Using King to raise questions

Special to The Times

"The Void Show," William Pope.L's second solo exhibition in Los Angeles, is a combustible mixture of irreverence, desperation and wit that captures the tenor of our times. You don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Suspended upside-down from the ceiling of MC Gallery is a larger-than-life hollow plastic statue of a saucy pirate babe, her stance and dishabille suggesting eternal Mardi Gras. Her head has been lopped off and replaced by a plaster bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., slightly smaller than life-size and coated with gold.

Incandescent light glows from the interior of Pope.L's recycled pirate, and thick chocolate syrup drips from the top of the civil rights leader's head, pooling on the floor in an ever-expanding puddle that resembles spilled blood. On the serving tray in the pirate's hand, Pope.L has affixed a mirror, allowing viewers to catch their reflections against the backdrop of dark, glistening syrup.

Strictly speaking, "A Vessel in a Vessel in a Vessel and So On" is a clunky chandelier. Or a supersize, nonstop syrup dispenser for some misbegotten ice cream stand. Or a ceiling-mounted vanity for someone who has everything.

And that's the tip of the iceberg. Things get complicated when the metaphors loaded into Pope.L's piece spill out and draw in viewers.

To my eye, the sculpture does not mock King. But it does raise profound questions about his legacy, his place in history and, most important, in public consciousness. Sexuality -- and what people make of it -- also enters the picture, with the endless supply of sugary sweetness oozing from the upended bust like an overflow of libido. And humor plays an essential role. The piece is both utterly ridiculous and right at home in our topsy-turvy world.

It also raises questions about art's place in life, and where politics and entertainment fit in. Pope.L's sculpture takes its place alongside Jonathan Borofsky's "Ballerina Clown," affixed to a Venice building facade, another piece of wicked genius that combines comic authority and tragic pathos.

A second installation fills the rear of the gallery, turning what first appears to be a small monochrome painting into a hole in the wall and then into utter nothingness: pitch-black emptiness into which viewers pour their fears and fantasies. Two small drawings round out the show, their wiry scribbles recalling the acerbic absurdity of H.C. Westermann. Pope.L's four pieces are certainly ridiculous. And they might be sublime. But that's for each viewer to decide.

MC Gallery, 6086 Comey Ave., L.A., (323) 939-3777. Through May 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.mckunst.com.

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Exposing myths of the Pilgrims

Artists often complain about museums, criticizing what they show and how they show it. For Sam Durant, actions speak louder than words.

His latest installation gives vivid form to the idea that if you want something done right you had better do it yourself.

Durant has transformed Blum & Poe Gallery into a modest, temporary museum. The size and tenure of "Scenes From the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments" may be small and brief, but its subject and ambition are not. He wants to change the way Americans think about Thanksgiving, laying bare the bloodshed and treachery that lie behind the national celebration of abundance.

In the main gallery a huge circular pedestal spins slowly, showing one life-size diorama and then another. The first portrays Squanto, an English-speaking Indian teaching the Pilgrims how to plant and fertilize corn. The other side shows Capt. Miles Standish standing over Pecksuot, a Pequot Indian on hands and knees, a hunting knife stuck in his chest and his head bowed in mortal defeat.

The first scene depicts the myth, still taught to schoolchildren and entrenched in popular consciousness. The second depicts the reality of the first wave of immigrants to North America. Just after the deadly confrontation between Standish and Pecksuot, a Colonial militia was dispatched to kill off the Pequot people. When the campaign was completed, Plymouth Gov. Edward Winslow decreed a feast that, celebrated annually, became Thanksgiving.

A second gallery de-mythologizes Plymouth Rock. Durant has installed a fiberglass replica of the rock, an authentically garbed mannequin and a sign that tells the grisly story of Metacomet, a Wampanoag leader who fought for his homeland's security in the King Philip's War from 1675 to 1676. He was dismembered, one hand sent to England and his head displayed for 20 years on a pike in Plymouth, Mass. The survivors, including his wife and son, were sold into slavery in the West Indies.

A documentary video in a third gallery and a hall lined with five pedagogical panels provide ample historical background. In both, Durant lays out the ways myths replace facts, turning blood-soaked reality into cheery tales that make the spoils of victory all the sweeter for the victors -- yet even more bitter for the vanquished.

