Art Review for Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting

Painted Perspectives and Abstract Objectives

A new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, entitled Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting Today, will be on view from August 24th until March 22nd of 2015, which features dozens of the Museum’s diverse abstract works from such prominent international and L.A.-based artists as Gerhard Richter, Jennie C. Jones, Dianna Molzan, Mark Bradford and Christopher Wool. This comprehensive show, curated by LACMA’s Franklin Sirmans and Nancy Meyer, presents new works from this group of 29 vital contemporary artists, as well as pieces from the relatively recent past, which demonstrate pioneering techniques and surprising aesthetic languages used in the disparate choices of media on display.

Abstract fine art has, of course, been created for centuries within several distinct cultural periods throughout the world. Now more than ever, this art acts as an important declaration of unique expression amidst the image-saturated, split-second arena of building-sized billboards, continuous online advertising and the onslaught of social media. Many of the artists represented at the Variations exhibition have created striking works in a variety of formats, which often require viewer engagement over time, well beyond the two and three dimensions of the work. Some pieces are as much about personal perspectives and private moments, as about sheer objects that reach into the viewers’ space and mind, often, long after they leave the building.

Upon entry to the Variations exhibition, viewers are faced with the nearly nine-feet long, autumn-hued, abstract painting St. Andrew, 1988, by revered German multiple-movement artist Gerhard Richter, which informs the viewer as much about the artist’s process and experience of creating the work, as about their relation to its scale and creation. As a contemporary classic, the work provides a moment of relative calm and reassurance before the storm of newer – and in many cases, trenchant and less traditional – pieces that come and go far beyond elementary definitions of abstract painting.

All 50 pieces that comprise the exhibition have been placed in one of the largest and naturally well-lit gallery spaces within the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, which creates an open, contradictory interplay amongst several of the more kinetic and intimate pieces on display. While many of the works, such as Analia Saban’s delicate, circular, laser-sculpted, acrylic on canvas piece, Erosion, 2012, invite discreet investigations about materials, process and time, others, such as Mark Grotjahn’s rustic, bronze, freestanding mask, Untitled (Two Noses Out of the Shell Standing Flat), 2013, require in-the-round viewing to absorb their metaphorical “weight” and obscured iconography. Another work, Jennie C. Jones’ End Measure, 2011, crafted from black acoustic panels and canvas, alludes to the closing of a musical sequence and quite literally reduces or eliminates any sound in and around its broad dark surface. As such, the viewer must consider the sense of sound – or its lack thereof – and their participation in the overall experience with the work.

Curator Nancy Meyer provided an early preview of the Variations exhibition and offered some insight about the artwork that she and Sirmans chose. “Many of the works rely on the push and pull between representation and abstraction and it’s interesting to think about what the market tends to favor during a particular time – and to challenge and question that motive. Also, it was interesting to think about the artists who question what painting is, what it means to them and what the execution of it can be. There are a lot of process-based works that use unconventional materials and further complicate ideas around painting. It’s interesting to look at how it’s evolved and how many of the works here have a three-dimensional quality to them, as opposed to thinking of painting as a two-dimensional practice. I’m sure that some painters will disagree with these less conventional notions, but it’s definitely part of the conversation that is relevant to the art we see in the Variations exhibition today,” explains Meyer.

She’s clear that it was a challenge to narrow down the selection because LACMA has a vast holding of special contemporary works and that the team had barely a year of lead time to prepare. She added that, however, “It’s an opportunity to show off new acquisitions to start a dialogue about the collection and revisit works that we acquired 20 years ago, as well as see where it is now – and to connect the visual thread that became more and more apparent to us.” Noting that, “nothing in the show is straight up abstract painting, but abstraction is still a language that’s so relevant to artists today,” Meyer points to Mark Bradford’s gorgeous, twist-gridded, cartographic impasto painting, Carta, 2013, which features a basketball-like sculptural element on the floor, based, in part, on the most expensive Baroque-era world map created in the 1600s. She then points to Bradford’s massive, abraded, whitish, décollage painting, Shoot the Coin, 2013, that highlights his interest in maps and pathways alluded to in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s experiences in the Transcontinental Motor Convoy of 1919, an event that tested the U.S. military’s mobility during wartime conditions, which ultimately led to the creation of the first U.S. interstate highways. She contrasts this second cooler work with another hung directly across the room, Iva Gueorguieva’s dark and DayGlo, florid and nearly animated painting, A Stage Above the Catacombs, 2009, which appears “fantastical and seemingly made up, but is actually a direct reference to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.” These and other works are sure to beguile, intrigue and hypnotize viewers as they walk through the exhibition.

