Review: In ‘COLA 2019,’ the city of L.A. gives its artists a place to sound off
Katie Grinnan’s eccentric sculpture in the new exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Art Park is a marvelous mash-up of mind, matter and music that together charts a complex landscape.
The design of “5 Seconds of Dreaming (instruments)” is based on an electroencephalogram. A brief jolt of electrical activity inside the artist’s brain was used as a template to carve the hills and valleys of a circular landscape sculpture from laminated sheets of wood.
For the record:
11:15 a.m. June 19, 2019An earlier version of this review misstated how Sabrina Gschwandtner makes her quilts. She sews rather than weaves.
The sculpture, elevated in a ring atop pedestals that take the shape of communications towers, is affixed with strings to be plucked. It’s also punctured by sound holes to amplify the sonic vibrations. Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist and philosopher, wrote in his “Journal” that “Unpremeditated music is the true gauge which measures the current of our thoughts — the very undertow of our life’s stream.” He probably didn’t imagine this.
I don’t know whether Grinnan is a reader of “Walden,” Thoreau’s personal declaration of independence. But it wouldn’t surprise me. As if following a critical lead that saw the virtue of “unpremeditated” experience, she chose to record her brain waves as she slept.
Grinnan filtered the dreamworld of Surrealist tradition through contemporary channels of Conceptual art, unplugging calculation from the instrumental lay of the land. Mind, matter and music merge.
Grinnan is one of 11 artists included in “COLA 2019,” the latest iteration of a distinctive program sponsored by the Department of Cultural Affairs. COLA, short for City of Los Angeles, is a competitive individual fellowship in which midcareer artists, most in their 40s, are chosen by a committee of arts professionals to create work for an annual exhibition. The program has been an invaluable contribution to the city’s cultural life for the last 22 years.
The show is without an overarching curatorial theme. Given our troubled historical era, however, loose strands hold some things together.
Precariousness around continued existence turns up often. Grinnan’s musical mapping of thought fused within nature communicates what is ultimately at stake in a steadily degrading environment.
Alice Könitz went on a survivalist kick, learning methods for wilderness self-sufficiency that are recalled here as simple, homemade tools displayed inside a one-person shelter. Enrique Castrejon’s wall-reliefs of fragmented brown bodies are tangled in webs of paper strips that record health statistics, primarily for rates of HIV infection among Latino men.
Peter Wu shifts the Industrial Age anxiety embedded in Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” into the tumultuous computer science prospects for artificial intelligence. He projects a vivid array of swirling digital images of extraterrestrial galaxies, bodily plasma and amusement park temple-gods onto a makeshift shrine that holds the artist’s sculptural self-portrait (sort of “Peter and the Temple of Digital Doom”). The soundtrack is suitably melodramatic.
Jenny Yurshansky translated a family gravesite into an installation that features a tree-like shroud surrounded by suspended branches sporting glass leaves. The ensemble feels heavy-handed next to her simple slideshow of the actual memorial site, projected on a wall through a fluttery curtain of gauze.
A sound work in the gallery’s entrance by Stephanie Taylor is described in a wall label as a humorous take on “the poetry of bureaucratic language,” with lyrics derived from the city’s dull informational website. It suffers, however, from an acoustical echo that makes the text hard to discern; I finally gave up.
A double-take attends Olga Koumoundouros’ big, startlingly weird, segmented sculpture of a flying fish. (You read that right.) Its fragile body of glazed and fired clay sheets is held together by bungee cords tied around a rudimentary armature.
A flying fish is a creature that lives in fluid space, whether water or air. This transmogrifying vertebrate features a bulbous crimson vessel awkwardly attached to one element — a long, swollen form that seems at once phallic and uterine. Koumoundouros’ jerry-built sculpture exists betwixt and between, neither one thing nor the other — or, perhaps, both at once.
A stripped-down sculpture by Juan Capistrán consists of two rectangular Minimalist boxes, their terra-cotta color yielding the look of oversize bricks. (They’re made from painted fiberboard.) The two units, upright and leaning against each other, represent a most elementary form of construction.
Capistrán photographed similar compositions, unstable models of symbiotic support, in empty lots around South L.A., where he grew up. The sites are ones where buildings once stood, before the ruin of the 1992 riots. (The artist was 16 then.) The locations’ charged history lends the oversize bricks an aura of frustrated weaponry.
Suddenly, they suggest homemade battle monuments. Oddly elegant and brusquely eloquent, the work evokes perpetual cycles of construction and destruction.
Sabrina Gschwandtner sewed patterned quilts from strips of black-and-white film to recall nearly forgotten movies made a century ago by pioneering female directors. Visually handsome but disappointingly inert, they lack the bracing irreverence of Agnès Varda’s “My Shack of Cinema,” a walk-in refuge with walls and roof similarly made of 35-mm film strips, shown six years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
A large, two-panel map on handmade paper painted in pale washes by Sandy Rodriguez reads vertically, like an Asian hanging-scroll. The map begins with the Pacific Ocean at the bottom, rises through the L.A. Basin and across mountains to the San Fernando Valley, spreading beyond to the Mojave near the top. Things happen in tiny pictures along the way.
Whales migrate, grizzly bears wrestle. A prone person, body spotted as if from disease, is laid out before a Spanish mission. A lynching records human violence, a lizard impaled on a sharp agave cites nature’s brutality.
Watchtowers signal federal detention facilities at Adelanto and Victorville. Rodriguez’s incongruous yet poetic painting is an archival record of cruelty and strife, rendered with a soft, delicate, caressing touch.
Finally, a wide, mural-size image printed on thin aluminum panels by Kim Fisher shows a dense, leafy green hedge — a privacy fence into which flotsam seems to be stuck: large torn papers of red and yellow; a big, jaunty candy wrapper; a bit of printed text; and a photo of cocktails by a swimming pool.
The collage elements emphasize the flat, billboard-like surface. Their pictures hint at life hidden on the other side of the hedge. The printed text, for example, is an odd story about a willing sperm donor — too willing, perhaps.
The surprising composition recalls Ellsworth Kelly’s little collages, small studies for big, resolutely abstract paintings made by gluing torn papers onto picture postcards, blown up to monumental scale. While Kelly’s formal, abstract geometries investigated how things look, Fisher’s suggest unexposed narratives.
The murmuring tension she achieves between the experience of public and private spaces seems very L.A. Grinding anxiety might be the show’s byword.
Where: Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: Thursdays-Sundays, through July 14
Info: (323) 644-6269, lamag.org
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