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Robert Barry

4901 Compton Avenue
November 1–December 13

View of “Robert Barry: Bethlehem Baptist Church Installation,” 2015.

In an abandoned church in a neglected neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, Robert Barry summons the ghostly with fifty-one words of white vinyl (all works 2015). The relationship between his works’ open font, with its wide-stroked Century Gothic O’s and subtle widths, and this light-filled Rudolph Schindler–designed modernist architecture creates a sense of expansiveness in a structure of intimate reserve. The words, uninhibited by the oppressive structure of sentences, are thrown to the walls, bending around corners and tipping on their own edges. Are these phrases echoes of the vanished choir, or are they references to scripture?

Language is sacred, a symbol and practice of higher consciousness—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” as the Gospel of John says. In Barry’s installation, though, language is fallible. Surrounding the cross are the words “MOST,” “ABSURD,” and “ANYTHING.” The chosen words dissolve into emblems that timidly ask large questions, one of which, between “REMEMBER,” “PURPOSE,” and “OBVIOUS,” could be “Do you remember when some purpose was obvious?” Yet answers are not crucial to the experience. Instead, the texts become something visitors embody and enact as they search for clarity through changes in light, shifts in vantage point, and concentrated attention. For instance, “PASSION APPEARS” is displayed between the two most generous sources of light at midday. Throughout, Barry urges the viewer to remember the illusion and mysterious nature of meaning—the latter word appearing upside down in the rafters.

Megan Whiteford

“In the Flesh Part I: Subliminal Substances”

3315 West Washington Boulevard
October 23–December 5

Encyclopedia Inc., Display Unit, U-238, 2015, digitally printed Sintra PVC, digital video, ceramic mug, glass figurine, dentures, bananas, Brazil nuts, carrots, lima beans, 36 x 48 x 6".

Ivana Basic’s Asleep (all works cited, 2015), one of three glossy lumps of flesh cast in wax and silicone, resembles a slightly torn organ resting on a pillow. Listed among its materials are “weight,” “pressure,” and “body.” Has process become material? Are there body parts here? Perhaps after decades of engineered food, it’s our materials list that includes alien matter. Mounted to a nearby wall is Display Unit, U-238, a PVC exhibition case printed with texts and diagrams and inset with samples, by collective Encyclopedia Inc. In the cheerful didactics of a science museum, the piece surveys irradiated consumables from dentures to ceramic cups that had their colors boosted with trace uranium. An incorporated video, subtitled Yellowcake, demonstrates the use of a cake mix but invokes pulverized uranium ore. Both pale powders come courtesy of the miraculous industrial atomization of American life—nuclear energy, processed nutrition—by which materials became ingredients.

No wonder the contents of Sean Raspet’s installation (Technical Milk) and (Technical Food) read like a recipe for either Mountain Dew or pesticide—“gamma-octalactone” and “gamma-decalactone,” to name a few—but are in fact synthesized versions of the flavorful parts of milk and food. Inside white canisters, the artist has mixed these compounds with the mysterious, bland supplement known as Soylent, in order to lend it a comforting taste. At an adjacent table visitors might sample from five jugs of water that Raspet has tainted with different artificial flavors. The day may come when we can speak of a gastro-chemical art in terms of abstraction and mannerisms and styles. In the meantime, we have instructive artworks like these to remind us that, when it comes to our bodies, a more corporate materialism is the avant-garde.

Travis Diehl

“Sylvia Bataille”

4300 West Jefferson Boulevard, 1
October 23–December 20

View of “Sylvia Bataille,” 2015.

Desire and sex, fame and legacy: two of the most mundane yet endlessly sought after couplings. Rarely are the details of personal relationships outed—rather, these veiled realities appear in gossip columns, biographies, or obituaries as art history sieves out who gets remembered or forgotten. This group exhibition, “Sylvia Bataille,” is named after the French film actress whose own success has slipped from memory even though she was married to, and mothered children with, the influential philosophers Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan. Artists were invited to respond to her imbalanced legacy and answered back with contemporary visions of equity.

