When Claes Oldenburg was just getting started as an artist, he made small drawings of gigantic sculptures that he dreamed about installing in public places. Gluing these pictures to photographs of real parks and plazas let viewers imagine that they actually existed. Like all great works of Conceptual art, the magic happened in the mind’s eye.
At Richard Heller Gallery, Devin Troy Strother does something similar, but even more ambitious. In 69 terrifically generous pictures of people doing all sorts of things, the young artist acts as if he were bandleader, movie director, party host, master of ceremonies and king of the world.
Nearly all of Strother’s freewheeling works begin with 6-inch-tall paper dolls he makes by hand. Most are women, most are black and many are naked. Just about everyone is having a great time. But strife and struggle enter some settings, which include dancehalls and slave ships, kitchens and museums, bedrooms and bars. Strother is a Realist who is neither afraid of fun nor convinced that seriousness and silliness are at odds.
Laugh-out-loud moments abound. One series re-creates 12 highlights of art history — Joseph Beuys caged with a coyote, Chris Burden getting shot, Yves Klein using nude women as paintbrushes. The only difference between the actual events and Strother’s revisions of them is that the famous artists are now black.
Another series features Tyrone, an ordinary guy who embarks on variously mortifying misadventures. And a third, which includes large works on linen, canvas and panel, stars Moesha and Laquisha, whose discussion of aesthetics (played out in Strother’s elaborate titles) is both insightful and sidesplitting.
A master at getting the most out of his materials, Strother uses paper dolls figuratively and formally: as stand-ins for flesh-and-blood folks and as elements of abstract compositions. Multi-tasking, like the rest of us, his little figures are part of the social fabric out of which all our lives are woven.
Richard Heller Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 453-9191, through Nov. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.richardhellergallery.com