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So much is addressed, but so little is said

Special to The Times

Loads of important social issues lurk beneath the surfaces of Mathilde ter Heijne’s three-piece exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. “No Depression in Heaven” is a projected video set to a haunting melody. “Depression Years” is a stunt dummy of the artist standing in a small circle of dirt behind a 15-foot-long theatrical backdrop. And “Woman to Go” consists of hundreds of postcards, neatly racked and free for the taking.

Loads of important social issues also lurk beneath the surfaces of just about everything that makes up the image-glut of modern life, especially since digitally transmitted imagery has made looking at lots of pictures easier than ever.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 14, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Artist Robin Mitchell: In some copies of Friday’s Calendar section, a caption in the Around the Galleries column describing the work of Robin Mitchell referred to “his paintbrush.” It should have said “her paintbrush.”

The problem with Ter Heijne’s second American solo show is that it lacks the focus, drive and intensity that set finished works of art apart from undeveloped ideas, no matter how packed with potential they may be. As a whole, the show is less than the sum of its parts.

The parts are impressive. Accompanied by “Oh Death,” an Appalachian coal-mining ballad rewritten in 1965 by folk singer Sara Ogan Gunning, the four-minute video drifts from dream to nightmare and back again. Ter Heijne plays its only two roles: a beautifully coiffed Southern belle in lacy white dress and her dirt-poor doppelganger.

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The two face off like Wild West gunslingers, but only after enacting enough melodrama to fill a week of telenovelas. References to Alfred Hitchcock movies, Walker Evans photographs, Mary Shelley’s Romanticism, Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian therapy remind viewers that we are in the presence of highly self-conscious contemporary art, not mere entertainment.

The dummy, fabricated at Babelsberg studios near Berlin, is a super-realistic silicone duplicate of Ter Heijne. In movies, such synthetic stand-ins are used in scenes too dangerous for actors -- usually crashes, explosions, rooftop plunges. In the gallery, standing behind a canvas backdrop on which a generic landscape has been painted, the impeccably crafted dummy is wax-museum creepy, a prosthetic version of the artist’s spirit, a not-so-ghostly instance of Dorian Gray gone wrong. Unfortunately, Ter Heijne’s surrogate wears its art pedigree on its sleeve, too bluntly recalling Charles Ray’s portraits of himself as a clothing-store mannequin and Duane Hanson’s trompe l’oeil sculptures of anonymous Americans.

In a small adjoining gallery hang neatly arranged racks containing stacks of about 140 black-and-white postcards. They depict anonymous women from around the world -- citizens of the global village who might be English sophisticates, Bavarian farmers’ wives, Dutch doctors, American pioneers, Navajo leaders, Singapore aristocrats, New Guinea tribeswomen, Bedouin nomads and Kenyan brides. Found in various archives, including the Library of Congress and the National Library of New Zealand, the images appear to have been reprinted from late 19th and early 20th century photographs.

On the cards’ backs, Ter Heijne has printed brief biographies. The women may not be household names today, but they were well-known in their time: Egyptian revolutionary Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947), painter and model Jeanne Hebuterne (1898-1920) and Dutch resistance leader Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983).

Their stories are inspiring, often harrowing and sometimes filled with heart-wrenching detail. The anonymous portraits are equally moving, especially in their capacity to set the imagination into action.

But the installation comes off a bit dilettantish. It is insufficiently developed to distinguish it from the mere accumulation of potentially interesting information that is one of the Internet’s specialties. In the digital age, art cannot simply present information. Its job is to make a sustained argument -- to connect a few more dots than Ter Heijne’s scattered constellation of good intentions, big ideas and vague evocations.

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5795 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 933-2117, through July 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

www.vielmetter.com

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When slacker artists go abstract

“Gimme a Little Sign” is a meaty mix of sass and satisfaction. Organized by guest curator James Griffin for Sister Gallery, the six-artist show of small- to medium-size canvases zeroes in on a strand of recent abstract painting that could be called “slacker formalism.”

This is art that distrusts the sincerity of gestural Expressionism yet still seeks freedom from expectations.

It knows that pictures don’t happen by accident, formulaic moves are the kiss of death and formal rigor must be accompanied by a light touch.

