It’s alive! With wit, diversity

Times Staff Writer

Just about the only thing missing from the exhibition “Some Paintings” is an exclamation mark at the title’s end. A whopping 81 paintings by 80 artists, most made recently; here is a show that wants to make a point.

And it does, with wit, verve and considerable taste. If the taste is not always mine, or yours -- well, that seems to be part of the point. The absurdly large numbers of artists and works lampoon the similarly absurd yet now nearly 40-year-old pseudo-argument over whether the practice of painting is alive or dead.

At Track 16, the third LA Weekly Annual Biennial lines every wall of the gallery’s six expansive rooms. The paintings are large and small, and the artists range in age from their 80s to their 20s. Some works, such as Carter Potter’s “Love Coffin,” a sofa-size concoction built from -- yes -- actual sofas stripped of fabric, interlocked and then slathered with paint, even leave the wall behind, opting instead to stand (or couple) on the floor.


Paintings by established artists, some of international renown, including David Hockney, Ed Moses, James Hayward and Llyn Foulkes, hang in proximity to those of artists new to me. Younger artists are numerous, but perhaps most are at midcareer -- the difficult hurdle at which many artists stop or get overlooked because they’re no longer fresh or are insufficiently prosperous. Others continue, with or without booming commercial success.

The result is a show that yields a kind of visual ADHD. A visitor floats like a butterfly, looking for a painting that stings like a bee.

Esther Pearl Watson’s mixed-media painting of a tinfoil flying saucer that has landed in a low-rent suburban neighborhood in Garland, Texas, employs a knowingly false outsider-artist style to insinuate art’s visionary capacity. Nick Lowe conflates drawing with painting, using skinny brushes in lieu of pencils to render a beautiful array of portrait heads of the paradoxical inhabitants of “Ugly Town.”

Sandow Birk, working with graffiti artist Devin Flynn, creates a surprisingly pedestrian, Jacques-Louis David pastiche of noble virtue set in the ‘hood rather than republican Rome. Marie Thiebault paints churning urban abstractions in quick, linear, multicolored marks. (They suggest a looser, less dynamic combination of Julie Mehretu’s and Kevin Appel’s paintings.) David Amico’s addition of thickly painted, vaguely organic brown tracery on a yellow inflatable life raft transforms a rescue vessel into a dreamy, untroubled glass-bottom boat.

Painting is a metaphoric eruption of puzzling chromatic sunspots in Mark Dutcher’s kaleidoscopic abstraction. Space creatures with open, upraised palms swell up from thick, dense gobs of paint in Allison Schulnik’s “Greeting,” which implies that paintings might be alien images, but they come in peace.

Constance Mallinson’s sepulchral “Corpse” suggests a rather different painterly condition, while Monique Prieto’s sign language, intentionally difficult to read, demands that viewers slow way, way down. Given our excitable, commercially mediated image environment, Mallinson and Prieto each emphasize a demanding virtue of painting.

The selection follows no particular theme or unifying style, but LA Weekly art critic Doug Harvey, who acted as guest curator for the show, plainly likes his paintings messy. Except in a few isolated cases, such as Tom Knechtel’s exquisitely rendered hyper-realism, neatness doesn’t count. Hard-edge abstraction is essentially missing in action.

Expressionism, especially with a finely honed sense of the ridiculous (and occasionally a psychedelic twist), is the show’s primary dialect, as it is in the gifted critic’s writing. That seems to be the chief implication of “some” in the title, “Some Painting.” It can be a limitation. Some works make me want to stare for a long time, then come back and look again, while others make me want to -- well, not exactly pluck out my eyes, but at least apologize for the abuse.

Still, for a show that means to mock the dilapidated idea of painting’s demise, which lingers among autocratic types in dusty corners of the academy, the absurdist attitude is more than apt. It also makes for the biggest, liveliest free-for-all of art since “Supersonic,” the eight Southern-California-graduate-schools extravaganza in 2004.

Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-4678, through Feb. 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

A surprising slant on street trash

In “Street Furniture,” Miles Coolidge overturns our perception of the ordinary furnishings of daily life. But tables, chairs, bookcases and beds are not the only objects that fit that description. Photographs do too.