A collaborative work by two artist couples—Christopher K. Ho and John Magee, Cynthia Talmadge and Kevin Zucker—titled Nearer to Man (all works cited, 2015) is one example. Its gray wooden frame hanging by thick ropes from the rafters is a former film prop–cum–readymade, a version of the one used in filming Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936), which Sylvia starred in. Set in the middle of the show, the installation harkens like an inviting sex swing. Nearby, Harry Dodge’s masturbatory sculpture The Virtual Is Not Immaterial (Plastic Sunset/External Anus), features a beastly banana-yellow resin-covered phallus on one side and an illustration of a peace/victory gesture on the other. Nearby, Eileen Quinlan and Cheyney Thompson share a quieter exchange with a line of framed works: Three Sisters and Interior Views (Studio) alternates between Quinlan’s hauntingly pale Polaroid portraits and Thompson’s faint and exacting metal point drawings.

Allusions to Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye (1928) and Freudian psychoanalysis via Lacanian theory are embedded throughout the works on view, becoming the lens through which Sylvia Bataille’s life is seen. Her ghost hovers over the show in a nostalgic state of mourning.

Arielle Bier

Sean Townley

2276 East 16th Street
October 24–December 5

View of “Sean Townley: The Third Measure,” 2015. From left: One of Three Shades (Aluminum), 2015; One of Three Shades (Black), 2015; One of Three Shades (Terracotta), 2015.

Classical Greek artists, having never seen actual lions, based their funerary lion sculptures on a combo of house cats, dogs, and other sculptures of the real thing. Sean Townley has possibly never seen a lion sculpture. For his series “One of Three Shades,” 2015, Townley modeled a clay and carbon-fiber lion after a digital scan of an unspecified Greek example, carved by anonymous artisans and catalogued by an unnamed institution, and then made three aluminum casts. Originality becomes as abstracted as authorship. If the source is marble, the hollowness, jagged truncation at the waist, and empty eyes of Townley’s versions appear as affectations of the scanning process. The ravages of time we imagine in the lichened, cracked, and acid-pocked stone here succumb to the limits of the scan’s resolution and of Townley’s skill, which round off more than divots, mane, and ribs.

Working from a downgraded original, Townley seems forced, or has forced himself, into a series of interpolations. His sculptures rest with only their front paws on the pedestals, monumentalizing incompleteness. The trio’s bodies point from their diagonal row, as if due north, against the gallery’s irregular layout. The pieces’ finishes, too—bare aluminum or black and terra-cotta-colored powder coats—project a confused classicism. The last, titled One of Three Shades (Terracotta), manifests a sickly, peanut-buttery surface evocative less of art history than of a loose, queasy grip on Western tradition. Apprenticeship becomes repetition and grand gestures become awkward ones. Clay in one hand, computer in the other, Townley helps accelerate the ancient into the modern. To what funerary end?

Travis Diehl

Faith Wilding

145 N. Raymond Ave.
September 26–January 3

View of “Faith Wilding,” 2015.

“Waiting for my breasts to develop . . . Waiting for my breasts to fill with milk . . . Waiting for my breasts to shrivel up”: So goes the arc of Faith Wilding’s poem Waiting, delivered at the installation Womanhouse in 1972, a video of which is on view in the Armory’s old munitions vault. In this clip from the 1974 documentary by Johanna Demetrakas, Wilding rocks forward and back with each line, her hands in her lap, for a performance of the woefully passive woman she refused to become. Rather than “waiting for him to pay attention to me”—“him” being the male-dominated art world—Wilding instead formed her own circle, taking part in Judy Chicago’s Feminist Art Program and the program’s creation of Womanhouse in Los Angeles. Though her retrospective in 2015 is long overdue, it presents a practice not of waiting but of gradual, insistent growth.

Watercolors from the mid-1970s unfold like cool-toned versions of Chicago’s central core symbology, as in the crisp “Moth Triptych,” 1974, or embellish bifurcating and radiant floral or insect motifs with passages from the likes of Virginia Woolf and Hilda Doolittle, with the latter excerpted in Tribute to the Angels, 1975. This neat geometry is rare in a body of work that favors the more organic symmetry of shells, leaves, fruit, and genitals. A number of shaped, unstretched canvases, the “Leaf Series” of 1979, meld brushy brown, red, and turquoise oils into cocoon-like forms. Made a few years after Waiting, these works show a Wilding well into the metamorphoses of her work, not “waiting to be beautiful” or “waiting for the secret,” but beautiful and secret, both.

Travis Diehl