Kori Newkirk at Museum of California Art

Times Art Critic

Ephemeral, transient, fugitive -- a central theme in Kori Newkirk‘s Conceptual art resonates through various forms. Thirty-one photographs, beaded curtains, neon lights, murals, collages and video projections made since 1997 constitute his modest traveling survey at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. If the show feels somewhat thin, look again: The subject of dislocated estrangement makes it so.

The Bronx-born, L.A.-based artist is most closely identified with the beaded curtains, perhaps because of their eccentric materials -- long strands of synthetic hair strung with colored plastic beads. (The artist has cited Stevie Wonder and Venus Williams as inspirations, and he has described his work as “ghetto-fabulous Conceptualism.”) “Jubilee” (1999) was the first, and in some respects it’s an anomaly: brightly hued and nearly abstract rather than descriptive of leafy green landscapes and Tiepolo skies, like many of the others.

“Jubilee” is a lovely, smeary wall of yellow, orange and blue. A loose image forms, evoking a roaring conflagration -- flames against sky. L.A.'s 1992 uprising in the wake of the Rodney King beating trial was one motivation. The beaded curtain is the kind that might be hung across a doorway rather than against a wall, as the artist displays these Conceptual “paintings.” The result suggests art as a veil of passage -- a trial by fire.

Newkirk’s landscape curtains are less dramatic, although journeys are still implied. One curtain is a contemplative view through tall evergreens toward a patch of pale blue, another a dark glimpse into a forest clearing, a third a few spare trees silhouetted against clouds. In a fourth, just the dappled clouds themselves flicker into view. A symbolic narrative of personal enlightenment or transformation is subtle but inescapable, while a quiet tension between urban materials and bucolic subject suggests an escapist dream.

The work has a formal and theoretical relationship to art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose nonfigurative beaded curtains used sparkly color to refer to sacred substances such as blood, water and light. Gonzalez-Torres, who died in 1996, not yet 40, established the formal language that much of Newkirk’s work employs. For both, art is a mirage with a quiet political dimension, but it does not moralize.

Basketball is another frequent subject, prompted by the common but erroneous assumption that Newkirk, as a tall African American male, would be an avid fan or player. Despite the racial and gendered stereotyping, his alienation from the sport is poignant and provocative, especially in a charged pair of phallic photographs of basketballs lying still on an empty asphalt court.

Two sculptures of paired basketball hoops replace the nets with woven strands of hair, entangling them in a homoerotic web. In addition to Gonzalez-Torres’ sexualized pairing of common objects, these works also recall David Hammons’ decorated backboards and Lorna Simpson’s photographic meditations on the semiotics of black hair.

Less successful is Newkirk’s foray into contrasting themes of whiteness, which take such punning forms as snow and representations of great white sharks, but to scant effect. (A white neon cube of icicles is wryly titled “Maybury” apparently to skewer the all-white North Carolina town of TV-sitcom fame.) The puns are more resonant in “Void of Silence,” a large photograph of a black hand with crossed fingers against a white background; crossed fingers simultaneously imply a fervent human hope and art’s inevitable falsehood.

The most arresting works in the show, initiated by Pasadena’s Fellows of Contemporary Art and organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem, are two recent short videos. In one, Newkirk walks an urban alley in the dark of night, dragging a pair of clattering intravenous stands entwined with lights. The ghostly neon processional casts the artist’s isolation as the strange, even morbid journey of a monstrous phantom.

In the other video, he becomes an actual chimera, flitting through the grass in a park-like setting reminiscent of the landscapes in his beaded curtains while clad only in a silver thong, glitter spewing from his mouth. The frenetic, flash-cut editing makes this puckish parody of self-regard into a magical midsummer daydream.

Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., (626) 568-3665, through Sept. 14. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Mexico, reflected in Pineda’s silver

“Silver Seduction: The Art of Mexican Modernist Antonio Pineda,” at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, is a large -- more than 200 examples -- and illuminating survey of remarkable jewelry designs. William Spratling (1900-67) is credited with launching the fashion for handcrafted Mexican silver in 1930, when the New Orleans architect opened a workshop in the venerable mining town of Taxco, 45 miles southwest of the country’s capital. Many celebrated Mexican silversmiths emerged, among them Héctor Aguilar, Valentín Vidaurreta, Antonio Castillo, Margot de Taxco and Jean Puiforcat, a favorite of compulsive collector Andy Warhol. The Fowler show, organized by the museum with consulting curator Gobi Stromberg, makes a compelling case that the work of Taxco-born designer Pineda, 89, represents the art’s zenith.

