West Coast Cool

A couple hundred crappy jobs ago, yours truly waited tables in Dallas with a former flight attendant who told Southwest Airlines stories while we rolled silverware. He talked about how one Halloween, the whole crew had dressed up as Coneheads, each carefully gluing on a huge pointed bald head for the 12-hour shift. They had a blast cracking up with the passengers -- that is, until they got to Los Angeles. The L.A. passengers just stared at them, making them suddenly, acutely aware that they were giving safety instructions, passing out peanuts and serving drinks while wearing large pointy plastic skulls. He summed up the experience by saying, "Everybody in L.A. was too cool to laugh."

This year's "The Big Show" at Lawndale, curated by Randy Sommer, co-founder and co-director of a commercial gallery in the City of Angels, has something of a stereotypical L.A. cool. There's a lot of art in "The Big Show" that would look really cool over your couch -- and that's not a snide "sofa art" reference. It feels like Sommer has "decorated" the gallery with art.


"The Big Show"

Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main Street

Through Saturday, August 11; 713-528-5858

While it is almost impossible for a juried show to feel as cohesive as a curated one, this one manages a fairly strong sensibility in its consistent emphasis on well-crafted, attractive objects. The works are tightly pulled together and well constructed. Sommer has chosen some good work and some underwhelming work, but nothing glaringly bad. The whole thing feels like "good taste," with banality the worst crime committed. You get the feeling Sommer is used to picking out successful work that is, incidentally, marketable.

Sommer's installation is downright sparse, an interesting change from the jam-packed, salon-style format that usually typifies "The Big Show." There are only 47 works, compared to last year's 103. You can't necessarily argue that one approach is better than the other, just different. The funky, freewheeling tone of Lawndale has been somewhat muted into a more restrained aesthetic. Fewer works also translates into fewer artists in the show, but those included have a better chance of being seen.

In the main gallery, Francesca Fuchs's Mountains (2000) received second place. Fuchs seems to consistently come up with great, well-crafted and witty paintings, or maybe she edits well. She culls her abstraction from mundane, retro sources, everything from sugar packets to '70s-era wallpaper. Here, she presents a highly stylized landscape that repeats vertically. The image -- solid-color silhouettes of mountains, trees and a dual-purpose lake and sky -- was scavenged from a decades-old sheet set. The rosy beige, dark browns and blues of the painting are just dead enough for that tinge of kitsch.

Fuchs's works combine visual pleasure with affectionate irony as they shift decorative domestic patterns into the realm of "important" abstract painting. In contrast, Elisabeth Smith's paintings offer a more traditional and earnest abstraction. Smith seems absorbed in negotiating the application of pigment and its interaction with the weave of the canvas. There is an emphasis on surface, with their worn-down jewel tones and well-worked patina. Her formal explorations of layered angular forms have the sheen of a well-waxed antique.

Working figuratively, James Jennings received an honorable mention for his Guardian Angel (2000). The black-and-white pastel of three children sitting on their mother's lap seems drawn from a vintage photograph. The smoothly blended surfaces create figures that appear to be made from highly glazed porcelain. There is something slightly askew in the drawing; the eyes are each set a little off, and rendered with a detail that makes them sparkle in a glassy, slightly creepy, hyper-real manner. The slightly distorted aspects exude a weird otherworldly quality.

The few sculptures that made it into the show continue the "tight and well crafted" theme. Katy Heinlein has angled a fluorescent orange beam precariously against the wall with its bottom end smacked neatly into a flaccid cube of stuffed beige nylon. Or maybe the beam is "penetrating" the fleshy nylon, as the title Tarquin and Lucretia suggests, a reference to Tarquin's rape of Lucretia or possibly Lucretia's stabbing herself in the aftermath.

Patrick Renner received first place for his wooden sculpture Return (2001), an 11-foot rectangular shape that lays flat on the floor with a slight bend in the middle; it feels a little like a large-scale boomerang prototype. The surface is neatly patchworked with multicolored scraps of old wood. You can imagine seeing it in a decorating magazine, in a photo depicting a Spartan loft interior. The recent HSPVA graduate missed the awards ceremony, having gone camping, probably with no great prize expectations, given his nascent art career. Fortunately, his parents were at the opening to confirm to him that he had indeed won $1,000.

John Knott's third-place sculpture Prambulator (2001) is an old baby carriage reworked. It has a delicious, hand-riveted homemade sleekness with its gleaming aluminum egg-shaped body and tiny vinyl upholstered cockpit. Marvelously aerodynamic, it feels like it ain't street-legal. The object looks like some nutball utopian design from the '50s -- "Here's what the baby of the future will drive!"

Upstairs, Sarah Nix Gin, a recurring favorite at juried exhibitions, contributes more of her pattern paper sculptures studded and drawn on with straight pins. There are a hanging rectangle and two cylindrical forms, but then most of her sculptures are cylindrical forms. There has to be more you can do with this stuff than roll it into a cylinder. She is branching out a little with a red floral pattern on the surface of 62-A (2001) and the flare on 1,2,3 (2001). Her work has interesting elements, but you know you need to move along when, as one viewer observed, "It's been hard to describe a particular work because is sounds like any of them." There is a fine line between a consistent aesthetic and being repetitive.

The upstairs gallery is also the photo zone. Jenny Stark contributes two compelling video pieces. She works with digital video as deftly as a sculptor manipulates clay -- stretching, kneading, tweaking, adding, subtracting. Carefully constructing brief, powerful clips, she slows, chops and makes collages of images and audio. She skillfully employs music, her own and others, to set an emotional tone as she samples from other films and video for dialogue and footage, working with them in a plastic manner.

For Negative 10 (2001), Stark worked with old videotapes containing news reports from the Gulf War and episodes of Twin Peaks. The past decade had degraded the tapes, adding a patina to the recorded scenes. Digital editing software allowed Stark to zoom in on sections of the footage, like the epaulets on Saddam Hussein's uniform. The audio from the news reports is creepily relevant today, as it discusses President Bush and Middle East tensions. In one section, a male voice says, "You stay right there; I'm afraid there's been another murder," as we watch a grainy image of part of a woman's face as her smile slowly fades. There is a wit as well as melancholic dread in Stark's moody videos.

Moody but kinda spooky, Greg Ellis's fof-1 (2000) shows an image of a balding, shirtless man grasping a cat to his chest in a cuddly embrace. The grainy inkjet print on vellum makes it feel like a still from a surveillance video. Additionally, the man looks unsettlingly like the kid that jumped out of the lake at the end of Friday the 13th, the boyhood image of Jason.

Ultimately, in spite of the strength of many individual works, the exhibition feels safe; Sommer isn't much of a risk taker. It's not that he's too cool to laugh, he's just too cool to laugh loudly. Local juried shows allow an art community to view itself through someone else's sensibility. "The Big Show" shows us how the sometimes grubby cacophony of the Houston art scene looks filtered through one Los Angeles commercial gallery owner. We look a little cooler, more pulled together, more restrained, but kinda boring.

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