Reviews: Stephen Vitiello’s installation art at MC

SOUNDSCAPES: Stephen Vitiello's and Julie Mehretu's "Untitled #2" (2007) is part of an exhibit at MC Kunst in Culver City.
SOUNDSCAPES: Stephen Vitiello’s and Julie Mehretu’s “Untitled #2" (2007) is part of an exhibit at MC Kunst in Culver City.
(Stephen Vitiello / MC Kunst)
Special to The Times

What more can you ask of a work of art than that it alter your breath -- that it first make you aware of your own breathing and then slow it, shape it, sculpt it?

Stephen Vitiello‘s show at MC is revelatory in that most visceral way. It doesn’t just appear before you but instead engenders a kind of reciprocal occupation: You enter its realm and, in turn, the work makes its way into both body and mind.

Vitiello’s chief media are sound and site. For this show, he collaborated with two artists and a lighting designer to produce three distinct installations, each a “duet.” Two of the three pieces are thoroughly absorbing.

“Four Color Sound,” made in collaboration with Jeremy Choate, is minimal, even purist, but sensually expansive. Choate orchestrated the shifting colors, rhythms and intensities of 10 LED light boxes evenly spaced along the inner perimeter of a gallery. Vitiello choreographed the accompanying audio, a 24-minute cycle of field recordings and synthesized sound on five channels emitted from six wall-mounted speakers. Fog curls in from a machine tucked just out of sight.

The lights stutter and blink. They pulse and run laps. They intensify and bathe the space in one pure Turrell-like chromatic glow at a time: red, gold, green and blue. Though they’re the silent components of the piece, still the lights seem to scream and sigh. Meanwhile, the air is thick with a cicada-like buzz. Then the sound of water pouring, footsteps, birdcalls, perhaps a flute, a rattle, a static flutter, beeping, buzzing, a siren, drumbeats, an electronic hum.

The installation feels like an immersive theater piece, with light, color and sound contributing atmosphere, character and plot. The work unfurls through time, building tension, then easing back into a more meditative, mellow mood. The texture of sound becomes palpable: One moment feels viscous, another sharp. Layers weave together into a dense, fluid fabric of sensation. The piece performs itself anew around and through each visitor.

In the adjacent gallery, Vitiello, a professor of kinetic imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University, has teamed up with Julie Mehretu to create a stunning, untitled installation that feels like an ode to tempestuous earthly motion. Mehretu’s large wall drawing suggests wind, rain or fire thrusting through a grassy field. The inky dashes and ashen streaks have the immediacy and calligraphic vigor of Japanese ink painting.

In front of the image’s long wall, Vitiello has suspended a dozen speakers in a row at various heights and angles, so they constitute a visual wave, the path of a windblown hat or tossed-about spores. The interiors of the speakers pulse but emit no discernible sound. Wall-mounted speakers facing Mehretu’s drawing crackle and pop and play a montage of sound (natural and synthesized) resonant with the image’s evocations of flight, energy, grace and force.

Finally, but least impressively, Vitiello’s collaboration with Tony Oursler hangs on a wall in the gallery’s entry area. Twenty-five 3-inch speakers freckle the wall, each finger-painted with a simple face by Oursler, a badder boy than this benign effort indicates. Wires jut from the speakers like limbs or dangle from them like the strings of balloons, but that doesn’t really matter. The sounds the speakers project are not distinct (especially so near to the larger light installation), and “Crazy Wall Thing” feels silly and tame and not nearly crazy enough. But the one-dimensionality of this small installation is more than compensated for by the two other richly layered works. Both are subtle, surprisingly gripping, open-ended opportunities to breathe, listen and feel.

MC, 6086 Comey Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 939-3777, through Aug. 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Cubist videos end in tedium

Doug Henry and Joe Potts pay homage to Cubism in their new collaborative video work at Cardwell Jimmerson. They bring Picasso and Braque’s fractured planes and multiple, simultaneous perspectives up to date, technologically, through hyper-speed cuts and snazzy graphic effects. Yet the results are dispiriting and flat -- overworked spectacles for the era of acquired attention deficit disorder.

The centerpiece of the show re-imagines the early 20th century Cubist still life of fruit, guitars and table coverings in early 21st century terms, as a layered barrage of projected images. Four projectors spit out close-up shots of bananas and oranges and guitar necks in rapid-fire succession, superimposed atop one another. The irony of a quick-motion still life sparkles briefly but then fizzles into a hammering headache of a one-liner.

