Bahai News -- Mixed media, mixed race June 27, 2003


Mixed media, mixed race

Lezley Saar at Jan Baum, Jonathan Torgovnik at Stephen Cohen Gallery and more.

Lezley Saar
(Jack Rutberg Fine Arts)

Detail from a photograph by Jonathan Torgovnik.
(Stephen Cohen Gallery)

Detail from another of Torgovnik's photographs
(Stephen Cohen Gallery)

Tempera on paper, an untitled work (1968) by pioneering American artist Mark Tobey (1890-1976).
(Jack Rutberg Fine Arts)

An untitled work (2003) by William Leavitt
(Margo Leavin Gallery)
By Christopher Knight, Times Staff Writer

Mixed media, the term for art that refuses formal aesthetic purity by drawing upon whatever combination of materials an artist decides might be useful, is given a wickedly comic spin in a recent body of work by Lezley Saar. Her subject matter does the trick.

Replace "mixed media" with "mulatto," and the nature of individual human identity is transformed from a categorical state of being into something far more pertinent: a lively, pungent predicament. "Mulatto Nation," Saar's third and strongest solo show at Jan Baum Gallery, is history rewritten as a Swiftian satire. Neither black nor white is ever pristine in this tale, and everyone is, quite literally, soiled.

Take the acid diorama that commemorates a fictionalized textbook event from the nation's founding, "The Mulattoville Tea Party," in which "the Lilyskins" refused to pay unfair taxes on tar imposed by the United States. Saar has scattered a dozen white baby dolls across a sandy field, where they romp and splash in oozing puddles of pitch. In their struggle for economic liberation, the Lilyskins become tar babies — figures common in African-derived tales, where wax or rubber lures are used to trap a rascal, yet characters also twisted into the perverse guise of a racial slur. The audience for "The Mulattoville Tea Party" slyly embodies the unwitting rapscallion, who will inevitably get entangled in the sticky goo of racial politics.

In addition to three dioramas, the show includes collages made with antiquarian books as their principal support. Saar has long made art from books, and her tar-baby diorama evokes literary precedents as diverse as Joel Chandler Harris and Toni Morrison. "Tale of the Tragic Mulatto" depicts a disturbing family genealogy painted on a large field of texts affixed together. Nearby, a single painted book cover shows the wintry cave where lurks that freakish eight-legged creature of universal pity, "The White Sheep of the Family." As a whole, "Mulatto Nation" is a deft metaphor for compelling art, which always courts ambiguity and complexity.

The weak link in the show is "The Mulatto Nation Gift Shop," a store open for business in the last room. The exhibition originated (in a larger version) at Swarthmore College's List Gallery, so the shift in context from museum to commercial space may have undercut its impact. It's now a store within a store.

Amid the coffee mugs, zebra-patterned accessories and other jokey knickknacks, a witty bumper sticker declares that "Mulattos are always half right." It certainly hits the nail on the head. But the souvenirs are one-dimensional next to biting works of art, such as a group of five large, lavish fabric banners that celebrate Mulattoville's founding fathers and mothers. The revered ancestors range from Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln's entrepreneurial seamstress and a former slave, to sexy British pop star Tom Jones, whose tight "Welsh Afro" hair is a thing of wonder. In a gallery already filled with gifts for sale, the gift shop feels redundant.

Jan Baum Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (323) 932-0170, through June 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

A subcontinent's fantasy world

Bollywood, like Hollywood, isn't just a geographical locale but an entire cultural apparatus. India's extravagant movie industry may be centered in Bombay, but it lives and breathes in the imaginative life of the country's huge populace.

Israeli photojournalist Jonathan Torgovnik spent five years taking pictures of both the producers and consumers of Bollywood's lavish romances. Thirty-eight of those photographs are at Stephen Cohen Gallery, in an exhibition that coincides with the publication of Torgovnik's handsome book "Bollywood Dreams" (Phaidon Press). The subject is far from a novelty today, but the photographer's images are rarely stale. Most record aspects of a mass aesthetic created within the rich fantasy life of an otherwise often poverty-stricken people, and mostly they do so without resorting to familiar pop clichés.

