Fred Tomaselli used pills and tablets to make Brain 
    with Flowers.
Fred Tomaselli used pills and tablets to make Brain with Flowers.
James Cohan Gallery

Hop on POP

Populence is a great word, a combination of "pop" and "opulence." Coined by a music video producer named Sharon Oreck, it originally referred to the "increasing confluence of accessibility and luxury." But David Pagel, art critic for the Los Angeles Times and a professor at Claremont Graduate University, uses the term differently, to characterize work that melds consumer culture with lush, opulent surfaces and imagery. "POPulence" became the title of the exhibition he curated at Blaffer Gallery.

"POPulence" is filled with pop-fueled, beautifully crafted opulence -- think bright, vibrant colors; lush imagery; glossy, perfect surfaces. A lot of those glossy surfaces come from a liberal use of resin. It's not just for entombing ephemera on tables in theme restaurants anymore; it's a cool material with kitsch appeal.

If you've ever used resin, you'll be really impressed with these artists' resin-pouring skills -- at least I was. The surfaces are perfect, with no bubbles screwing them up. This isn't easy to pull off.



Blaffer Gallery, 120 Fine Arts Building, University of Houston, 713-743-9530.

Through August 27

And the resin effects in the show are amazing. Fred Tomaselli follows in the restaurant-decor tradition with works that encase unlikely objects. His art would be wonderfully suited for a drug speakeasy. In 13,000 (1991), there are, allegedly, 13,000 aspirin tablets lined up on a black panel between slats, creating a striped painting. In another piece, a brain is made out of pills and tablets set against a black background. Blood-vessel-like red lines snake out to collaged flowers and pot leaves in a Slavic-looking, folkloric pattern. In Radiating Column (2000), paint, marijuana leaves, mushrooms and pills create decorative patterns in layers of resin. Tomaselli takes our palliatives and vices and seals them out of our reach under beautifully matte surfaces. He creates lovely, fanciful works with a fascinating "insect in amber" quality.

In her vividly colored abstract works, Kim Squaglia uses resin in layers to physically separate her loose, organic painted forms and create a sense of depth. Veloce (2004) has lyrical swirls and drips, while Turquine (2005) uses poured veils of clean color. They're lovely paintings. The matte resin makes them feel like objects rather than images.

The other resin proponent in the show is L.C. Armstrong. Armstrong's paintings, Happy Hour -- Heaven (2004) and Sunrise over Sleepwalkers (2005), are filled with lush tropical flowers of the Hawaiian-shirt variety set against backgrounds of water, sunsets and sunrises. The flowers have smoky, burned "stems" -- the artist apparently made them by laying bomb fuses on the canvas and igniting them, leaving blurry, burned and curving lines. More than stems, they remind you of fireworks trails, as if flower heads were being shot into space. Tiny little people that look like fairies or aliens stand in the water. The paintings have a New Age feeling to them and are beautiful in an airbrushed-mural-on-a-van kind of way. But they're sealed with a thick, shiny coat of resin that amps up the lush kitsch effect -- too far. That high-gloss coating on top of everything is overkill.

Another gloss-seeking artist in the show is Chiho Aoshima. Aoshima's digitally produced images are undermounted to Plexiglas for added luster. Her work draws on kawaii ("cute") imagery from Japanese pop culture, but it has ominous undertones. The best work, A Contented Skull (2003), depicts a girl approaching a giant skull that looks like the remains of some gargantuan big-eyed kid. The pale, luminous green skull has blossoming cherry-tree branches growing out from the eyes. The environment is a cross between a night sky and the sea floor. The imagery has a lonely and surreal aspect, but it's ultimately undercut by the work's shiny cuteness. The twee elements combined with glossy surfaces and seamless digital output are just a little too slick to give Contented Skull a toehold.

Other works in the show have nothing to do with gloss but everything to do with cartoon imagery. There are some great explosion paintings by Rachel Hecker -- riffs on the "Blam," "Pow" and "Oof" animations of Batman fight scenes -- except these are wordless, with lines and stars radiating out from an empty center. Looking at Hecker's explosions is like watching TV with the sound off.

Lari Pittman has several jam-packed works in the show. As a Woman of 60, I will have revealed the décor of my interiors (1999) is a long, horizontal work exquisitely rendered in Pittman's trademark narrative style, which draws heavily on early-'60s cartoons and graphic design. He symbolically moves through the life cycle, starting off with a sign straight out of Wile E. Coyote that reads "Danger -- Construction area." Pittman draws a kind of highly decorated mad-scientist laboratory that moves through various sections and ends in a laboratory flask labeled "Queenliness."

There are some other standout works, such as Beatriz Milhazes's paintings, which feature labored, ornate surfaces filled with concentric circular designs. But others don't succeed. I just can't get on the bandwagon for Mary Heilmann's abstract paintings. Loosely and thinly painted, they usually feel like they shouldn't have been. What is championed as a casualness too often comes across as lame and careless, especially in Lionel Hampton (2002), which feels like a first round of underpainting. And the work of Tony Berlant is the show's clunker. Berlant creates huge, labor-intensive artworks in which multicolored scraps of tin are cut and collaged onto panels. Each tiny piece is hammered in with tiny nails, and the imagery runs to abstracted trees and birds. Despite all that effort, the resulting pieces aren't interesting beyond the uniqueness of their materials.

"POPulence" has some strong work, but as you go through the show, something weird happens: It all starts to seem the same. I've been to minimalist art shows where the work didn't feel this similar. After a bit I realized that the works aren't the reason -- it's how they've been hung. For the most part, they've been spread out through Blaffer's sprawling space with one example from each artist in just about every room. It creates a sense of déjà vu as you move through the show. The scattered way the work is installed effectively blends and homogenizes the show. The catalog becomes a welcome respite, allowing you to see images of each artist's work grouped together, and letting you get a sense of it without having to flip through your visual memory.


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