Fridges, tables, a pulley: It's explained

Performance art, as everybody knows, can be difficult: messy, obscure, intimidating, boring, baffling and occasionally, downright painful.

San Francisco-based performance artist Lucas Murgida, in his solo debut at Charlie James Gallery, looks like the sort of person who couldn't be difficult if he tried. With the boyish good looks of Tobey Maguire, a voice that one imagines patiently explaining complicated things to children and the gentle manner of an understanding locksmith -- which, in fact, he is (more on that in a moment) -- he puts a friendly face on a challenging tradition, using its methods to explore a complex range of phenomena without resorting to sensationalism or mystification.

It is a refreshing combination. If you're wondering, for instance, about the two wooden refrigerators, the big table, the dangling wire headpiece, and the string and pulley system that links them all together in the gallery, he explains their significance quite plainly in a video that plays in the corner, and on the gallery's website.

In the performance that occurred on the show's opening night, he recounted, he stood at the table wearing the headpiece, each end of which looped into the corners of his mouth, while offering to massage the interior of the mouths of willing viewers -- stimulating pressure points for relaxation, apparently -- and extemporizing (much as he does in the video) on the conceptual parameters of the piece.

They revolve around the notion of "herding," or manipulating the movement and behaviors of groups, in this case with the help of a pair of "food troughs" (the refrigerators) stocked with drinks and snacks. Every time the doors were opened, however, the pulley system drew the headpiece upward, which raised the corners of Murgida's mouth into a painful-looking smile -- making visible the complex give-and-take dynamic between artist and viewer at an opening.

At the root of this and the dozen or so other performances and projects represented in photographs around the gallery is an earnest, undogmatic interest in the figure of the worker, and in the relationship of the worker to the particular constituency he serves. Each series revolves around a form of employment that Murgida actually performed at the time the work was made.

While working as a cabinet maker, for instance, he produced a series of functionally peculiar objects, such as a dining set in which individuals sit back to back on a miniature table and eat, facing outward, off absurdly oversized chairs. While busing tables, he "deconstructed" his uniform in ways that called attention to the discomforts and demands of the service industry -- cutting the soles out of his shoes and walking for 12 hours, suspending his shirt from a post office flagpole and documenting the removal of his belt by the female employee of a massage parlor, to name a few.

After becoming a locksmith in 2003, he created the Locksmithing Institute to offer workshops on the trade -- and its metaphorical implications -- in a variety of public spaces. At the same time, he began studying to become an Iyengar yoga teacher, intending "to compare the similarities between how we culturally guard and lock our spaces against how we physically lock and guard our bodies."

(The exhibition itself is short on these sorts of explanations, but you'll find them all on the artist's neatly organized website: lucasmurgida.com.)

In his most recent work, Murgida assumes the role of the artist in the same research-like manner: testing, prodding and drawing out various aspects of the artist's relationship -- both psychological and physiological -- to the viewer.

In one piece, he configured a newspaper box to emit dense clouds of sage smoke every time it was opened, effectively "cleansing" unsuspecting passersby. In another, he built a long cabinet, put it on a New York street corner and hid inside until someone claimed the cabinet and took him home. (He found himself in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant.)

Murgida is a searcher, it seems, an inquirer. It is unassuming but nonetheless rigorous work, undertaken with an easy, guileless attitude that makes one eager to follow along.

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Charlie James Gallery, 975 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, (213) 687-0844, through Aug. 29. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays. cjames gallery.com/

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Group meditation on world at large

"Until We Come to One That Reminds Us," a modest but canny group show at Monte Vista Projects, speaks to a question that's begun to nag at the conscience over the course of the last year: what relation all the stuff that fills our galleries (that is, art) bears or should bear to all the stuff going on outside (war, political unrest, financial turmoil, widespread unemployment, hardship).

In presenting, as the press release puts it, "four artists whose works reflect an engagement with materials in a landscape of personal and political trouble," the show underscores the degree to which a sense of conscience (political, social, emotional or otherwise) can imbue not only the concepts but also the very material substance of a work.

