Piecing together this thing called life

Special to The Times

Credit the Dadaists of the early 20th century with introducing collage as a great metaphor for the fullness and variability of life. Turning the newly image-based culture on its head, Hannah Hoch cut up magazines and newspapers and reconfigured their parts into radical commentaries on gender identity and contemporary politics. Kurt Schwitters pieced together fragments of printed matter into an entire, word-flecked environment in his famous “Merzbau.”

Collage makes room for disparate bits and fleeting impressions, the precious and the profane. Those splinters can be assembled into a coherent or discontinuous whole, or left to intermingle discretely in shared space, according to the artist’s temperament.

Maritta Tapanainen’s sensibility, as evidenced in an engrossing mini-survey at Couturier Gallery, is one of accretion more than disjunction. Elements in her collages resonate with one another rather than clash or conflict. Shapes rhyme, loose themes emerge and the life on the page comes to stand for life as experienced on a physical, biological level -- burgeoning and diverse, wondrous and mysterious.


Tapanainen has consistently drawn from old scientific texts for her source material, and as the collages progress chronologically from 1992 to the present, they get larger and increasingly ornate. “Seed,” an early work the size of a large postcard, combines just a few images in a simple architectonic structure, rectangles stacked neatly atop one another and set side by side. Combined, the photographic reproductions of a baby’s head, a seedling, a mechanical fan and a plant stalk imply commonalities of growth and cyclical motion.

After a few years, Tapanainen stopped using images in such complete form and has since cut them into fragments -- a veined leaf here, an insect wing there. She also cuts shapes not necessarily related to the imagery on the paper they’re cut from.

Her process brings to mind the way Assemblage artists alter found objects, incorporating their sense of history and prior function while endowing them with new identity and purpose. In two collages from 1994, she weaves snake-like strips cut from printed pages into a loose, squirming tapestry. Wire springs, plant textures and animal parts can be glimpsed within the busy field.

By the late ‘90s, Tapanainen began to incorporate more blank paper into her collages, using the rich manila, ivory and tea-stained tones of aged pages to create a dynamic, dimensional ground. Color makes very few appearances in this selection of works, but it’s not missed. Tapanainen uses a narrow but evocative spectrum, limited to the grays and blacks of old printed illustrations and the shades of mellowing paper. A patina of nostalgia infuses the work even as the imagery conjures vital processes of change and growth.

“Mystic” (1998) reads as a page of cosmic inquiry into systems and structures. A photographic reproduction of daisies resonates with a collaged bouquet of radiating tabs of paper and a nearby image of a dandelion. Similar clusters of like forms occur throughout the collage: an aerial grid of a city neighbors the skeletal structure of a fish, which relates to an image of a woven basket and so on. The collage, like all of Tapanainen’s work, seems to tap into some primal stream of consciousness, where all things, reduced to their essence, are interconnected.

Microscopic views of organisms float through many of the works, as do fragments of machinery, diagrams of arteries, channels, vessels. Though Tapanainen’s compositions are exacting and precise, summoning you in close to examine their intricacies, the works also have a sense of expansiveness, as if illustrating linkages on a macrocosmic and not just a microcosmic level.


Along with the size and complexity of her work, Tapanainen’s scope continues to expand. “Seed” is answered more than a decade later by “Big Bang” (2006), an extraordinary feat of visual engineering that ensnares the eye with its efflorescent network of life becoming, being.

Couturier Gallery, 166 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 933-5557, through May 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www

Glittering success to glittering excess

Critical filters commonly fall away once an artist’s reputation is well established; everything from the artist’s hand is deemed worthy by default. Craig Kauffman’s new work at Patricia Faure Gallery makes a lamentably strong case against such blind trading on past success.

Kauffman’s sculpture and painting from the 1960s and ‘70s are indisputably significant. His explorations of structure, light, color and surface, and restless experimentation with industrial materials, especially plexiglass, helped define the “L.A. Look.” His new work makes us merely want to look away.

Fiberglass and glitter are Kauffman’s current materials of choice. Most of the recent works are low fiberglass reliefs in glossy black or white, inset with patches of glitter in hues ranging from vibrant to lurid. The effect bears some resemblance to stained glass, but the luminosity is forced and the forms are clumsy or nondescript -- single or interlocking cartoonish rings, rectangles perforated with random daubs or treelike shapes.

The worst offenders are garish reliefs of spiked-heel shoes, grouped in threes within shaped frames or standing alone, each about 2 1/2 feet high and lined up against one wall like a caricature of prostitutes on parade. Kauffman (who now lives in the Philippines) titles the single shoes “Hollywood Walk.” They appear to be presented in earnest, but they come across instead as embarrassingly bad parody.


Patricia Faure Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 449-1479, through May 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.patriciafauregallery .com

Conveyed through a binary code

The proposition seems absurd, really: to be able to express an infinite array of information and emotion through the finite tools of binary code -- switching between on/off, zero/one, plus/minus. And yet all communication in this digital era boils down to those fundamental building blocks.

Frances Richardson, in her captivating L.A. solo debut at Daniel Weinberg Gallery, demonstrates just how expansive those reductive tools can be. Drawing in pencil, the British artist evokes reverberating, dimensional fields out of continuous rows of plus and minus signs.

Early works (1998-99) on gessoed panels and irregular sheets of paper conjure the raw intensity of drawings by outsider artists Adolf Wolfli and Martin Ramirez. More recent drawings on larger, pristine sheets evoke a meditative practice of repetition, distillation and concentration more akin to Agnes Martin.

While images of tea cups appear in several of the older works, the newer, circular drawings read as nonreferential, post-Minimal mandalas. Some feature concentric rings, like targets. Others, with more freely meandering rows of symbols, have a beautiful, cloudy indeterminacy, bringing to mind celestial phenomena or swarming microorganisms.

Richardson’s method is tightly prescribed, allowing only variations in the size, density and direction of her marks, but her works thrum with presence. She adopts a uniform vocabulary, then offsets it by drawing with a fluidity that can come only from the organic movement of the hand through time.


Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 954-8425, through May 19. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Staring intently into the void

Nothingness, absence and negation have held much allure for artists of recent generations. Peter Wegner’s latest entry in the ongoing catalog of explorations of the void is amusing and smart, a meditation on the simultaneity of place and placelessness, at once a grand gesture and a wry chuckle into the abyss.

“The United States of Nothing” is a map of sorts. Eighteen place names, together with their latitude and longitude, are affixed, according to their relative location, in white neon onto a 40-foot-wide rectangle of midnight blue painted directly onto the gallery wall at Griffin. Each town bears a self-canceling name: Nix, Nameless, Zero, Dearth, Nulltown. The neon names flash like beacons in a controlled pattern, lighting up individually, in groupings and then all at once. In the darkened gallery, the installation feels more like a celestial map than a terrestrial one. Its matter-of-factness, equal parts commercial signage and didactic display, cloaks sharp wit and low-level angst (is there really a there there?), much like the neon word pieces of Bruce Nauman.

Wegner’s evocative show also includes a smaller, clever neon work and three sequences of color photographs, taxonomically organized notes on the visually ironic, illusionistic, punning and contradictory.

Those who appreciate the dumb hilarity and conceptual complexity of paperwork printed with the words, “This page intentionally left blank,” those who relish the mind games of everyday life, those who appreciate art that tickles the brain and still respects the eye -- Wegner’s quietly brilliant work is for you.

Griffin, 2902 Nebraska Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 586-6886, through May 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.griffinla .com