A Lot of Nothing Adds Up
The Nothing That Is, Curated by Yaron Dotan and Christine Rasmussen
Brand Library and Art Center, Glendale
through January 17, 2020
Written by Lorraine Heitzman
Nothingness is a state of being that while seemingly nonexistent is demonstrably tangible, often poetic, and sometimes ironic. In The Nothing That Is at the Brand Library and Art Center, thoughtfully curated by participating artists Christine Rasmussen and Yaron Dotan, absence and loss are re-imagined in many forms. Under the umbrella of nothingness, melancholic landscapes and mysterious objects of meticulous craftsmanship coexist and are keenly felt. But this is not a minimalist’s idea of nothing; what is missing becomes a vessel for the imagination, provoking the artists and viewers to fill the emptiness with emotions, beauty, and personal visions.
The title of the show is borrowed from a Wallace Stevens poem, The Snow Man that ends with the stanza:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
The poem, transcribed onto the wall as you enter the gallery, introduces the work by fifteen artists, most of whom live in Los Angeles or Northern California. Their aesthetics reflect a greater diversity than their common location, though. These artists create meaning through their materials and found objects, landscapes and interior scenes, figuration and in more conceptual work. The broad and inclusive nature of this show results in a challenging experience in a cohesive exhibition organized around an evocative theme.
Some of the artists express the “nothing that is” through an emphasis and exploitation of their materials. Roberts’ ironic sculptures humorously imply what is missing. His Plexiglass pillows mimic the shapes of billowing and sagging pillows but they lack volume and substance. Instead, sculptures like “Green Pillow” possess an ethereal lightness due to their reflective and transparent qualities and convey a beautiful fragility. The sculptures glisten on top of pedestals but other versions are opaque wall installations. “Flesh Bubble Pillow”, though still based on pillows, takes on the puckered impressions of bubble wrap and have a more comic effect. Whereas the transparent Plexiglass pillows are weightless and jewel-like, the latter confound because they are dense and brittle. Neither type is truly what they purport to represent, but both suggest the missing object.
Wyatt’s installation and wood and stone sculptures convey lonely outposts, a frigid landscape in one instance and an earthier grouping of totems in another. The installation, “When Shadows Chase The Light”, is an agglomeration of clear empty spheres and barrel-shaped containers lighted from within, the elements held together with white gauzy material and string. Referencing both clouds and a sort of synthetic ice flow, the installation suggests an organic landscape that is completely artificial. In “Continuum”, Wyatt arranges her upright wood and stone sculptures on a low platform, though they seem more likely to have been found on the beach. They are solemn and quiet, embodying a still, poetic place that attunes us to the mysteries of nature.
The essence of Dean’s sculptures is rooted in the objects she assembles, the textures and juxtapositions carrying the heavy load of meaning. “Idle Lane” combines found objects that the artist assembles and alters with paint and other materials, bringing new context to these remnants. The skeleton of a discarded upholstered seat is mounted onto the wall to reveal a grid of springs and supports, multiplied by a mirrored surface. Although it gains an elegance from this vantage point, the forlorn aspect of the castaway is never far removed. Guedel also relies on his materials to a great extent, in his case deconstructing paintings and expectations. The blank “canvases” of clear plastic are a foil for what is missing. Crinkled colored plastic unfurls across the empty painting and settles into a puddle on the ground. Color swatches, like those along an untrimmed printed page, form a top border providing a key for some future or past creation. Paine’s textured works fuse color and surface, creating an experience that suggests an unfiltered view of the natural world, a close-up of rugged tree bark or a glimpse into deep space. They have a violent surface, but once you recognize the references to nature they settle down. Seen through either a macro or micro lens, Paine’s heavily carved reliefs are wonderfully immersive experiences.