Curt LeMieux's two wall-mounted sculptures, "Gardener's Glove" and "Book Cover," are perhaps the most striking examples: compact assemblages of wood, nails, foam, bits of canvas and other detritus, all painted a rich, glossy black -- with the exception of a bright orange book cover that's bound to one of them -- that somehow evoke a distinct impression of power, violence and dangerous elegance.

A pair of untitled works by Amy Green -- canvases covered in squares of multicolored felt -- are gentler but similarly resonant abstractions.

Christine Frerichs' three canvases play with painterly motifs, most poignantly in "Girl," a small piece in which the eponymous figure appears as a vaporous smudge.

The show's centerpiece is Kristina Faragher's "Thirty-Six of Them," a wall-mounted assortment of small, rectangular balsa wood boxes, all coated in candy-colored enamel and appearing in various states of collapse. Like LeMieux's pieces, they make no explicit references but call to mind a community of bombed buildings, arousing a sense of both tragedy and grandeur.

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Monte Vista Projects, 5442 Monte Vista St., Los Angeles, through Sept. 5. Closed Mondays through Fridays. www .montevistaprojects.com.

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Americana with an urban twist

"We're Not the Jet Set," the title of Exene Cervenka and Wayne White's dual exhibition at Western Project, would seem a tad tongue in cheek, coming from a rock star (Cervenka is the lead singer, with John Doe, of the band X) and an Emmy-winning production designer (White worked on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" in the 1980s). The sentiment, however, is clearly not ironic: Both are artists with an abiding affinity for Americana and a giddy addiction to the rhythms of the vernacular.

Cervenka makes small to midsized paper collages, primarily from a seemingly bottomless reserve of photos, ticket stubs, vintage advertisements, bits of text, playing cards and other odds and ends.

White is best known for the word paintings he composes across the surface of thrift store lithographs: cliched pastoral landscapes emblazoned with looming block letters. Clever but repetitive, they're happily supplemented here by a handful of found object sculptures, in which White's winning sense of humor has freer rein.

Both are artists for whom the accumulation of images, from the popular to the obscure, appears to be an inveterate habit. They clearly have a lot of fun with them, and the fun is infectious in this bustling summer show.

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Western Project, 3830 Main St., Culver City, (310) 838-0609, through Sept. 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays. western -project.com.

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Attitude and talent to spare

"Bitch Is the New Black," at Honor Fraser, does just what a good summer group show should do: present an entertaining sampler of artists -- in this case, young female L.A. artists of "a certain maverick outlook"-- whom you should be paying attention to throughout the rest of the year.

Despite the rather baffling inclusion of Catherine Opie, whose emergence on the scene predates that of most others in the show by more than a decade, the selection is an invigorating survey of a generation rapidly coming into its own. Curated by art writer Emma Gray, the show makes few generalizations but does illuminate a distinct undercurrent of attitude.

It comes on particularly strong in the front room, with a seductive, chrome-covered mannequin by Kathryn Andrews; a giant tie-dye T-shirt printed with the words "Leave me alone" by Amanda Ross-Ho; a large, dark, industrial-looking painting by Rosson Crow; and a life-size photograph of Kirsten Stoltmann spray-painting her pubic hair neon pink.

The invariably enchanting Anna Sew Hoy appears with an enormous snake-like coil of stuffed denim strung over a slender resin arm that's fixed to the wall, and the beguiling Mindy Shapiro with a strange black tile-covered sculpture of a head with three faces.

Painter Annie Lapin and sculptors Ruby Neri and Krysten Cunningham appear in the back room with compelling, if not stellar, pieces, as does a very amusing photograph of Cathy Akers nine months pregnant, peeing in the woods.

Several of the most delightful pieces, however, are smaller and less conspicuous: a mysteriously free-standing gray plastic crutch by Shana Lutker; a small, found object sculpture by Bari Ziperstein, mounted high above the doorway; and a delightfully bizarre ad hoc sci-fi video by Pearl C. Hsiung.

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Honor Fraser, 2622 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 837-0191, through Aug. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.honorfraser.com.

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