Critics’ Picks

John Altoon, untitled, 1968, ink and airbrush on illustration board, 30 x 40".

Los Angeles

John Altoon

The Box
805 Traction Avenue
September 17–October 22

Though a dominant figure in the Los Angeles art scene of the 1950s and ’60s, closely associated with the legendary Ferus Gallery, John Altoon slipped into relative obscurity after his premature death at age forty-three in 1969. Much of the wild, erratic, inebriated, and ludic energy for which he was notorious comes through in the forty remarkable drawings that make up his second solo exhibition at the Box.

Beautifully installed in a sprawling grid, the large-scale drawings are raunchy and perverse, taking delight in bizarrely disembodied genitalia and exuberantly absurd, oversexualized scenes with a taste for the bestial as well as a parodic edge that approaches Daumier, Goya, and Hogarth. A woman births a frog in one drawing and fucks one in another. Cocks are crammed into pumps and baby shoes; elsewhere they are bottled in jam jars and swept into the dustpan. There are too many potential fetishes to count (still, one can try), but then again these drawings are as much about surfeit, overflow, and nervous speed as they are about sex or fantasy.

Drawn in ink, often in combination with pastel, watercolor, and airbrush, Altoon’s line embodies a virtuosic range of qualities, from calligraphic flow and wound-up, wiry kinkiness to hatched density and sputtering wetness. His love affair with line itself––loose, free, and uninhibited––ends up stealing the show, against all odds, away from the omnipresent and flagrantly titillating erogenous zones, so that the drawings’ figuration hovers on the edge of legibility, perpetually emerging out of initial abstraction.