The Times’ art gallery roundups usually require a lot of driving: crisscrossing the city to see as much as possible, then cherry-picking shows that provide something to say. This time, though, I decided to stay in one place — a strip of Highland Boulevard between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue. And I decided to walk.
I wanted to start my tour at Nonaka-Hill, located in a strip mall just off Melrose. Sandwiched between a Yum Yum Donuts and the hipster gourmet spot Petit Trois, Nonaka-Hill shows contemporary Japanese art under a sign that still reads “Best Cleaners.” Unfortunately, the show by Yutaka Matsuzawa and Mitsutoshi Hanaga hadn’t opened yet (though it’s open now). I did catch three others:
Robin F. Williams at Various Small Fires
Various Small Fires is one block north. A peaceful courtyard installation of outdoor furniture and fixtures from James Herman’s off-the-grid home gives way to the striking paintings of Brooklyn artist Robin F. Williams inside. I’ve been reading Caroline Criado Perez’s “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” and I imagine Williams’ subjects have too. Her women, engaged in all manner of activities — vaping, sipping Kool-Aid, cavorting nude on the beach — all look mighty angry, or at least resentful.
Williams adds another layer to the work by naming some of the women after digital assistants Alexa and Siri. “Alexa Plays Ball” depicts a woman holding a football; she’s being lifted from behind by a man. Both are nude. The man is smiling broadly; the woman is stone-faced. The composition is derived from a Newport cigarette ad, but Williams tweaks it so that “just fun and games” is laced with threat and discomfort.
“Siri Calls for Help” pictures Apple’s digital assistant as a woman straight out of a Hitchcock film. With a worried, uneasy expression on her face, she clutches the receiver of an anachronistic pay phone. It’s a joke, of course, envisioning a virtual assistant using clunky analog technology. Yet the image not only gives Siri an emotional life, it also draws a connection between women’s perceived subservience and the tendency to exploit and terrorize us.
Returning to the pavement outside and leaving GPS-assisted navigation behind for the day, I understood how digital maps have turned navigating the city into a kind of video game. They may seem like the expeditious way to get around, but they also keep us at a distance from what’s happening on the street.
My next stop was Steve Turner, at the intersection of Highland and Santa Monica. To get there, I passed Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, where I was too early for an Ernesto Neto exhibition. I also passed Regen Projects on Santa Monica, where the gallery was preparing for a show by Theaster Gates.
I also walked through a small homeless encampment and skirted a man lying asleep across the baking sidewalk. Nearby were not one but two pet hotels, and a doggy daycare center. When a city houses its pets better than its people, what is the point of seeing art? Sometimes it feels like just another abstraction, distracting us from reality.
Francisco Rodriguez, Rebecca Shippee and Jon Key at Steve Turner
The three shows at Steve Turner restored my faith in the enterprise. Francisco Rodriguez’s paintings feel as sun-bleached as the L.A. sidewalk, depicting desolate yet claustrophobic landscapes populated by lone men or large, black dogs. “In the Garden” reminded me of the man splayed outside. In it, we see only a pair of legs, lying in a pale beige field studded with red flowers. A black crow sits ominously near the figure’s feet, improbably smoking a cigarette. Along the high horizon line is an oily black line of trees, and behind that, a high chain-link fence against a pale red sky. Something bad has happened here.
“Corner,” is even more oppressive. The horizon line is the top of a tall, solid fence, hemming in a small, black figure hunkering down in the corner. Above the fence we see only the tops of those threatening black trees as they seep like ink stains across a pink sky.
The title of the show is “Midday Demon,” and even though Londoner Rodriguez isn’t from L.A., his work captures the oppressive, carceral atmosphere that sometimes descends on the hottest, most hopeless days.
Rebecca Shippee’s portraits in the next room are more reassuring. They depict people who have altered their appearance, either through surgery or wardrobe, to reflect their gender or sexual identities. “Noah,” despite the masculine-sounding title, depicts a pale-skinned woman lying nude on a sofa. The composition is reminiscent of the frank figures of British painter Lucian Freud, although without his fleshy specificity.