One image shot from above shows a billboard panel spread out on the ground, still in production at a Bombay printing house. The aerial vantage gives you an elevated perspective that's as godly and omniscient as the cinema deities portrayed in the billboard below — an astonishingly gorgeous woman swooning in the arms of an impossibly handsome man. The monumental picture is set on broken concrete, surrounded by seemingly indifferent workers and with a parallel line of laundry hanging nearby. At the center of the mundane pictorial world, the sleek perfection of the fantasy couple beats like a romantic heart.

Another photograph portrays the agitated street life outside a theater as a swirling blur of color and light. Billboards celebrating the larger-than-life movie characters inside rise above the blur, like heat from pavement. Each seems a projection of the other — the billboards imagined by the people, the people by the billboards. Street life and movie life are represented as twin fantasies of remarkable verve.

Reportedly, on any given day an average of 14 million Indians will be found inside one movie theater or another. When Torgovnik photographs a projectionist in the booth, no wonder he's positioned in front of the projector so that its circular reel forms a halo behind his head. He is in fact a kind of demigod.

Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., (323) 937-5525, through July 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Spiritual unity finds visual form

Mark Tobey (1890-1976), the great but underappreciated pioneer of American abstraction, assumes increasing significance as art continues to globalize. At the close of World War I, he converted to the Bahai faith. Later he began to study Chinese brush painting and, in 1934, traveled to China and Japan to study Zen Buddhism. In his own uniquely personal and spiritual brand of art, aspects of Kandinsky and Klee merged with Asian concepts of natural unity.

At Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, 66 works from the final 15 years of Tobey's life are on view. Most are prints and modest drawings or paintings on paper. They come from the estate of Hans Burkhardt, which is held by the gallery. The Swiss-born, L.A.-based artist befriended Tobey late in life, and archival photographs and letters are also displayed.

Almost all the works are abstract, although intimations of recognizable forms sometimes crop up. An untitled 1968 tempera painting on paper, for example, is composed of layers of linear interlace in white, black and tan on mottled tones of pink and blue. A dormant profile seems to float into view, like something moving in the underbrush, although it's not directly described.

That's a compelling feature of Tobey's art. Emphasis is laid upon simplicity, from which a radiant complexity emerges. Bahaism, which advocates a merger of all religions and an international language and government, finds one kind of visual form in Tobey's art.

The most beautiful work in the show, painted when Tobey was 80, is a mottled blend of tempera and monotype composed of deep peach and black marks. Painted on a narrow vertical sheet, which subtly suggests a doorway rather than a window, the crinkled surface also recalls an ancient wall, which would block passage. Likewise, the peach and black markings oscillate between positive form and negative space. In this lovely work, the void is not empty but full, a material presence that can be deeply experienced if not wholly grasped.

Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, 357 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 938-5222, through Saturday.

Scrolling through today's image glut

At Margo Leavin Gallery, nine new drawings by William Leavitt have the surface appearance of being from the first half of the 20th century. Partly it's a result of the chosen medium: black crayon on cream-colored paper. Partly it's the subject matter: homage to such early Modern masters as Picasso, Pevsner, De Chirico and Magritte. And partly it's the Surrealist-inspired collision of enigmatic objects in bleak landscapes: a vacuum cleaner and a fuzzy face with a dog park spreading out behind, or a weeping Cubist head and gym equipment before a desert expanse.

Despite the backward glance, however, Leavitt's drawings seem totally of our moment. They juggle fragments of the image glut that characterizes contemporary life, our dizzying Plato's cave.

Leavitt draws in a flat, two-dimensional manner, as if he's not looking directly at people, places and things but at photographs, reproductions or other representations of them. These phantoms are arrayed along wide horizontal sheets — each drawing is 11 inches by 30 inches — like slides projected on a wide screen. The Western concept of a panorama meets the Eastern idea of a scroll, while the stationary viewpoint of the former tugs against the voyaging eye of the latter. Into the mix, Leavitt deftly tosses assorted Mayan and Indian deities — the better to keep viewers conceptually off-balance.

These cosmopolitan drawings are mere bagatelles, yet they possess a sophistication and complexity of thought more commonly associated with major efforts. The result is a small gem of a show.

©Copyright 2003, Los Angeles Times (CA, USA)

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