Rachel Lachowicz, known for her interest in inverting the canonical works and ostensible dominance of such 20th century male master artists as Carl Andre and Richard Serra, is represented by two striking, non-painterly sculptures in the exhibition. Integrating archetypically feminine products with classic art media, such as lipstick and make-up with wax and Plexiglas, Lachowicz conflates materials and messages about consumerism, personal rituals, embodiment and abstraction. In Cell: Interlocking Construction, 2010, the artist contains piles of billowing, custom, blue and black cosmetic pigment in large geometrically-shaped clear Plexiglas containers that interlock along the wall and sit on the floor. In some ways, Cell celebrates the seemingly untouched rich-hued make-up that we see, while preventing our direct access to it. The bulky abstract shapes that comprise the piece help to provide form and force in place of our own when we choose the “armor” – such as make-up – that helps to create our sexual and personal identity. In her well-know piece, Untitled (Lipstick Urinals), 1992, based on Marcel Duchamp’s iconic and ironic readymade Fountain, 1917,the artist feminizes the form of three small urinals by coating them entirely in bright red lipstick and wax, reminding male audiences – and fixture users – that the artist resides both outside and inside of the joke. Meyer points out that, “The Lachowicz Untitled (Lipstick Urinals) was a late addition. As soon as Franklin and I decided to add her Cell: Interlocking Construction to that room, we decided to bring in the urinals. Although they are representational, they added a much-needed feminist perspective in a male dominated room. There is something rather humorous about its inclusion that I find refreshing, although it’s also a reminder of the obstacles that women artists have had to face in the course of art history.”

This fusion and conflict of history and direct experience abounds in the works chosen for Variations. From the tongue-in-cheek, sex-allusive, abstracted, body-relational video installations of A.K. Burns to a stoic, gray, lava-like wall sculpture by Anthony Pearson, the guiding themes in this show will appeal to many who seek to define what it means to live in today’s truly transformative time; after 9/11, after YouTube, after the election of President Obama, after the economic crash, after the mapping of the human genome and even after Michael Brown’s tragic death by police gunfire just a few weeks ago in Missouri.

Sizeable audiences have flocked to LACMA in recent years to see several major contemporary exhibitions, such as the popular James Turrell: A Retrospective, which Meyer also collaborated on. Such large solo shows draw great audiences and great group shows, such as Variations, help to bring them back. “It was our job to select work that interacts and even conflicts with other works in order to bring up the ‘conversations’ we hope to ignite,” explains Meyer.

Meyer and Sirmans, LACMA’s Curator of Contemporary Art, known for organizing the Minimalist Blinky Palermo: Retrospective, 1964-1977 and Fútbol: The Beautiful Game, have gathered some extraordinary pieces from the permanent collection for Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting Today, which are certain to enact those viewer conversations alluded to in the exhibition title.

The artists whose works are included in the exhibition are: Markus Amm, Mark Bradford, A.K. Burns, Aaron Curry, Theaster Gates, Mark Grotjahn, Iva Gueroguieva, Sergei Jensen, Rashid Johnson, Jennie C. Jones, Rachel Lachowicz, Dashiell Manley, Julie Mehretu, Dianna Molzan, Albert Oehlen, Alexandra Olson, Laura Owens, Anthony Pearson, Howardena Pindell, Gerhard Richter, Sterling Ruby, Analia Saban, Maaike Schoorel, Amy Sillman, Diana Thater, Lesley Vance, Mary Weatherford, Lisa Williamson and Christopher Wool.

 Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting is on display at Los Angeles County Museum of Art  August 24, 2014–March 22, 2015

Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, Level 3

Additional programming details for the Variations exhibition will be shortly forthcoming on LACMA’s official website.