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Flights of urban fancy

There is something wonderfully peculiar about the paintings of Gegam Kacherian, but it’s difficult to pinpoint just what it is. Each of the 15 works in his second solo show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery begins in a reasonable, even orthodox manner with an aerial view of a city skyline, or else the billowing clouds of a turbulent sky-scape. He has a knack for spatial atmospherics and most of these scenes would make for very handsome compositions in their own right. Over these, however, he layers a whirling miscellany of fantastical imagery: animals, figures, flora, architecture, and various totemic objects, all wound in ectoplasmic strands of abstract pigment.

It is a view of the physical world splattered with flashes of mystical consciousness. Horses gallop through the clouds; a man in a bowler hat rides on the back of an owl; snake-like tendrils weave in and out of free floating Modernist buildings. There are elephants, horses, leopards, lions, panda bears, swans, owls, and a rhinoceros. A female dancer in ceremonial dress makes several seemingly auspicious appearances.

The peculiarity lies less in the surrealistic quality of the imagery, however, than in the rather kooky formal and pictorial dynamics. The landscapes are lavishly rendered and highly dimensional, stretching miles, it seems, beyond the surface of the canvas. The overlaid imagery hovers resolutely in the foreground, as if cast across the surface of a window, leaving the middle-ground awkwardly vacant.

The landscapes, moreover, are massive; the surface imagery is quite small and generally all out of scale: a tiny horse, an enormous owl, etc. The clouds are full-bodied and lush; the abstract elements as slight and wispy as feathers. The skies hearken back to 19th century traditions of the sublime -- Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran -- while the foreground imagery suggests contemporary fantasy illustration with a splash of Salvador Dali. The abstract flourishes seem to have no precedent at all.

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Given all of this, as well as the highly charged, often downright psychedelic palette, these could -- perhaps should -- have been frightfully ugly paintings: gaudy, awkward, excessively cluttered and chaotic.

But they’re not. They’re enchanting: visually ravishing, filled with strange and beguiling narratives, and -- a rare quality indeed -- utterly distinctive. Kacherian, who lives in Los Angeles but studied art in the early 1980s in his home country of Armenia, adheres to the idioms of contemporary painting -- this is not “outsider art” -- without conforming to any particular ideology, which leaves the work feeling both relevant and fresh. One could imagine aligning it with various camps of L.A. quasi-Surrealism (Jim Shaw, Sharon Ellis or Nancy Jackson), but ultimately it demands to be read on its own terms.

Which is a pleasure.

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Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., B4, Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Oct. 10. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Appel explores form and space

In the late 1990s, shortly after emerging from UCLA, Kevin Appel made paintings involving flat, blocky, hyper-stylized representations of domestic interiors. In the early 2000s, he shifted the vantage point to make similarly geometric exterior views -- pale, often ghostly depictions that resembled architectural drawings though tended to dissolve into abstract arrangements of cubes. Both were tasteful, well regarded, and to my mind rather dry.

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Around 2003, something strange happened. A cartoonish tree trunk motif entered in, wreaking all kinds of havoc with Appel’s geometric order.

Appearing with feverish, clone-like frequency, it threaded in and out of what might have been windows, tossing his tidy Modernist cubes into spinning polyhedra. Planes fractured incoherently. Patterns entered. The forms became buoyant and architecturally reckless -- less Case Study House than crazy hippie tree-house. The lines were still clean and the palette still tasteful, but it looked as if Appel was beginning to have fun.

In a mostly new body of work at ACME, he takes another turn altogether, layering a largely non-architectural series of geometric shapes -- in gouache, pencil and collaged paper -- over images of landscapes and wildlife scanned from nature books from the 1960s and ‘70s.

The connection between the two elements is ambiguous, and strikes one at a glance as perhaps arbitrary.

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Moving through the works, however, one begins to discern an inquisitive -- if inconclusive -- interrogation between the two, and a subtle, gentle sort of rhythm.

They’re small works, for the most part, with an intimate, concentrated air that feels well-suited to the climate in which they appear: the cautiously optimistic opening of a new season, following a tumultuous year. A sort of downsized extension of the meteoric tree houses, the works -- which the exhibition refers to as “drawings” -- are a contemplative continuation Appel’s ongoing exploration of the relationship between form and space.

