Review: Cindy Stelmackowich at Kristi Engle Gallery

Special to The Times

Bizarre, haunting and beautiful, Cindy Stelmackowich‘s exhibition of digital collages at Kristi Engle combines detailed 19th century anatomical illustrations with vintage disaster scenes or intensely colored art glass vessels. The results are richly layered, visually intricate images rife with historical and philosophical associations.

“Great Fire at Montreal -- July 9, 1852" features a black-and-white illustration of the head and torso of a tranquil young man. With eyes closed and arms crossed beneath exquisitely rendered folds of cloth, he appears to be asleep. But this peaceful demeanor belies the gaping hole in his chest and the red-tinted image of a burning building overlaid on his exposed organs. Billowing smoke and shooting flames echo and merge with clumps and sheets of flesh; the body becomes a window onto history.

The images connect medical science with 19th century technologies that led to industrialization as well as modern warfare and other unprecedented disasters. By combining images of anatomical dissection with the dark side of industrial and imperial expansion, the Canadian artist reveals their shared roots in the arrogance of unchecked progress. In an election year when healthcare and war are hot-button issues, these works are a particularly apt reminder that technologies that heal may also harm.

To be sure, some of the pairings feel forced, and the images’ poster-size scale and dramatic coloring are at times a bit too jewel-like and precious. But Stelmackowich is at her best when her collages reveal the unexpected sexual subtext of both medical and technological development.

One stunning example is “The Wreck of the Underley Off the Isle of Wight, England -- 1866,” in which the bow of a careening ship slices into the body of a whale. This tableau is embedded in the abdomen of a female torso whose flayed skin frames the scene like petals or skeins of spun candy. It’s an image of penetration on at least three levels: the ship’s collision with the whale, the dissection itself and the suggestive placement of the phallic ship inside a woman’s body.

This sexual charge is already evident in the illustrations themselves (which would be fascinating on their own). In another collage, vagina-shaped incisions in a woman’s neck and shoulders (pierced with rods, clamps and a finger, no less) are accompanied by a seemingly gratuitous nipple peeking out from a cloth draped across the woman’s torso. The image must have been striking even before Stelmackowich added the scene from the battle of Waterloo that appears tattooed across the woman’s chest.

The show’s other set of prints, which combine medical illustrations with vibrantly hued glass vessels, are less obviously historical but no less rich. The press release says they “evoke the notion of a missing life/soul from the empty human vessel on display,” but their effect is actually more visceral.

Stelmackowich has chosen the vases wisely, echoing and complementing the shapes found in the drawings. Rather than point out what’s missing, they amplify the aesthetic appeal of the dissected bodies. The male figure in “Cyan,” for example, appears to emerge from a pale blue vase that looks like a block of ice. His ribs are severed and his lungs exposed, but his arms are bound atop his head in a pose that suggests erotic abandon. The image is not unlike Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave” snaking up from its raw marble pedestal with intimations of bondage, sex and death.

With their emotional appeal, the vintage illustrations reflect the ambivalence of their era toward the dehumanizing effects of science. Their serene, classically posed figures, complete with hair and other identifying features, rest peacefully despite their state of disassembly. This respect for the humanity of the dead, even as they are turned into objects of study, is a far cry from today’s equivalent: the flayed, anonymous, hyperactive figures of “Body Worlds.” In their poetic approach to the underpinnings of our scientific worldview, Stelmackowich’s works remind us that it wasn’t always so.

Kristi Engle Gallery, 5002 York Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 472-6237, through Sept. 27. Closed Sundays through Wednesdays. Desert oases of California

From “The Twilight Zone” to “Star Wars,” the California desert has often provided a backdrop for sci-fi imaginations, both apocalyptic and sublime. The exhibition “Desertshore” at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Gallery holds up a prism to this fantasy, fracturing the romance of wide-open spaces in myriad, far-flung directions. With works by 15 L.A. artists, including Andrea Zittel, Mungo Thomson and Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn, the show is loosely organized around the tension between progress and entropy.

