackson’s staged pictures of anonymous actors masquerading as movie stars, politicians and musicians is swamped by an overblown sense of seriousness, especially when they are enlarged and set in designer frames.

At the M+B Gallery, Jackson’s 27 prints go out of their way to look naturalistic. Many are grainy, as if taken on the sly; some are fuzzy, as if transferred from surveillance tapes; and most are blurry around the edges, to heighten the dreamy fantasy. But all are fakes -- elaborate setups that are not as funny as old “Saturday Night Live” skits, not as incisive as political cartoons in daily newspapers and not as heart-wrenching as the people who dress up like stars and pose for photographs on Hollywood Boulevard.

Some of Jackson’s images are cute, such as Bill Gates rocking out to his iPod. Some are too much like the real thing to be interesting, such as Jack Nicholson splashing around in a pool with a bunch of bare-breasted women. Some are gratuitous, such as Monica Lewinsky hovering near Bill Clinton’s crotch. And others -- such as Queen Elizabeth II sitting on a toilet and Marilyn Monroe masturbating -- are simply mean-spirited.

At their best, Jackson’s photographs are as forgettable as the escapades of this season’s celebrities. At their worst, her pictures of posed misadventures elicit and reward an attitude of disdainful superiority. It’s a sort of passive-aggressive voyeurism that plays into the least attractive aspects of contemporary culture.

M+B Gallery, 612 N. Almont Drive, (310) 550-0050, through Jan. 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

The spiritual side of a Chevy engine

In the mid-1990s, the Rev. Ethan Acres said that part of his job as an artist was to put some of the fun back into fundamentalism. Times have changed, and his project is even more timely today.

At the Patricia Faure Gallery, Acres’ first solo show in Los Angeles in five years reveals an artist whose sense of humor is as generous and forgiving as ever and whose skills in the studio have sharpened. His exhibition, in a small, chapel-like gallery, consists of only one work, but it’s a doozy: a 350-cubic-inch Chevy engine made of handcrafted stained glass, lead and copper tubing. It’s held aloft by an ordinary engine stand, but the translucent motor seems almost weightless, the light passing through it creating a radiance that defies gravity’s earthly tug.

Acres’ “Sacred Heart 350” is a homemade, one-of-kind, DIY crystal cathedral. It recalls his “Highway Chapel,” a converted camper he once used as his mobile church. The life-size sculpture also harks back to the art of Sister Corita Kent, who transformed advertisements for bread and gasoline into playfully inspiring messages about love, humility and strength.

In the United States, there are few objects more potent -- or loaded with metaphor -- than motors from Detroit’s heyday. Tapping into that passion for freedom, adventure and the ups and downs of the open road, Acres makes art a matter of redemption. Like every good parable, his engine drives viewers out of everyday habits and toward something bigger and better and beyond anything expected.

Patricia Faure Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 449-1479, through Jan. 19. Closed Sundays, Mondays. www.patricia