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ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Spaces 1 & 2, Los Angeles, (323) 857-5942, through Oct. 10. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Turning Botticelli on his head

Subtlety isn’t a quality one expects in the work of David LaChapelle, and it’s not one you’ll find in even the title of “The Rape of Africa,” the monumental photographic tableau that is the centerpiece of his show at David Desanctis Gallery.

A compositionally faithful adaptation of Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars,” the work presents a bare-breasted Naomi Campbell in the role of Venus, a white male model who looks to have stumbled out of a Caravaggio painting (or at least a movie about a Caravaggio painting) as Mars, and three young black boys wielding serious artillery in the place of the fawns.

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Gold spills out around the reclining Mars (as well as, hilariously, a battered replica of Damien Hirst’s infamous diamond-coated skull), while tractors claw at a barren landscape -- presumably a gold mine -- visible beyond. All this in an electrified palette of gold, scarlet, hot pink and turquoise.

If not subtle, however, it is -- like most of LaChapelle’s work -- extraordinarily detailed, a visually lavish and luscious experience. No inch of its 4-by-10-foot surface has gone unconsidered; no single element is random or capricious, from the fly that graces the foot of one of the children to the spot of blood on the cushion beneath Mars’ arm or the broken light bulb dangling behind Venus’ head.

The conceit of Botticelli’s painting is that Venus, as benign (and clothed) as he has her appear, has vanquished the god of war with her lovemaking and rendered his weapons into playthings.

LaChapelle’s treatment inverts this dynamic by suggesting that Venus (Africa) is the vanquished one, a spoil of war to be held by Mars (Europe) alongside the gold and some livestock -- though that in itself is complicated by Campbell’s deviously self-satisfied expression. She looks like the sort to conceal knives in her garter belts, and like she’s just surrendered her kingdom for a healthy cut of the profits. In either case, the implication is dire. These weapons are clearly not playthings, and their presence in the hands of children is tragically far from fantasy.

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It would be easy to disparage LaChapelle, at a glance, for his celebrity-laden sensationalism. His sense of spectacle, however, like that of the Baroque painters he’s mimicking, is neither cheap nor gratuitous. Indeed, what’s most striking about his work, when viewed as a whole, is its absolute sincerity -- a quality that becomes especially powerful in a work like this, that attempts to transcend the solipsism of fashion.

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David Desanctis Gallery, 314 N. Crescent Heights Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 782-9404, through Oct. 31. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Artist of a totally different stripe

If you’ve ever found yourself thinking, as I will admit that I have from time to time, that you would be quite content to reach the end of your life without ever laying eyes on another stripe painting -- at least by anyone born after 1960 -- then Hadley Holliday’s lovely exhibition at Solway Jones should come as a breath of fresh air: proof that there’s joy to be found yet in what has come to seem a dull and largely reactionary genre.

It’s not that her stripe paintings -- which constitute roughly half of the 11 works on display -- are especially radical. They’re large, for the most part (up to roughly 6 1/2 by 4 1/2 feet), and composed on unprimed canvases, to create the soft, saturated feel of a Helen Frankenthaler.

In some the stripes swirl into knots, in others they arc like rainbows staked on top of one another. In some they form grids.

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Holliday is a graceful colorist, however, with trust in the simplicity of her forms to carry the nuance of her palette. (In addition to the stripes, the show includes a number of smaller squares -- 30-by-30 inches -- filled with free-form washes of color.) The tones are sweet without being saccharine, gentle without being timid or shallow: lavender, violet, salmon, sky blue, indigo, coral, rose and butter yellow, all grounded with shrewd accents of gray and black.

Her application of the pigment is equally sensitive. Her strokes are loose, perhaps intuitive, without being lazy. Most of the canvases are scattered with drips and, in a peculiarly charming gesture, she generally guides the stripes around them. It results in a sense of warmth and humanity that the stripe -- among other classic motifs of abstraction -- is often employed to deny.

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Solway Jones, 990 N. Hill St., Suite 180, Los Angeles, (323) 223-0224, through Oct. 10. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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