Durant purchased the figures and props that appear in his exhibition from the Plymouth National Wax Museum when it went bankrupt and closed. Born in Massachusetts and based in Los Angeles, he puts his proximity to the museum and the movie industry to good use, telling a story about underdogs that is profoundly American, profoundly disturbing and, unlike much art and reportage, true.

Blum & Poe Gallery, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A. (310) 836-2062. Through April 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.blumandpoe.com.

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Small gestures made large

Elizabeth Peyton is a connoisseur of little, intimately observed gestures: a hand firmly wrapped around a chair's arm, lips pursed a little too tightly to be relaxed and eyes glancing away as if searching for an escape from mundane social interaction. At Regen Projects, eight new portraits share with viewers the New York painter's intense sensitivity to her friends' demeanors and feelings, most of which revolve around a type of self-conscious awkwardness and well-mannered idleness that invites empathy, even from strangers.

All of Peyton's subjects are seated. All of her portraits are tightly cropped. This format downplays the importance of setting and forces viewers to concentrate on the people.

But Peyton takes it further, cropping nearly all of their legs and even the tops of their heads. It seems as if she stood toe-to-toe with her sitters and casually snapped a photo from which she painted their pictures.

The angle and offhandedness suggest that the photos were shot on the run, by an amateur passing through a hotel lobby, perhaps a fan who mistook these people for celebrities. The result is a curious mixture of intimacy and distance, a piquant blend of intrigue and anonymity.

The way Peyton handles paint exactly matches the compositions and body language. She paints swiftly and decisively, never fussing over details, capturing the personal quirks that distinguish individuals from one another.

"Ben (Ben Brunnemer) February" is a study of rumpled relaxation complicated by something more than anxiety but less than apprehension. "Pati (Pati Hertling)" is an essay on fiery emotions kept under wraps -- for the most part. And "Jonathan (Jonathan Horowitz) January" fuses stoicism and vulnerability, conveying the unheralded bravery required to make it through the daily grind.

Peyton's three other page-size oils on thickly gessoed panel depict public figures. In them, dreamy fantasy replaces acute observation.

Susan Sontag is all cool intellectualism, three members of the German soccer team are all youthful athleticism and a scene from "Marie Antoinette" is all springtime loveliness. Peyton's exquisite touch gives each its own juicy raison d'etre, but they lack the down-to-earth worldliness that makes the other pictures sizzle.

Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive, L.A., (310) 276-5424. Through April 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.regenprojects.com.

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Amid the swirl of strokes, a respite

Steve DiBenedetto makes nettlesome, stick-in-your-craw paintings. At Daniel Weinberg Gallery, the New Yorker's pictures of helicopters, octopuses, giant crystals and ruined buildings have the presence of ominous premonitions -- unverifiable claims about the future that can neither be believed nor dismissed but assail the rational mind with their eerie resemblance to the present. It's easily botched territory, and DiBenedetto handles it with aplomb.

He turns the mysteriousness of what he depicts into fertile ground for painterly dexterity that is meaty and sophisticated, a little scary but never crude or melodramatic. The recognizable objects in DiBenedetto's paintings do not hold the compositions together, like things in Realist pictures. Nor do they strive for the shock of Surrealism, using unexpected juxtapositions to jump-start a viewer's deadened awareness. Instead, they provide momentary visual respite -- rest stops for busy eyeballs -- amid the swirling stew of brush strokes, stabs and scrapes.

The dense, vigorously worked surfaces of DiBenedetto's paintings look as if they have been to hell and back -- and enjoyed the trip. Picture planes splinter into jagged fragments. Some are dry and crusty, like coagulated organic matter. Others are loose and fluid, like oil spills. Still others seem to be melting, like molten lava, and emitting gaseous hallucinations.

Think Malcolm Morley meets Jasper Johns, by way of Jules Verne and "Apocalypse Now." The ghosts of Madame Blavatsky and Forrest Bess also haunt DiBenedetto's paintings. It's a trippy, brain-bending mixture, just the stuff for an artist intoxicated by paint's shape-shifting, time-traveling magic.

Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 954-8425. Through April 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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