AROUND THE GALLERIES
Endearing is an odd term to describe Gary Lang’s work, which, over the decades, has come across more immediately as bold, busy and chromatically intense. But at their best, Lang’s paintings testify profoundly to individual presence, to the utterly human manifestations of hand and breath. They can, somewhat surprisingly, incite tenderness.
Lang’s first L.A. show in 25 years, at Ace Gallery’s Beverly Hills location, gives occasion to explore both the elasticity and consistency of the artist’s range. Lang (who is also a sculptor) was born in L.A. and attended CalArts before moving east to study at Yale. He has lived on both coasts, and now resides in Ojai. Since the late ‘70s, his art has concentrated on pattern, rhythm, repetition, vibrant color and surface energy. He once incorporated found, pop culture imagery into his work but for the last 20 years has pared down his visual vocabulary to the basic elements of line and color.
The show starts on an intimate scale, with a small gallery of paintings of stacked lines and another of grids (he calls them “plaids”), then breaks open with a cavernous gallery of round canvases with concentric circles. Newer work prevails, but a few older pieces are sprinkled into the mix, going as far back as 1990. There are some clumsy pieces here, with unredemptive dissonances and awkward rhythms, but more than a few marvels -- ravishing examples of Lang’s humble exuberance.
“Mirror 113" is just such an stunner. The 2008 canvas measures just over nine feet square. Its network of narrow (about one-quarter-inch) horizontal and vertical stripes veers slightly off course, just enough to assert Lang’s respect for manual imperfection over mechanical efficiency, and to suggest an inviting tapestry rather than a forbidding cage. The lines of color shift from warm to cool, intense to faint, deepening and darkening toward the edges. The painting is a gem of subtle undulation, a dance between openness and enclosure, surface and depth.
The line paintings are similarly involving. They have a private, quiet feeling to them, whether roughly two-by-four feet or eight-by-five. Lang lays down one thin horizontal line after another, traversing the canvas in solid, strong colors, the lines a little rough around the edges sometimes, tilting and occasionally overlapping. Again, absolute regularity and evenness count for little. What matters is the simple repetition of the act, driven by the eye and the arm. The line reads as literal and metaphoric at once, a record and a gesture, dense with reference to mark-making of the past but persuasive in its pure immediacy.
Tensions play out vigorously within these paintings: between the discipline of each format and Lang’s lavish freedom with color; between the sobriety of the reductive geometries and the revelry of his idiosyncratic hand; between a yearning for harmony and the impulse toward disorder. The works are surprisingly resonant, emotionally.
The paintings of concentric bands of color are more aggressive and less absorbing. They measure up to 13 feet in diameter (the aptly named “Goliath”) and present a target-like challenge. Illusionistically eye-popping from a distance, the circles vibrate and pulse, their spectrum of colors all-inclusive: luminous, flat, sweet, sharp, Day-Glo, metallic, shrill and sexy. In such a large group (13), the intensity can feel relentless, but there are delicate, gorgeous passages to be found, like the progression of white to yellow to green to blue around the outer rim of “Roam,” rings of stop-start strokes that seem to race each other around the circle. And in “Full Circle,” dark rays painted beneath the rings make the colors flicker and dim, gently interrupting the circular momentum.
Lang’s work positions itself comfortably within the continuum of artists using a similarly distilled vocabulary -- Kenneth Noland, Agnes Martin, among others. The strength of his work has less to do with invention than interpretation, with the inescapably singular, internal process of making external marks.
Ace Gallery Beverly Hills, 9430 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 858-9090, through Aug. 29. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.acegallery.net
Tough on the eye . . . and the gut
Chris Vasell careens between the pastel and the peppery in his two new bodies of work at Blum & Poe. One group of paintings is blandly attractive and the other, in part, optically repulsive. Both exhaust conceits that are thin to begin with, and neither feels consequential.
In the five huge canvases (one a diptych, the others measuring up to nearly 13 feet per side) that make up the group collectively titled, “To The People That Know This is Nowhere,” Vasell seems to be channeling the so-called stain painters, Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, saturating his unprimed canvases with thinned acrylic in a treacly palette of pink, aqua, violet, cherry and emerald.
