Critic’s Choice: Laurie Lipton: Drawing the walking dead with a most beguiling beauty

"Happy," a charcoal and pencil drawing by Laurie Lipton, is at Ace Gallery in Los Angeles.

“Happy,” a charcoal and pencil drawing by Laurie Lipton, is at Ace Gallery in Los Angeles.

(Courtesy of Ace Gallery)

Ace Gallery serves up a feast of toxic confections in its show of Laurie Lipton’s drawings from the past 10 years. Every lavishly detailed scene straddles the divide of seduction and repulsion, and each visual spectacle registers some aspect of societal decay.

“Happy” (2015) is among the most gripping and a consummate example of Lipton’s methods and sensibility. Formidable in scale (68 by 103 inches), the drawing in charcoal and pencil weaves minute particulars into an expansive, epic whole.

Lipton affords us a view into a grand interior, a cathedral of industry soaked in natural light. Pipes, levers, hoses, gauges and wheels cover walls, floor, columns, even the lofty ceiling. The space is one giant machine, a factory of “happiness,” turning out an endless stream of the walking dead, identical masked skeletons holding cellphones with smiley faces on their screens. These zombies snake efficiently through the building as if on a conveyor belt before spilling out into the blinding white beyond.

Lipton’s image is a cinematic wonder a la Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” a futuristic dystopia with beguiling retro beauty and a pointed message about the present. Much of the L.A.-based artist’s work reads as a parable of the here and now, a poke at the fundamental contradiction lurking within our device-dependent lives. These technological extensions of ourselves numb and depersonalize us, while constantly hawking a junk diet of feel-good affirmation — the smiley face, the selfie, the “like.”


Bones factor heavily in these drawings, bones in such quantity as to suggest a mass extinction of some sort. The demise that Lipton chronicles is that of authenticity and idiosyncrasy. In the far upper-left corner of “Happy,” a small figure appears silhouetted in a window, the overseer of this spirit-sucking enterprise. If our collective soul is dying off, we are the ones responsible for killing it.

Humor creeps in to Lipton’s work and, fittingly, it is a creepy humor. In one ad-like scene, a ‘50s-era housewife in lace-trimmed apron shows off what’s cooking in her oven, smiling proudly at the mechanical lump approximating a roast.

For all of their technical finesse and spatial expansiveness, however, Lipton’s scenes can feel reductive, a bit like editorial cartoons. A man in a hazmat suit sweeps up a vast tide of bones in the panoramic “Spill” (2015), for instance. In “The Fates” (2010), a huge spool of human thread runs through the knitting needles of one worker and into the scissor blades of another, who snips a screaming little figure in two.

Lipton draws with an all-over deliberateness that invokes the homogeneity she satirizes, and in a way, suffers a bit from it too. There is a palatable, strangely bland beauty to these horrors. The drawings mesmerize, in part, because of this friction, but some deviation from the sameness would come as a relief and ratchet up the work’s already haunting power.



Ace Gallery, 5514 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 935-3388, through April 30. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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