On the opposite wall is “Jarvis,” also a reclining portrait, but this time the subject is a black man, clad in deep-green pajamas and sporting a necklace that read
s “Boyland.” By depicting these two very different subjects in the same, classic, “reclining nude” pose, Shippee places both of them in an art historical lineage that has traditionally signaled beauty and desirability, but has also traditionally been reserved for white, cisgender women.
In the third gallery, self-portraits by Jon Key skew the art historical canon in a different way. His self-portraits are executed in solid blocks of just four colors with symbolic significance: green for the South (Key grew up in Alabama), black for his African American identity, violet for queerness and red for family. The idea is a bit simplistic, but the modestly sized paintings possess a graphic appeal with their reductive palette and shapes. They evoke geometric abstraction, but also the patterning of African fabrics, and of course, Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag, with its red, black, and green stripes.
I almost walked right into a two-sided panel hanging in the center of the gallery. Spinning slowly, it depicts portraits of Key’s father and grandfather. Tellingly, there is no purple in these images, a subtle recognition of family tensions around Key’s sexuality. The paintings hang in the center of the space like a question mark.
Back outside, I proceeded down Highland, past what might be the cutest Starbucks in L.A.: a drive-thru housed in a converted Art Deco gas station. I have never seen it without a line of cars snaking out onto the street. But this time, I did notice some of the havoc it wreaks: Starbucks-branded debris strewn across a neighboring doorstep.
Julian Stanczak at Diane Rosenstein Gallery
My last stop was “Julian Stanczak: The Eighties,” at Diane Rosenstein Gallery. Stanczak, who died in 2017, was an early practitioner of Op Art, a movement that originated in the 1960s, emphasizing the optical effects of an artwork and the mechanics of perception. The 15 works on view all date from the 1980s and reflect Stanczak’s utter dedication to the style. They consist of nothing but stripes and discreet, mostly rectilinear blocks of color, but are so masterfully planned and constructed that they generate luminous fields of light and color that seem to glow and hover off the gallery walls.
Beyond wondering at their technical prowess, it’s fun to glimpse into the proto-digital world of the 1980s. Now that gradients can be created simply by dragging a cursor across a screen, it’s a marvel to see how Stanczak created his analog versions. Rather than attempting to blend various hues together, he carefully orchestrated adjacent but discreet blocks of color to create subtle transitions. His paintings happen, not on the canvas but inside our heads, as our brains turn myriad tiny areas of flat color into luminous clouds of light. In some ways, Stanczak’s painting process was proto-algorithmic, creating an overall effect through the consistent, application of an evolving set of rules. They are masterworks of control that end up being strangely numinous.
Walking back to my car, I passed a Sherwin Williams paint store, a decidedly less mystical version of the kaleidoscope I’d just seen in the gallery. Simply giving up some of my power to choose — selecting a neighborhood rather than an exhibition, and walking instead of driving —allowed me to see immediate connections between art and the everyday that were previously more intellectual than felt.
I saw more powerfully how art refines and focuses chaos, pointing at things we might not otherwise notice, or heightening and affirming feelings we are afraid to acknowledge. It can do this because it occupies a distinct space: the rarefied world of the gallery or museum. But like Stanczak’s separate colors, art and life sometimes mix to make something more mysterious and beautiful than either of them can muster by themselves.
720 N. Highland Ave.
Yutaka Matsuzawa and Mitsutoshi Hanaga, through Oct. 5
(323) 450-9409, nonaka-hill.com
Various Small Fires
812 N. Highland Ave.
Robin F. Williams’ “With Pleasure,” through Oct. 26
(310) 426-8040, www.vsf.la
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
1010 N. Highland Ave.
“Ernesto Neto: Children of the Earth” through Nov. 2
(323) 380-7172, www.tanyabonakdargallery.com
6750 Santa Monica Blvd.
Theaster Gates’ “Line Drawing for Shirt and Cloak,” through Nov. 2
(310) 276-5424, regenprojects.com
6830 Santa Monica Blvd.
Francisco Rodridguez’s “Midday Demon,” Rebecca Shippee’s “The Creators” and Jon Key’s “Violet Alabama,” through Oct.12
(323) 460-6830, www.steveturner.la
Diane Rosenstein Gallery
831 N. Highland Ave.
Julian Stanczak’s “The Eighties,” through Oct. 19
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