But pigment isn’t all that’s diluted here. The vaguely biomorphic forms and chains of dots hint at psychedelia and the catalytic Rorschach blob, but mostly they look like unremarkable tie-dye jobs, improvised decoration with the eager gloss of irony.
In the other series, the L.A.-based Vasell coyly overlays rectangular patches of raw canvas, checkerboard-style, atop canvases painted either solid black or with concentric circles in muted rainbow hues. The op art effect of the woozy, warping monochrome piece is dizzying, tough on both the eye and the gut, as obnoxious as the stained paintings are obsequious.
Blum & Poe, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 836-2062, through Aug. 22. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.blumandpoe.com
Rewriting history, ingeniously
It is said that history is written by the victors, but the chronicle of our species makes an unusually compelling read when told by artists who interweave fiction and fact, extracting dubious subplots from the familiar master narrative. Kahn and Selesnick, artistic collaborators for over 20 years, are masters of the genre, tricksters of the most ingenious and amusing sort.
In their most recent project, at Kopeikin, they spin a tale (through photographs and an assortment of vintage and fabricated objects) about an iceberg that drifted into the Baltic Sea in the fall of 1923, ultimately settling into the German port of Lubeck.
Enterprising citizens of the town declared the iceberg a free trade zone, named it “Eisbergfreistadt” (Iceberg Free State) and issued currency that became dramatically devalued, following the fate of the mark during the inflationary Weimar era.
Bank notes bearing an image of the iceberg with spiraling Babel-like towers or an Expressionist structure of jagged shards are displayed in a case, as artifacts. They also line a coat and a dress, as they were said to do when the notes became worthless except as insulation or decoration.
As in several previous bodies of work, Kahn and Selesnick deftly adopt the stylistic idioms of the period in which their tale is set, so that even the most fantastic of imagery -- a photograph of a single-passenger zeppelin sheathed in bank notes, for instance -- feels anchored in the past, in a history that, if not exactly true, has at least a persuasive texture and heft.
Their (re-)creations may be tongue-in-cheek, but they complicate the boundary between document and parable. Like the more sober, photographically illustrated fictions of W.G. Sebald, Kahn and Selesnick’s work exploits the innate evidentiary credibility of the photograph, and affirms just how fluid a medium history can be.
Kopeikin Gallery, 8810 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 385-5894, through Aug. 22. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.kopeikingallery.com
Excited extremes miss the mark
New paintings by Rob and Christian Clayton transform the traditional, tabletop still-life of fruit the same way a regular cherry is turned into a maraschino: All the natural juice and color are sucked out and replaced by overly sweet synthetics. Graduates of Art Center College of Design and members of the faculty there, the Clayton Brothers giddily flex the steroid-pumped muscle of sensory excess.
Their work, spread between Patrick Painter’s two Bergamot Station spaces, is fueled by manic energy and abides by the principles of spectacle -- exaggeration of scale, color, intensity and movement.
Much of the work’s humor is intentional (one image of a man whose head is encased in a giant blueberry is titled “Anti-Accidents”), but with all of its exuberant extremity and unabashed pastiche, it spills well over into ridiculous kitsch.
The brothers lift from Lari Pittman, Alex Grey and the whole lowbrow, beautiful loser street aesthetic. Like faux-visionary rebuses, the paintings use short-cut graphic devices (directional dashes and rays) to jerk the eye from gargantuan strawberries with facial features to bruised bananas, draped overhead like Dali-coiffed tresses. Fruits fly and explode; a rainbow of snow-cone colors buzzes and shrieks. Faces within these scenes of hallucinogenic mayhem stare with extra-wide-open mandala-patterned eyes.
The title of one particularly chaotic image with animate plums and bananas and a single hairy leg in a brace sums it up.
The Clayton Brothers’ new work amounts to a spritz of “Reddi-wip Laughter” -- highly processed, fake and frothy.
Patrick Painter Inc., Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-5988, through Aug. 29. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.patrickpainter.com