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Peter LaBier’s subdued little paintings look as if they were made by someone too tired to doodle. Davis Rhodes’ spray-painted rectangles of solid color appear to be the work of a fussy graphic designer. Both make simple things interesting -- not quite riveting but far from ordinary.

Annette Wehrhahn’s rambunctious amalgams of super-enlarged imagery, paint and duct tape take the artist’s hand out of the picture.

Gail Stoicheff puts it back in, using stencils and whiplash brushwork. Both painters create aggressive messes fueled by high-octane energy.

Baker Overstreet’s dopey icons give symmetry a run for its money. Their titles, “Chrystal Gazer in Chrystal Gazing” and “Zelda Tangina in Zelda’s Tangina,” mirror their cockeyed delights.

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Brad Eberhard’s two paintings each do their own thing so well that they seem to be made by different artists. “Hat/Hole” flaunts the leave-it-alone confidence of someone equally inspired by Hans Hofmann paintings and Slinky toys. “Ship Shape” is the comic opposite of its title, a patchwork of adjustments and reconsiderations that makes a virtue of insecurity, neuroses and doubt.

When things fall into place in all six artists’ works, grungy gracefulness -- or graceful grunge -- results. It’s a serendipitous blend that seems to spring from the blind spots in any field of vision.

Sister Gallery, 437 Gin Ling Way, Chinatown, (213) 628-7000, through Aug. 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

www.sisterla.com

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Taking form from dots and dashes

Each of Robin Mitchell’s “Code Paintings” consists of thousands of tiny circles, ovals, dots, lines and odd little shapes, all made with the tip of a paintbrush. These casually applied marks float in front of horizontal bands of color that bleed into one another on page-size sheets of paper.

Mitchell’s mundane marks sometimes form loosely symmetrical configurations that hint at faces, flowers and vines, as well as mandalas, rippling ponds and glowing orbs. At other times they seem to be the visual equivalent of static -- crackling disruptions that refuse to settle into coherent patterns of easily recognized meaning.

This simple setup gives Mitchell considerable room to maneuver. The same goes for viewers. Her 12 gouaches at the Craig Krull Gallery are a pleasure to see.

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None looks like another. Although jampacked with the same tiny marks, dashes and dabs, in a palette that is organic, light-drenched and splendid, each is distinct, with its own flowing rhythm. They keep your eyes moving -- slipping, sliding, skipping from one micro-incident to another.

The downside of obsessive, even compulsive behavior is not to be found in Mitchell’s patient paintings. She transforms repetitive, potentially mindless manual activity into mindful devotion, making works both intimate and expansive, relaxing and lively.

Think of Mitchell’s paintings as pointillism for the digital age. The abstract fields are abuzz with ordinarily invisible energy, where viewers glimpse -- or at least imagine -- the dancing molecules and pulsating waves of light that make up the cosmos.

Craig Krull Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410, through Aug. 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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These tiny bison deliver a message

The last paintings Patricia Moisan (1951-2007) made are mysterious things, mute monochrome panels with the silhouettes of tiny bison cut into them or protruding from their otherwise smooth surfaces. The palette of the six approximately 2-by-3-foot pieces at Angles Gallery is baby-bedroom pastel -- pink, blue, aqua, peach and yellow.

The bison -- accompanied by camels, horses and cougars in one piece and cows, elephants, reindeer and monkeys in another -- are smaller than animal crackers. But not much time passes before such childhood associations fade and Moisan’s strangely serene reliefs bring to mind prehistoric cave paintings, such as those at Lascaux and Altamira.

The shift in perspective is disorienting, as humorous as it is hard to believe. After all, Moisan’s materials are utterly contemporary -- synthetic pigments affixed to thin sheets of plexiglass. Her techniques are also of the moment. The animal silhouettes appear to have been laser-cut.

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Sometimes she has glued a cut-out animal next to the opening left in the sheet from which it was removed, suggesting a creature and its shadow.

At other times she lets the positive and negative shapes stand alone. The results are animated fields of motion, with masses of bison and other beasts standing still, walking slowly or running furiously, almost always from left to right, the same way we read.

In five of Moisan’s images, a single bison heads in the opposite direction.

It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see the misfit as a metaphor for the artist, who marched to the beat of her own drum despite what everyone else did.

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Angles Gallery, 2222 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 396-5019, through July 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

www.anglesgallery.com


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