No More Boring Art!

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John Baldessari at Margo Leavin Gallery
Tomoko Takahashi at Hammer Museum
Uta Barth at ACME Gallery

The exhibition at Margo Leavin of the latest works of John Baldessari, probably the most influential of L.A. artists, is an important cultural event. Best known as a father of conceptual art, Baldessari has been a god like figure for generations of students who flocked to CalArts during its hey day in the 70's and 80's. For a long time his trademark has been photo-based composites made out of altered B movie stills. Today his work has undergone radical change. If the older works traditionally exhibited the surreally cool attitude of James Bond movies, the new works are quite another matter. Gone are the clusters of intriguingly unrelated photos sprawling on the walls in unexpected directions. In contrast, the new works are rigidly composed from panoramic photos shot by the artist himself and assembled in orderly shapes of either a cross or a square. Large and imposing, the new composites feel like luxury cars from a bygone era, lovingly restored and preserved for admiration, but no longer meant for racing 100 miles per hour.

Ironically, for the artist who famously announced a few decades ago that he would make no more boring art and even burned all of his paintings, now Baldessari paints vigorously over his photo composites. Unfortunately, this newfound enthusiasm for painting does not contribute much to the rather sedate look and feel of his new work.

Not being a big fan of installation art, I was nevertheless intrigued by what Tomoko Takahashi, a Japanese artist based in London, was planning to do at the Hammer Museum. With the help of several assistants she went around L.A. collecting all kinds of debris from back alleys. A few truckloads of flotsam and jetsam were unloaded into the cavernous raw space of the museum's never finished movie theater. The artist obviously had specific ideas and strategies about the arrangements of all this stuff. Here and there one could see flickering t.v. sets. A tall standing fan is pushing stale air around. Like theater visitors wanting to see what is going on on stage, museum visitors are encouraged by the artist to look at the sprawling debris through the provided opera glasses.. I guess it is suppose to be an ironic statement with anti-bourgeois sentiments. Obviously it is a comment on our rampant consumerism. But all that has been done by so many young artists so many times that one feels slightly embarrassed by this artist's earnest attempt to say something new within this thoroughly exhausted genre. And did I forget to mention that I was bored stiff?

What saved my sanity and restored my faith in art was a visit to ACME gallery to see a new show by L.A. artist Uta Barth, whose multi-paneled photographic compositions continue to surprise me with their neverending revelations of small secrets observed by the artist at the periphery of the world, as if out of the corner of her eye. The huge difference in Uta Barth's approach toward dealing with insignificant fragments of a material world is that instead of making statements, she writes poetry, so to speak, by using a visual language. Photographing obsessively the same tree through her studio window, Uta Barth repeatedly manipulates this image until the bare branches succumb completely to her will and under her directorial baton starts to sing a song we can see.

For more information:

"John Baldessari: New Work: Junctions and Intersections"
Ends December 7
Margo Leavin Gallery
812 N. Robertson Blvd., L.A., CA
(310) 273-0603

"Tomoko Takahashi: Auditorium Piece"
Ends January 5, 2003
Hammer Museum
10899 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., CA
(310) 443-7000

"Uta Barth"
Ends November 16
ACME Gallery
6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., CA
(323) 857-5942