Watching “Avatar,” it’s hard not to be struck by the utter strangeness of a fantastically complex high-tech movie that worships fervently at nature’s mysterious altar. Digital primitivism is a peculiar faith, especially with 3-D glasses.
Thirteen mostly recent, mostly large paintings by Mark Grotjahn at Blum & Poe knock that sort of faith upside the head. Emphatically handmade, with layer upon layer of pigment built up with brushes and palette knives on cardboard sheets affixed to canvas, they wear their secrets on their sleeve. Like all first-rate art, they’re more mysterious for it.
The result is sumptuous and mesmerizing -- one of the most beautiful painting shows in recent memory. As with some earlier works, Grotjahn’s obvious source for this body of work is Picasso’s 1907 Cubist masterpiece, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Specifically he focuses on the ferocious women’s lozenge-shaped eyes, linear scarification and mask-like bearing.
His paintings, some as large as 8 feet by 6 feet, look spontaneous but aren’t. Color and gesture are orchestrated as symbols to be read as simply and directly as the letters in his name, which are also deployed as shapes painted as parts of the compositions. Sometimes those letters are even cut out of the cardboard and reversed, as if the artist’s identity were empty space.
Picasso’s penetrating, even accusatory eyes turned up in later art, including Paul Klee’s whimsical 1928 “Cat and Bird,” where a feathered creature flits like a delicate thought through a feline mind; Lee Mullican’s knife-edge “sunspots” of the 1950s and after; and Jay DeFeo’s big, 1970s graphite rendering, “Eyes,” which suggests the spellbinding experience of a waking dream.
Grotjahn is nothing if not ambitious in invoking an artistic pantheon. His predecessors often invoked tribalism as something powerful but remote from industrial civilization, which needed to be recovered. Unlike them, however, Grotjahn makes paintings that refer to Modern art as if it were itself a totem.
Forget nature, these paintings say. A conscious experience of culture of any kind is what identifies our clan, and art is a material sign of spiritual kinship.
Grotjahn is mostly known for hard-edge color abstractions that juxtapose two slightly off-kilter vanishing points. Their vibrant, tactile surfaces deny the illusion of deep space that, during the Renaissance, vanishing points were invented to create. The recent paintings, plus one each from 2007 and 2008, involve another contradiction, this one built on primitive founding myths of Modern art.
Blum & Poe, 2727 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 836-2062, through April 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.blumandpoe .com
Bridging two nutty worlds
In photographs and, more recently, films, Judy Fiskin has for more than 30 years looked into the deep, perhaps bottomless chasm between the art world and the rest of the world. Witty and poignant, her work succeeds in part because it never grants a privilege to one side over the other. She plainly lives in both, and the art world and the rest of the world are both revealed to be irrevocably nuts.
At Angles Gallery, “Guided Tour” is her latest film, an 11 1/2 -minute journey through a pedestrian exhibition of America’s painting and sculpture that is almost entirely installed on city streets, in shopping centers, at neighborhood crafts fairs, in souvenir shops, on commercial plazas -- virtually anywhere that is not an art museum or commercial gallery. A few times the camera does slowly pan a typical “white cube” space, which signals that we are briefly inside a socially and culturally sanctioned art space.
But the inexplicable abstract art glimpsed in this unidentified museum (or gallery) primarily serves to make the other art outside the specialized precinct seem alien. Rarely does an ordinary bronze bust encountered on a city street appear to be equally as strange as a sculpture that consists of a row of giant concrete boxes, as happens here.
This is no small feat, since some of that art is signature work by celebrated artists -- Donald Judd (the concrete boxes), Richard Serra, even George Rickey. Shot almost entirely in black and white, which adds the requisite veneer of seriousness to its unavoidably comic undercurrent, the film has an anthropological edge -- coming of age in the exotic Samoa of daily life.
The soundtrack merges the earnest voices of two art museum docents leading a tour of unseen visitors -- a role that a viewer of Fiskin’s film subtly assumes. The choice of volunteer docents for the voice-over is inspired, since it neatly bridges the gap between art and life so famously identified by Robert Rauschenberg as a rich source of cultural meaning.
