Freud did not invent ambivalence, but he gave us some pretty good ways to talk about it. The Surrealists turned his attraction-repulsion syndrome into an art form, creating all sorts of queasy, soul-searching messes. Then high-end advertising took psychoanalysis and Surrealism to the bank, polishing their rough edges and tying up their loose ends to churn out a cornucopia of sexy grotesqueries that demands so little of viewers that it would be a joke if it didn’t contribute to diminishing attention spans.
Wangechi Mutu’s painted collages and sculptural installations take the eye-grabbing slickness and bold graphic effect of fastidiously designed imagery back to its slow-simmering source in the primordial stew out of which all life emerged. At Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Mutu’s third solo show in Los Angeles gives stunning visual form to the interconnectedness of just about everything.
Think of her exhibition, titled “Little Touched,” as an awesome and intimate portrait of the worldwide web of living systems: animal, mineral and vegetable as well as earth, air, water and fire, not to mention humans, beasts and machines.
It’s a five-room extravaganza. In the main space, Mutu has used cheap packaging tape to make seven small mountains -- or seven huge breasts. However you see them, the flesh-tinted “Mountetas” appear to have pushed themselves right out of the similarly colored concrete floor.
On one wall, Mutu has assembled an 8-by-9-foot collage. Made of animal pelts, watery paint, packaging tape and scraps of blood-red paper, “Foxy Lady” pays homage to Louise Bourgeois, Meret Oppenheim and Hannah Hoche while evoking genetic mutations or a nightmarish vision of a tree turning into a two-headed beast whose orifices are models of multipurpose, multi-tasking efficiency. That may be what employers want from employees, but when it comes to one’s digestive tract, most folks prefer to keep things simple -- in one end and out the other, one task at a time.
Mutu’s abstract images leave such simplicity in the dust. Reveling in complexity, they transform distasteful subjects into ravishing satisfactions.
On the other walls, the New York artist has hung 13 of her diabolically beautiful collages. Each consists of one to nine framed sheets, arranged salon-style so you can look at the page-size parts individually or as elements of larger monsters.
“Eat Drink Swan Man” displays a mutant menagerie of fish, fowl and figments of a fearless imagination, each misfit critter or strange fragment at once pathetically misshapen and physically resplendent in its dazzling coloration, sensuous texture and suggestive shape.
The four-part “Moko Mama Knicker Bun” does double duty as a pinheaded fertility icon and a sci-fi spaceship -- an ancient transformer toy for people whose emotions don’t fit into neat categories. “The Gods Must Be Lazy” is its six-part counterpart: a little man throwing a tantrum and coming to pieces because it’s all so confusing.
In three adjacent spaces, thick swatches of felt, dozens of garbage bags and a big sheet of Mylar add heft to the compact, ferociously focused collages. Mutu’s humor sweetens the sting, seasoning her works with a wise-beyond-their-years richness.
In the polyglot, tragicomic stew Mutu has cooked up, primitives and sophisticates are not on opposite ends of the spectrum, nor are horror and gorgeousness in any way opposed. The best pieces stick in the mind’s eye long after you see them. They also stick, like a sore thumb, out of the image glut of modern life, tearing through its glossy superficiality to make us bleed rainbows.
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Project, 5795 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 933-2117, through May 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.vielmetter.com.
A menagerie in contentment
In a city where people pay for manicures for their cats and take their dogs to pet shrinks, hotels and spas, it’s not all that outlandish to imagine them buying art for their furry companions. Those days are not yet upon us. But true art is always ahead of the curve, so if you want to see what may be in store for the future, head over to Macha Suzuki’s L.A. solo debut at the Sam Lee Gallery. Five sculptures by the 29-year-old, Japanese-born, L.A.-based artist come from so far out in left field that they seem to be more suited for pets than people -- and all the better for it.
Simple contentment is the dominant emotional tone of Suzuki’s handsomely handmade animals, which inhabit artificial settings that resemble customized fusions of works by Constantin Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi, Yoshitomo Nara and Evan Holloway. Unflagging loyalty and unapologetic dependence are also evoked, as is the unflappable serenity of creatures that gracefully avoid the daily dramas humans often get caught up in, making mountains of molehills and tempests in teacups.
