B. Wurtz and Nina Chanel Abney

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Shows chock full of the detritis of daily life — plastic bags, pieces of clothing, food containers — are commonplace in the contemporary art of today. Those artists may or may not know the art of New York-based artist B. Wurtz — his first name is Bill — who has used commonplace items to evoke special feelings for a little more than 40 years.

B. Wurtz: This Has No Name at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles is the first survey of the artist’s strangely poignant work made since 1980, after he graduated from Cal Arts and moved back to New York.

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B. Wurtz. Untitled (bread painting #3), 2010. Acrylic on canvas, plastic, thread 59 x 39 x ¼ in. (149.9 cm x 99.1 cm x 6.4 mm). Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

His minimalist approach is not industrial nor impersonal though it is based on ideas about materials and perception. All of his works are simple, reduced to just a few elements but the homely and engaging aspect of those elements lends agreeable appeal.

The vertical wall at the entrance to the show is covered in dozens of aluminum baking tins arranged in a loose grid. Rectanglar, square, circular, the bottom of each is painted with geometric patterns of color: utilitarian modernism.

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B. Wurtz, Pan Paintings, 1992-2018. Acrylic paint on aluminum. Courtesy the artist; Metro Pictures, New York; and Kate MacGarry London. Photo by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp 

One of the largest pieces in the show is similar: Green Basket #2 (1994) A green line drawing of a square is in the center of a circle on a sheet of raw cloth. Like the aluminum pans, it appears at first glance to be some sort of geometric painting. Yet, attached to the center of the fabric square is a wood palette from which two pairs of socks hang, one red and one yellow, and between them, the green plastic fruit basket that inspired the entire piece.

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B. Wurtz. Green Basket #2, 1994. Canvas, acrylic paint, wood, tin cans, cloth. 120 × 120 × 3.5 in. (304.80 x 304.80 x 8.89 cm). Photo courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

It is essential to the artist to conceive of a connection between items that he actually uses in his own life and these formal arrangements of color, line and space. He is of the first generation of young artists to come to terms with their immediate predecessors, the Minimalists of the 1960s and Conceptual artists of the 1970s. Steeped in the ideas of that time, Wurtz and others sought intimate, humanistic, responses. He has organized his art around the principles of “sleeping, eating and keeping warm,” while retaining a rigor in the superficially easy methods of their production. They can recall the absurdity of Dada’s Man Ray or the balancing acts of Alexander Calder, both great modern artists who similarly found a sense of delight in the quotidian. The show continues through February 3, 2019.

The Wurtz show was organized by ICA curator Jamillah James, who also arranged Royal Flush, a selection of paintings by New York-based Nina Chanel Abney. Originally organized by the Nasher Museum at Duke, the other half of this, her first museum show, is at the California African American Museum, which I have not yet seen. caammuseum.org

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Nina Chanel Abney,  Ivy and the Janitor in January 2009.  Acrylic on canvas 54 × 60 inches (137.2 × 152.4 cm) overall . Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.  Photo credit: Peter Paul  Geoffrion

Abney’s paintings are as crowded as Wurtz’s sculptures are spare but they are equally inspired by everyday experience. The ICA show includes paintings from 2007 to the present, all with a vibrant, excited quality. Earlier works are expressive and loose while her more recent work uses printing processes and spray paint. There is a graphic, abbreviated tone and the use of letters and numbers bring to mind the riotous early modern Stuart Davis. The internet, of course, is a more immediate source. Either way, pleasure and politics, race and gender, sorrow and joy, all are intermingled in high style. 

As indicated by the title of this show and its iteration at CAAM, Royal Flush a valuable hand for a card player. Cards come to mind in a number of her paintings. Notably, Catfish (2017), with four connected vertical panels taking up a long wall. It is a tumult of voluptuous women, both dark and light skinned, kneeling and bending, surrounded by dollar signs and the words “yes” or “nope.” They are as unreal as any digitally determined advertisement. Their real potency lies in Abney’s baroque and complex act of painting. The shows at ICA and CAAM continue to January 20, 2019. theicala.com.

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Nina Chanel Abney
Catfish , 2017.  Unique  ultrachrome  pigmented print, acr ylic, and spray paint on canvas,  102 × 216 inches (259.08 × 548.64 cm).  Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.  Photo credit: Peter Paul  Geoffrion