One docent discusses an unidentified Western artist -- “a Communist and a patriot” -- whose paintings, by and large, have been inexplicably passed over by history. The level of wonder in relation to the art you see on-screen, whether conventionally good, bad or indifferent, steadily rises. “Guided Tour” leads you on a surprising journey into your own conflicted assumptions about substance and significance.
Also at the gallery is a large installation of 60 works from several series of Fiskin’s intimately scaled black-and-white photographs, made between 1974 to the early 1990s. (Another installation of related works is in “Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years” at the Museum of Contemporary Art.) Military installations, desert vegetation, stucco houses, a Long Beach amusement park, “dingbat” apartment buildings -- her roots in the often sober 1970s New Topographic movement give added insight into the cultural landscape her film explores.
Angles Gallery, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 396-5019, through April 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.anglesgallery
Sculptures steal the show
Eight raucous and deftly handled new paintings by Michael Reafsnyder continue his delirious engagement with painterly hedonism. Drizzled, dribbled, smeared, scraped, scuffed and slippery swipes of bright, wet, acrylic color engulf the canvases like nontoxic spills. Inevitably, a small arc topped by a couple of little circles emerges somewhere in the boisterous field -- Reafsnyder’s signature take on a smiley face, squeezed directly from the paint tube.
Amid all the high-spirited energy at Western Project, a small surprise occurs: The paintings are nearly upstaged by a half-dozen modest ceramic sculptures sitting quietly on plywood pedestals. These are not Reafsnyder’s first ceramics, but they are his most assured.
Where the paintings are fast, the sculptures are slow -- hand-built slabs of clay that unfurl and unfold like dense bouquets of jungle blossoms or exotic undersea creatures. (The style is not similar, but the sensuous, sometimes erotic forms allude to the brilliant work of Kenneth Price.) The color is likewise different from the paintings, more low-key and pastel, with matte areas intermingled with shiny glazing. Brighter bursts are mostly restricted to the form’s curvilinear edges.
The unexpected result is small objects (nothing is over 18 inches) that look like animated drawings in space. The smiley faces also turn up, but Reafsnyder tears them asunder: One eye might encircle the end of a cylinder, while the grin assumes the form of a rolled length of colored clay. The joy is built right into the complex forms, which gives these sculptures the appearance of sentient life.
Western Project, 2762 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 838-0609, through April 3. www.western-project.com
Scenes from passing cars
Society was transformed when President Eisenhower championed the construction of an interstate highway system in 1956, with its profound alteration of personal and commercial transportation and the elevation of auto manufacturing into a top-tier enterprise. With considerable justification, it has even been said that asphalt built the American middle class.
“The Seconds Pass,” Ed Templeton‘s melancholic, even troubling photographs at Roberts & Tilton, looks at a late stage of that transformation, and society seems to teeter at the brink of ruin and collapse. The pictures, made during the last 15 years in nine countries but mostly the United States (and especially L.A.), were all shot from a moving car. Lined up around the gallery in 38 sets of framed sequences, each with between three and six individual images joined edge-to-edge, they encourage a visitor to read them from left to right, like a book.
Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” and Edward Ruscha’s artist’s books “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” and “Royal Road Test” are evoked. So is John Baldessari’s work, where mundane, unrelated photographs are juxtaposed to create implied if unsuspecting pictorial narratives.
Templeton -- a pro skateboarder whose vocation splits the difference between life on the sidewalk and being on wheels -- displays a marvelous sense of proportion in these mostly black-and-white works. He focuses on pedestrians, who wait at bus stops, cross the street, gather at food stands and move past shops both tony and shabby.
Once in a while you find yourself stranded in a parking lot, or looking over at Jay Leno in a souped-up roadster at a gas pump, or puzzling over a transient incongruously walking along a freeway shoulder. Perhaps it’s the distance between the moving, auto-bound photographer and his mostly slower subjects relegated to foot, but most everyone in the pictures seems somehow bereft.
Suddenly, when a man with a camera (the artist?) turns up in a picture that includes a side-view mirror, you realize that you too are here relegated to pedestrian status in the mobile society -- however down on its heels -- that’s chronicled in these pictures.
But life moves on, and that picture is quickly forgotten as it’s replaced by the mysterious conundrum of a man with a surfboard waiting patiently at a crosswalk for the light to change.
Roberts & Tilton, 5801 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 549-0223, through April 3. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.robertsand