Part of the power of Suzuki’s sedate, well-adjusted sculptures resides in their capacity to translate the virtual space of painting into three dimensions.
Sometimes he does this by treating the space within his pedestals (visible through the fence-like slats of their sides) as dioramas filled with undersea life or pulsating light shows. At other times, Suzuki charges what we usually think of as negative space with electrifying energy. The digitally printed leaves on the tree in “Plan B” flutter with the faintest breeze. And the 72 arrows that surround the fluffy white sheep in “Minor Threat” form a perfect circle or menacing halo, suggesting geometric perfection as well as St. Sebastian and the Lamb of God.
The birds, cows, cats and fish in Suzuki’s low-tech, cartoon-style sculptures inhabit a peaceable kingdom whose artificiality enhances its innocence and fragility. That’s the world where pampered pets live, where slow, steady rhythms provide tiny islands of respite from the fast-paced craziness of modern life.
Sam Lee Gallery, 990 N. Hill St., No. 190, (323) 227-0275, through May 10. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. www.samleegallery.com.
‘String’ of color yields emptiness
Brian Wills’ abstract panels at the Happy Lion Gallery look a lot like art that’s worth looking at: They’re handsomely crafted, they’re labor-intensive, they give everything they’ve got to viewers and they seem to be made by someone who cares a great deal about materials, in this case, thread, wood, varnish, oil and enamel paint.
But looking at Wills’ works is not very satisfying. And thinking about them is even less rewarding. Mildly clever, they have the presence of anorexic stripe paintings, coy gestures too visually thin and conceptually attenuated to sustain interest. In short, they’re boring, if perfectly pleasant.
Wills runs ordinary sewing thread around the top and bottom edges of finely sanded wood panels. He uses many colors of thread, creating bands of different widths, tints and densities by “drawing” with variously dyed threads.
Some of his panels are large, measuring up to 4-by-6 feet. Others have roughly the dimensions of yardsticks. He lays these side by side to make neatly gridded rectangles whose crispness is softened by the subtle color modulations of the thread.
Sometimes, Wills leaves the wood grain visible, applying clear varnish to give it a reflective sheen. At other times, he covers the wood with a smooth coat of blue, white or gray metallic paint, which catches light nicely and accentuates the shadows cast by the tautly stretched thread.
Mathematically, there is no end to the variety of colors, shapes and sizes at Wills’ disposal. But artistically, there’s no real point to his endeavor, other than tasteful decoration. The exhibition’s portentous title, “String Theory,” doesn’t help.
The Happy Lion Gallery, 963 Chung King Road, (213) 625-1360, through Thursday. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. www.thehappylion.com.
Take pleasure in monochrome
In the work-oriented culture of the United States, hedonism is often seen as an escapist indulgence. In the two-artist show at the Manny Silverman Gallery, it’s nothing of the sort. “James Hayward/Maxwell Hendler: Two Approaches to Monochrome” is a sizzling visual delight that works on so many levels you can visit it again and again and always come away with new insight, greater awareness and calm comprehension.
Neither Hayward, born in 1943, nor Hendler, born in 1938, is a slacker or a seeker of quick thrills. Both are dyed-in-the-wool sensualists, veteran epicureans who know in their souls that bodily pleasures are as important to the intellect as are any of its abstract machinations.
Although the painters are no strangers to bold, eye-grabbing dramatics -- their single-color pieces scream, “Look at me now! Don’t miss a square inch!” -- they hold your eye a lot longer than a lot of art out there, which seems to want nothing more than to do its thing at the pace of instant messaging.
Hayward paints with a loaded brush, slashing streaks of supersaturated color across a domestically scaled canvas until the entire surface is equally energized. Hendler pours pools of resin on large and small panels that have been laid flat on tabletops. He then sands them like nobody’s business, using increasingly fine grades of paper until the quarter-inch layer of rock-hard resin is so smooth that it embodies the glassy stillness of a perfectly calm lake.
One of the best things about both artists’ paintings is that they do not attach any special value to the long hours of work and the acute attentiveness that went into them. The ego disappears into selfless generosity, inviting viewers to lose themselves contemplating infinity and our tiny place in it.
Manny Silverman Gallery, 619 N. Almont Drive, (310) 659-8256, through May 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.mannysilvermangallery.com.