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Seeing is Deceiving

Left of Center: New Art From Los Angeles

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Left of Center: New Art From Los Angeles
at Ten in One Gallery, through
February 17

Fifteen years ago, on a boat trip along the Labrador coast, I went from observing the sea on deck to the only lounge, where a TV was blaring. The Jerry Lewis movie on the tube and the view of icebergs out the lounge portholes were two of the most irreconcilable images I've ever encountered together. Most of us can come up with similar instances of dislocation: our age is awash in images, few of which match up. And as the mass media's influence becomes more pervasive, "real" things--restaurants, homes, entire communities--become more theatrical. With so many "shows" going on, views of reality often begin to seem just another display. Eventually TV, the movie screen, or the computer monitor--not the real world--starts to seem the primary source of images.

No region is more at the forefront of this way of seeing than southern California, home of the movie industry and the original Disneyland: consider gallery owner Joel Leib's coherent, witty show of 13 works by 12 young Angelinos at Ten in One Gallery. These pieces, in which there's always something not quite right, both cause a smile and mirror some of the inherent contradictions in our world.

Miles Coolidge's Unoccupied Storefronts is a color photo of what looks like a movie set, but all the buildings' windows are blacked out. And the scale seems odd: a tree in the background suggests that the buildings are too small. As it turns out, this is a photo of Safetyville, a faux town near Sacramento intended to instruct children in traffic safety, and Coolidge crouched down to photograph it. The buildings' pale colors are gentle and inviting, but the black windows conceal and rebuff: this empty street is both pleasantly bland and vaguely threatening--it could reflect almost any mood.

In most of these works, as in Coolidge's, oddities of scale and subject are used less to make an emotional statement about content than to engage us in looking, reminding us that things are never what they seem. Tricia Todd's photo Zebra is not the prone live animal it first appears to be but a child's toy lying on the ground. It looks like a fallen giant; it also looks like a bug. The "zebra" is not realistically detailed to begin with, and the shallow focus, rendering most of the zebra and ground fuzzy, suggests that we're looking at something very small. The familiar postmodern point is that a real zebra, a child's toy, and photographs of either have become equivalent, but Todd makes this equivalence unsettling, ironically monumentalizing a fallen toy that in itself is as indistinct as a discarded scrap of paper.

For most of these 12 artists, nature has been buried under our images of it and our glut of mass-manufactured objects. Bill Radawec told an interviewer, "I really don't like nature. To me to look at the trees outside my window is as good as to be out there." His Walking Stick #8 is topped with a tiny tree--an actual twig covered with a green synthetic material for leaves--that looks like a bonsai. To use this object as a walking stick would damage the tree; one could see the piece as a statement against walking, expressing a preference for the artist's static image of nature. I thought of the stick's tiny, round flat top as a miniature world covered with fake grass and sporting a fake tree: nature tamed, defused, reduced. And Laura Whipple's versions of stuffed animals in her "Childhood (Archaeology)" series are at two removes from the natural world. She writes that Dog Mummy and White Rabbit Mummy, which she made herself, are tributes to children's "great devotion and love," but these limbless creatures, casketlike torsos with heads, seem defanged, powerless. Even stuffed animals, it seems, must be filtered through another cultural reference. But the dog's black-and-white spots, the rabbit's floppy ears, give these critters a lovable, lively look that's at odds with their mummy shapes.

Whipple's animals also call to mind our culture's material proliferation, as does Chris Finley's untitled wall piece. He's arranged hundreds of pencil stubs in concentric circles on the face of a clock (a gallery representative will show you the back on request). Around the rim of the clock Finley mounted pieces of jigsaw puzzles, some of them assembled, evoking a rich skein of references: to circularity and time, to order and disorder. But the work never gets beyond its own physicality; there are too many pencils, and the surface is too busy. Which is perhaps Finley's point: our material culture has rendered abstract thought somewhat irrelevant. Finley's "clock" resembles a room-sized installation of his I saw recently, a kind of labyrinth of pop objects--Tupperware, photographs, and much else--through which one was encouraged to wander. His clock too fills one's senses, blotting out everything else. Another, arguably abstract work in the show is likewise aggressively physical and tied to our commercial culture. Michael Gonzales's Comp. w/Y, B and R #28 is a forest of dots in yellow, blue, and red on three transparent sheets, each one sandwiched between two sheets of Plexiglas. In past art these primal abstract forms might have stood for some spiritual truth, but here they're simply Wonder Bread muffin wrappers--signs of a manufactured commercial product.

Dani Tull's Decorated Model Units: Master Planned Community, Southern California is a group of three photos taken at actual model homes; here the incongruities were part of the sites, giving the work a particular vividness. One photo shows an overdecorated, grotesquely perfect little boy's bedroom. In another, two chairs face a gazebo on which a few vines are starting to grow, but the chairs' legs are tied together. In the third, an antiseptic living room with a couch and drapes in matching floral patterns features a pair of binoculars sitting on the coffee table facing the windows. These sterile, "perfect" suburban environments reveal what they're intended to exclude: the messy, out-of-control id, poking through in hints of voyeurism and bondage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo courtesy of ACME, Santa Monica, and Ten in One Gallery.

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