A few artists depict a more elegiac view of nothingness in landscapes and interior scenes. Rasmussen, Chahbazian, and Wister Faure make paintings, drawings and sculptures, respectively, that conjure either melancholic or disturbingly quiet scenes. Rasmussen’s great triptych, “The Glow (it wasn’t from a phone)”, Parts I, II, & III elevates her typical streetscapes to the next level. These larger paintings feel looser than her previous work and the larger format is more enveloping, allowing the viewer to feel the isolation of her industrial landscapes. Her subject may be urban landscapes, but while she deftly captures neglected parts of the city, she also creates a state of mind that is vivid and specific. Chahbazian’s delicate graphite and pencil drawings use the natural landscape for their inherent beauty and for social commentary as well. A carefully rendered image of an otherwise bucolic vista, like “Just A Sip”, is interrupted with a message of human consumption, one that threatens to deplete our resources. Her method is meticulous and subtle, but the effect is blistering. Wister Faure’s three captivating dioramas are seductive glimpses into a curious noir narrative. Viewed through peepholes into wall mounted boxes, we are privy to a crime story in three parts. First, there is “Last Witness (Basement)”, a basement that appears to be a crime scene, then a vignette in which headlights illuminate a furtive burial, “Last Witness (Forest)” and lastly, a forensic lab, “Last Witness (Laboratory)”. Altogether, these dioramas portray a cinematic story in which the viewer is the unwitting observer/voyeur, filling in the missing parts.
Forsyth and Fuentes both use figures in their paintings and sculptures. Forsyth’s truncated torsos in “All Torn-up #6” and “All Torn-up #3” may at first glance have the look of classical sculpture, but the distressed headless torsos share more with dress mannequins. Their anonymity and universality lend themselves to issues of self-image, societal expectations and repression that affect women everywhere. While Forsyth deals with broad feminist themes, Fuentes narrows her focus to specific people and places. A superlative draftsman, her large, informal and energetic drawings look like they were lifted from a sketch book and then enlarged many times over. In “Subway”, she renders the scene on a subway car, capturing the energy and details with not only the stroke of her pen, but with what she omits.
A few artists are represented by work that is more conceptual. Boruck, who also has paintings on display, has two installations that address the creative process in an especially engaging way. “Exist 09” is a suite of related objects: a Polaroid of a sculpture, a three-dimensional reconstruction of that same sculpture, and lastly a painting derived from both. Of the three stages, the rebuilt sculptures are particularly inventive and whimsical. Conceived as triptychs, both “Exist 09” and “Exist 06” are multi-faceted views into the nature of creativity. The mantra of artists everywhere: make, destroy, reconfigure and repeat. In a very meta act of creation she calls attention to the process of making something out of nothing.
Hayden + Lepore have fun with “Door Dasher”, a sculpture that shows a strong grasp of form and materials. Standing in for their dog is an arc of hair that spews from a pet door and bisects the wall. Their witty commentary on dog ownership conveys all you need to know without any representation of their pet but it is their command of materials in service to a clever idea that elevates the sculpture from a joke to a puzzle. Similarly, Kagan’s absolute control over his unique process adds to the inherent strength of his work. His wall mounted steel sculptures with directed light create fascinating, counter-intuitive shadows. The steel rods become drawings, supporting, surrounding or superimposed over the cast shadow-images, but they are all of one piece. Kagan’s work is more than just a trick though, his images are thought provocative and expressive. In perhaps the most conceptual work in the exhibition, Vallejo’s monochromatic C prints of vintage photographs are meant to invite questions. “San Juan Capistrano I & II” are images of the Mission flooded in shades of red, almost to the point of being indecipherable. Because these are political statements, Vallejo wants her audience to interpret the works concepturally as well as emotionally. They are not strictly academic, but they require the viewer to question the image and to go beyond a purely visceral response.
Lastly, in a category by himself, Dotan is represented by several optical paintings and a video projection that uses the process of animation to great effect. “The Riddle of Samson” is created through the laborious method of animation. Each image is drawn on top of the preceding one on the same piece of paper, resulting in a highly textured appearance. A slow metamorphosis unfolds that encompasses figures and otherworldly landscapes in many opposing actions. Buildings and faces dissolve in slow motion and transform organically. Sometimes the landscape is infinite, and at other times microscopic, rebounding from the specific to the eternal and then back again. Dotan creates a realm with a narrative basis, but his images transcend the story. In that sense, “the nothing that is” stands for the universal and is a fitting epitaph for the show he co-curated; it is nothing and everything.