Critics’ Picks

John Altoon, (F28), 1962–63, ink and watercolor with airbrushing on illustration board, 60 x 40“. From the series ”Advertising Parodies," 1962–63.

Los Angeles

John Altoon

The Box
805 Traction Avenue
September 13–October 18

“Advertising Parodies,” 1962–63, John Altoon’s little-known series of ink drawings, makes unsettling but compelling transgressions out of modern conveniences and their marketing. An “ad” for Metro Life Insurance displays a distinguished father and son whose wife and daughter (or mother and sister) lift up their kilts to expose their penises; promising “years of good service,” another one, for Bell Telephone Systems, depicts a repairman hard at work while the lady of the house, in lingerie, brazenly strips behind him. A related group of large pastel drawings free these risqué figures from the advertisement layout, offering only plump, mannerist nudes and partially clothed bodies—a now-familiar style that precedes yet evokes John Currin—that are at once sensual and aloof. But these drawings, which Altoon sometimes referred to as satires, do more than just illustrate vaguely scandalous indiscretions and available women; while baring the already sexualized impulses of advertising and false desire, these drawings unleash the repressed American psyche and subvert the niceties of midcentury bourgeois mores.

The “Advertising Parodies” are one of four series of drawings that make up this exhibition, the late artist’s first in his native Los Angeles in twenty years. Hung downstairs, selected later works reveal the artist’s continued scrutiny of sexual psychologies, taboos, fantasies, and horrors. Women copulate with frogs and dogs; a wounded Indian nurses at a saloon girl’s breast; cowboys and Indians play strip poker. While these sorts of drawings evince Altoon’s defiant sense of humor, those made just prior to his untimely death reveal the fundamental intensity of his manic vision. The “Object” series of 1968 renders disembodied genitalia affixed to inanimate objects, like a high heel, a clothesline, a jam jar, and a spoon. With their twisting, expressionistic lines and indistinct, floating grounds, these aggressive still-lifes are not unlike the loose, abstract canvases for which Altoon is best known. Yet even more so than his paintings, these drawings impart the immediacy and rawness that lie at the core of human instinct.