Coolidge’s exceptional suite of 10 recent photographs employs an elegantly simple device. Used household furniture abandoned on city sidewalks around Los Angeles is photographed frontally and on site, but none of the items is standing upright. Coolidge “fixes” their tilted condition by aligning the rectangle of the camera’s viewfinder with the geometry of the sofa or dresser. The result is furniture that appears to hover upright in the center of the photograph, while the world around it is thrown off-kilter and askew.

The pavement rises up to meet a table that’s missing a leg, like the looming, shadow-crossed plaza of a Metaphysical landscape by Giorgio de Chirico. A chair balanced on a low retaining wall by a fence floats in shattered Cubist space, while a bookcase shown against a flat neutral wall evokes a stack of Minimalist boxes. An upended desk chair topped by a bicycle wheel is transformed into an orbiting space station, all while trailing in its savvy referential wake Marcel Duchamp’s stool-topped 1913 “Bicycle Wheel.”

The visual effect of these art historically informed works is also surprising. Inanimate desks and cabinets are infused with a poignant temperament. A worn and truly ugly sofa, suspended within a topsy-turvy world, suggests a life on the skids. A noticeably stained mattress, wedged against a tree, floats as if in a dream or a sexual reverie.

Most disarmingly, the compositions emphasize the photographic print as a physical object, not just a disembodied likeness of something outside the frame. The specific size of each work -- the sofa picture is about 3 1/2 feet by 4 1/2 feet -- suddenly becomes important, in ways more common to paintings than to photographs. Coolidge actively demonstrates how camerawork mediates between the “abandoned” objects represented and viewers looking at them.

In the process, Coolidge’s framed pictures reveal themselves to be akin to furniture, embodying the class of objects represented in the images. It’s a disconcerting but quietly thrilling sight, one that forces reconsideration of the way ubiquitous images function in contemporary life.

ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-5942, through Feb. 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.acmelosangeles .com

Landscapes echo territory of loss

Swedish artist Tommy Hilding has been exhibiting since 1980, but the 12 accomplished oil paintings at Angles constitute his solo American gallery debut. The complications of painting in a camera-dominated image environment are his art’s familiar leitmotif.

Taking cues from German artists such as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, and evoking such different Americans as Andy Warhol and Vija Celmins, these paintings pit the hand against the machine. The subject matter is often bleak -- industrial and suburban landscapes, wilting floral bouquets, jet trails over grim apartment blocks and an empty, rumpled bed. But Hilding painstakingly crafts an illusion of screen-printed dots, puddles of photo emulsion and smeared squeegee marks over the images.

Some works do have photo-collage elements within them, but the dominant pretense of machine printing creates a quiet, almost elegiac tension. A blurred and inverted rural landscape hovering above a joyless but crisply painted residential neighborhood is at once a memory of the lost agrarian landscape and the apotheosis of Richter’s aesthetic world view. (It’s like a secular Baroque altarpiece.) Hilding records a territory of loss, in works that value painting as a mode of restless cogitation.

Angles Gallery, 2230 Main St., Santa Monica, through Feb. 16, (310) 396-5019. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Drawings capture dangerous energy

Ann Diener uses pencil, gouache, ballpoint pen and collage to render nonlinear narratives at once exciting and ominous. Birds flit through the underbrush, bees jostle for position with beetles and spiders, and leaves rustle in unseen winds. Force fields are shot through with jagged, swirling vectors.

Diener’s 12 recent works at the Bank gallery range from sketchbook pages to mural-size sheets. In the wake of the 1970s revolution of Conceptual art, drawing has assumed near-equivalence with painting, partly because of the immediacy with which it registers thought. Two drawings are executed on buffed-gesso canvas over board, the way a painting might be, and Diener carries off the technique skillfully.

Several dense compositions are organized around voids, yielding a curiously sexual friction. There’s something of Lee Bontecou’s fusion of organic sensuality and mechanistic threat in these volatile works. Their energy is also reminiscent of Zaha Hadid’s architectural renderings and of paintings by Julie Mehretu (who is becoming a generational touchstone). But Diener is fabricating fantastic voyages distinctly her own. The natural world engages in combat with intimations of a built environment, in drawings that temper dark apocalypse with wild exhilaration.

Bank, 125 W. 4th St., L.A., (213) 621-4055, through March 1.