The most successful works treat the subject with a light hand. You might almost miss Mark Hagen‘s installation: a drop ceiling of white institutional tiles dotted with neon-colored water stains. Both pretty and sad, its bright, perhaps toxic decay also evokes abstract painting. Similarly understated, Euan Macdonald‘s tightly focused video of a snail’s progress from one edge of the screen to the other is a 6 1/2 -minute epic that both mocks and celebrates efforts to advance. David Hullfish Bailey‘s grainy black-and-white digital prints document the circumference of the Free Library in Slab City, an RV park near Palm Springs. The sequential views of brush, makeshift walls and open-air bookshelves quietly reveal an idiosyncratic cultural outpost on the edge of dissolution.

At times, the show ranges a bit too far afield. The inclusion of Mario Ybarra Jr.‘s wall of dance club fliers is mystifying, and Christopher Michlig‘s abstract interpretations of street kiosks and posters seem less like comments on dystopia than formal experiments with space and language. But in a show that celebrates entropy and decay, perhaps a little unruliness is to be expected.

Luckman Gallery, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive, (323) 343-6604, through Oct. 18. Closed Fridays. Communication can be so abstract

In an engrossing show at Honor Fraser, L.A. artist Alexandra Grant takes her trademark fusion of language and abstraction into new territory. In contrast to the all-over scrawl of earlier works, these latest coalesce into forms that vaguely suggest the physical entities for which they are named.

The words in “Fifth Portal (body),” for instance, mirror each other in fleshy pinks and reds, pulsing outward to form a rough diamond. “Fourth Portal (tongue)” is even more explicit: a bright pink circle on a shimmering black ground.

Each of the six large works on paper is based on a sutra, or meditation, corresponding to the five senses and the mind. The texts, in English, Spanish and French (Grant translates them herself), were written by her frequent collaborator, Michael Joyce, but one is hard-pressed to make any sense of them. Scrambled, written backward and often encased in thickly painted ovals, the words become abstract figures among an assortment of other graphic motifs -- stripes, cubes, drips and dots -- reminding us that language is another form of abstraction.

Still, the paintings are also about communication and its attendant frustrations. Each painting becomes a sort of membrane -- a portal -- between two parties, placing the viewer on the inside of a conversation. The words that appear backward to us are ostensibly legible to our partner on the other side, even if they accumulate so quickly and haphazardly as to be nonsensical to both of us.

Grant captures, impressively, both the building blocks of communication and the vertigo of being swept up in its currents.

Honor Fraser, 2622 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 837-0191, through Oct. 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Erasing an image, drawing another

A large wall text in the middle of Kerry James Marshall‘s exhibition at Koplin Del Rio declares the Chicago painter’s intention to address the absence of black people as romantic subjects in art history. To this end, three paintings (and their corresponding studies) insert African American figures -- in Afros and contemporary dress -- into idyllic country settings reminiscent of 18th century Rococo. But the show goes beyond this simple substitution to explore images of black men and women that are typically overburdened by stereotypes.

For one thing, the paintings’ nostalgia is double: both a longing for a romance denied and an evocation of the idealism of the civil rights and black power era. The scenarios are sweet -- couples playing hide-and-seek, holding hands or lying among daisies -- but Marshall prevents us from being totally immersed in the fantasy by blotting out large sections of each image with broad swaths of cotton-candy pink. These suggest a sentimental halo around the couples, but they also threaten erasure.

Other works include masterful portraits -- two of men, two of women -- and selections from an ongoing series of comic-strip-style inkjet prints. In sharp contrast to the idylls at the center of the show, both traffic in hackneyed portrayals of “angry black men” and sassy, oversexed “hos.” Yet through clever juxtapositions and sensitive brushwork, Marshall manages to bring forth a humor and a humanity that transcend those limited roles, pointing to a way of relating somewhere in between the stereotypical and the ideal.

Koplin Del Rio, 6031 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 836-9055, through Oct. 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.