A series of video pieces of dancers is more sophisticated -- technically -- but also more tedious. Shown in a row of digital picture frames, the works each extrapolate from a central image of a dancer, breaking down and recombining her movements in a collage of spinning and twirling planes against a nebulous background of color, light and floating letters. The artists, both based in L.A. and rich in cumulative experience in video, sound, music and performance, clearly had fun at the editing table, but little of their enthusiasm trickles down into the experience of this work.

Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, 8568 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 815-1100, through Aug. 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Reaping what they sew

“The Horror of Tradition” makes for a provocative exhibition title, and a focus on needlework further preloads this show at Andrew Shire with substantive issues relating to gender, handwork and tradition. But the show only sporadically lives up to its name and theme. Each of the five artists has adopted stitchery of one sort or another as a subversive tool, a pathway to social critique or humor.

Sophia Allison‘s wrestler masks suck a little macho heroism out of the lucha libre mystique and replace it with everyday feminine concerns about hygiene and safety. As if draping a doily over a fist, Allison sews her masks and capes out of sanitary pads, pantyhose, bra hooks and Band-Aids.

Two small needlepoint portraits of female characters from horror films aren’t enough to give much of a feel for Starlie Geikie‘s work, nor is Evelyn Serrano‘s shirt, embroidered after being acquired in trade from a homeless man, given enough context for the social significance of her performance/action to emerge.

Liz Young‘s coat sewn from stuffed animal pelts is a hoot, especially with its errant ear flaps and plastic eyes. Her stitchery of such farm pests as locusts and rats onto the covers of old farming magazines is visual kin to Ghada Amer’s sexually explicit work, only less charged.

Finally, Robert Fontenot plays off the sampler style of stitchery (à la Elaine Reichek) in a series of panels with modern decorative needlework (mis)matched to discomfiting words, such as “perfidy,” “rot” and “schadenfreude.” His decomposing American flag, embellished with floral appliqués and designated “beautified” as opposed to beautiful, provides the show’s most poignant, reflective moment.

Andrew Shire Gallery, 3850 Wilshire Blvd., No. 107, Los Angeles, (213) 389-2601, through Sept. 6. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

A sprawling, satisfying show

Summer group shows don’t have to be like so-called summer reading -- purposely light, unworthy of the serious attention expected during the rest of the year -- but all too many of them are. “Looky See,” at Otis’ Ben Maltz Gallery, is a refreshing exception. Smart and consistently interesting, it offers plenty of spirited pleasures without ever insulting the visitor’s intelligence.

Meg Linton, director of the gallery, organized the show with curatorial intern Nina Laurinolli. They came up with a roster of 28 artists from L.A. and beyond, some with deep local exposure and others with very little, who “draw, cut, film, pin, perforate, perform and journal.” Material engagement is largely what unifies the group, which settles thoughtfully into clusters around notions of exuberant energy (Ann Diener, Penelope Gottlieb, Aaron Noble, Erin Marie Dunn, Emily de Araújo, Mindy Shapero), performative gesture (Barbara Berk, Takehito Koganezawa), diaristic notation (Fred Stonehouse, Tucker Neel) and the vulnerabilities of the social/political/religious status quo (Sandow Birk, Joe Biel, Eric Beltz, Richard Keely and Anna O’Cain).

Iva Gueorguieva‘s “Sprawl” installation is a standout. Layered, raw-edged drawings on paper and canvas spread across a wall, draping small speakers and ending near the floor beside two structures built of wood scrap. Grace and beauty jostle urbanity and contingency to compelling effect. Elizabeth Turk‘s long vertical scroll drawing of twisting vines is another gem. It unfurls like Rapunzel’s tresses from a window near the gallery ceiling, a gorgeous study in persistence.

The luxurious, inexhaustible line also animates Ron Santos’ ink drawings, which suggest webs, nets and spontaneous organic complexes. The biological and the botanical thread through the show -- analogues of the determination and generative energy that produced this exciting array of work. Also included are Roy Dowell, Erica Eyres, Claudia Nieto, Chris Oatey, Ruby Osorio, Ebony Patterson, Fran Siegel, Coleen Sterritt, Randal Thurston and Xawery Wolski.

Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 665-6905, through Sept. 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays and Aug. 30-Sept. 1.