Female protagonists and villains center in an artist’s imagined Western

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This week’s picks include an artist who reinvents Westerns to feature female leads; an iconic artist from The Hairy Who who exhibits three decades of drawings; and geometric abstractions that layer to create an invented language.   

Alyssa Rogers at Monte Vista Projects

Installation View of “There's A Snake In My Boot” (Oct 31 - Dec 13, 2020), Monte Vista Projects, Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Zachary Ruddell.

It’s the last week to view a solo show by Alyssa Rogers at  Monte Vista Projects , an artist-run collective that exhibits emerging artists. The show, cheekily titled  “There’s a Snake in My Boot”  pulls viewers into a Western tale where paintings, drawings, objects, and a painted backdrop collide to create a cowboy-hued narrative. In Rogers’ fable, all the characters  — the outlaw, villain, and the sage — are all female characters, and each one is featured in a large portrait in Rogers’ exhibition. Though the portraits are the largest works in the show, the painted desertscape that covers the walls of the exhibition transports us into Roger’s imagined world. Ephemera from her narrative make up the remainder of the works on view. The objects include a long rattlesnake skin flayed out and pinned to one wall while a soundtrack of desert sounds — chirping crickets, a low drum, and a hooting owl — play in the space. Small drawings of a snake in a boot and a dead rabbit show more intimate details of a story that is never quite revealed to the viewer, although the artist says she’s been verbally telling bits of her tale to viewers that come visit the exhibition — “it’s become a bit of an oral tradition,” she tells me. Still, without the artist present to reveal the specifics of her narrative, we are left to ponder the possibilities of a small shelf covered with sand, tinctures, a candle, and a bone; at what point in the Western narrative are these magical tools used, and to what end? Like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, Rogers offers us setting, characters, and props, and empowers viewers to enact their own imagined story. 

Installation View of “There's A Snake In My Boot” (Oct 31 - Dec 13, 2020), Monte Vista Projects, Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Zachary Ruddell.

Female leads are not typical to old Westerns. Instead, they often play subservient roles to the male outlaws, acting almost as background notes to the larger narrative. Alyssa Rogers recasts her Western tale to include only women, pulling characters from historical archives and books, while taking liberties to invent her fiction. There’s Evelyn Estes, a character based on a true story, who sets off on horseback to see the Pacific Ocean. In Rogers’ telling, she is killed by the outlaw Maggie James. The bones of the girl are later found by a magical character, La Lobo, who resurrects Estes as a horse that runs wild along the beach. While playful, Rogers’ narrative purposefully casts women into action-oriented roles, powerfully shifting the norm of the Western genre, and introducing themes of magic, rebirth, and female liberation, which soften the more masculine storylines that Westerns typically contain. “Our idea of the pioneer and trailblazer was built on myths of white men in the west,” Rogers told me. “To create a western myth with an all-women cast is to rewrite the definition of [the] 'pioneer.'"

On view:  October 31–December 13, 2020

Gladys Nilsson at Parker Gallery

Gladys Nilsson, “Front Moving Thru” (1998). Watercolor and collage on paper. 22 x 30 inches.
  Image courtesy the artist and Parker, Los Angeles. Photos by Paul Salveson. 

Gladys Nilsson (b. 1940) was an iconic member of the  Hairy Who , a group of artists that banded together in Chicago in the 1960s to exhibit their wildly idiosyncratic work. The group of six, which included Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum, privileged graphic and bold figuration that was playful and imaginative as much as it was irreverent. Nilsson’s solo exhibition, “Old Lady Drawings” at  Parker Gallery  assembles three decades of the artist’s output, with several works that were created this year. Works included from the 1990s and early 2000s feature Nilsson’s signature watercolor style, each drawing is an imagined world populated by colorful figures that bend and contort, often with a brigade of tiny people milling about the central figure’s ankles or shoulders. Across the work are pictures within pictures — as in 1988’s “Front Moving Thru,” in which cameras are strung around figure’s necks as others hold photographs or small paintings, like windows into other realities. The newer work made this year takes on a less fluid painting style, privileging instead collage and muted color application where Nilsson’s figures congregate with photos clipped from art historical paintings and sculptures. Overall, the selection of work feels very much about perception; how each of our realities are shaped by the people, places, and images we surround ourselves with. 

On view: November 7, 2020 – January 9, 2021

Caroline Kent at Kohn Gallery

Caroline Kent, “
A Sudden Appearance of the Sun,” installation view.  Image courtesy of the artist and Kohn Gallery. 

At Kohn Gallery in Hollywood, Caroline Kent’s abstract shapes dance above matte black backgrounds. In each painting, made at a large and consistent scale, geometric forms mingle and position across the canvas. Like the cut paper works of Matisse — Kent also begins her process with cut paper to sketch out her forms — Kent’s shapes have precise and clean edges, while smaller details, like a swarm of squiggles, float on the black ground to create subtle annotations, almost like punctuation. Together, her forms build together to create a lexicon, a library of forms that the artist re-arranges in each work to explore new connections and possibilities. Kent explains in a press release that the black background is an effort to create an “unlocatability,” the blankness and depth of the black disallows any additional context to pinpoint the specifics of her abstractions, instead allowing her bold shapes to do all the talking. Still, titles like “A chart for disillusionment and chance” and “Notes on moving things out of one's way” offer threads to the conversation that each painting is immersed in.  

On view: November 13, 2020–January 15, 2021

Closer Look (Optional)

“Lone Stars” at the Landing (off-site) for NADA Miami featuring Chuck Arnoldi and Leonardo E. Marmol. Photo courtesy of the artists and the Landing.

Art fairs recently migrated online to remedy the crowded, in-person attractions that proliferated before the pandemic. Now art audiences should get familiar with a new acronym: OVR, the online viewing room. The yearly  Art Basel Miami  is typically a huge international event, traversing the beachside city and offering satellite fairs including New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) and Untitled. Last week, they all opened online. I talked to Jonathan Bastian about  NADA , which opted for a unique solution to the online fair, encouraging participants to put up physical exhibitions in conjunction with the online fair. Galleries participating in the fair span 44 cities across the world, and here in L.A., there are several fair presentations that are viewable in-person, making them more accessible (and affordable) to a wider audience. 

How NADA Miami went both digital and physical