The discovery of vast repositories of gold and, especially, silver drove Spain’s colonial development -- and exploitation -- of Mexico at the end of the 16th century. Over the next 300 years, the stuff was shipped to Europe by the ton. After the 1910-20 revolution, silver steadily emerged as a kind of national emblem, representing something both indigenous and lost. Adventurous designers crafted jewelry in the fashionable, organic styles of Art Nouveau and Art Deco or, rejecting the European influence that had caused such misery, pre-Columbian motifs.

It took a generation for Pineda’s work to mature. By the 1940s, he was making lovely, simple pieces, such as a fan-shaped silver-and-inlaid-amethyst necklace with matching bracelet, their scooped shapes derived from traditional clay roofing tiles. But by the end of the decade, his work took off -- big, bold forms, often melding indigenous natural elements (armadillo scales, rattlesnake tails) with industrial gears and machine parts. What had been lost and what was indigenous were given an eloquent, productive industrial edge.

Pineda’s Modernist designs have physical heft, leavened by the reflective qualities of silver, translucent moonstones and inky black onyx. Clasps are hidden, and exquisitely placed gemstones seem to float. His best jewelry is imposing, making its social and cultural meanings declarative rather than frothy or frivolous.

For instance, a chunky bracelet of matchstick-shapes tipped in onyx cabochons seems potentially explosive. Pineda is fond of saying that Spratling lighted the fuse of Taxco silver smithing, so it’s remarkable to see him happily playing with matches.

This impressive show includes informative videos and photographs as well as some table setting and flatware designs. The only thing missing is a video showing Pineda’s jewelry being worn. A designer of his consummate skill would make the interaction of flesh, mineral, motion and light an integral feature of his aesthetic. Bodily embellishment is what jewelry is for, after all, and display cases instead emphasize the look of a treasury.

UCLA Fowler Museum, North Campus, (310) 825-4361, through March 15. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Mental exercise; Abts is the trainer

Thomas Nozkowski has been making exceptional small-scale abstract paintings since the 1970s, while Steve Roden is one younger artist who has been at it since the late 1980s. So it’s a bit disconcerting to come upon the modest exhibition of work from the last decade by hip German English painter Tomma Abts at the UCLA Hammer Museum. Organized by New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, the show is pitched as “an intriguing antidote to the florid figuration that has dominated the contemporary painting discourse in the last decade.”

That’s true only if “the discourse” has been limited to art prominent on the trading floors in London and New York.

Abts’ 15 perfectly pleasant, sometimes rather pedestrian small abstractions (each just under 19 by 15 inches) marshal a palette of tertiary colors -- azure, rose, aquamarine -- to perform illusionistic tricks. She often employs geometric formats such as zigzags, starbursts and loop-de-loops that cast shadows, implied or real (from ridges of paint), across the canvas. Wearing its smarts on its sleeve, this is painting as mental exercise -- or, more egoistically, as mind game.

These gymnastics seem to provide the work’s true, if submerged, appeal. Abstract painting, after years in the wilderness, returned to prominence by the late 1990s in the wake of critical reevaluations of the power and usefulness of pleasure and lush beauty. Abts instead gives us mordant color and conceptual pedigree, a dryly puritanical antidote to pleasure if ever there was one.

UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, (310) 443-7000, through Nov. 9. Closed Mondays. A tropical visit to Burkhardt

Swiss-born painter Hans Burkhardt (1904-94) joined the faculty at Cal State Northridge in the early 1960s and upon his death bequeathed hundreds of drawings and paintings to the school. Twenty-seven canvases dating from the 1930s and after, as well as a large selection of works on paper, show his evolving blend of Cubist structure, Expressionist brushwork and Surrealist sensibility.

The most compelling painting is the most Gorky-like (Burkhardt was a close friend of Arshile Gorky, with whom he shared a New York studio in the 1930s). “Tropical Landscape” (1955-56) creates heat through shattered color and considered brushwork that flips between clear line and fluttery movement. Burkhardt traveled often in Mexico, and this painting evokes rather than depicts its southern climes.

The show is somewhat erratic, given the haphazard nature of Burkhardt’s bequest, but it touches on interests as diverse as Picasso and antiwar politics. “Tropical Landscape” makes it worth the visit.

CSUN Art Gallery, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge, (818) 677-2156, through Oct. 11. Closed Sundays.

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