Critics’ Picks

View of “Cali Thornhill-Dewitt: Safe Words,” 2017.

View of “Cali Thornhill-Dewitt: Safe Words,” 2017.

Los Angeles

Cali Thornhill-Dewitt

Karma International | Los Angeles
4619 West Washington Blvd
December 6, 2017–January 20, 2018

Google “burning palm trees” and in the first few rows of search results is a pair of spindly green-and-orange torches above tan, white, and gray slivers of roofs. This pic of two San Diego palm trees ignited by a lightning strike is the template for Cali Thornhill-Dewitt’s latest body of work and first solo show in Los Angeles. Across eighteen panels, the eerie blue sky of the source image bends into soot-stained tones, from irradiated dusk to day-for-night, sandwiched between white sans-serif words in a formal laminate of posters and memes: “HUNGRY / GHOST,” “FINAL / FORM,” “AS THE / WORLD / BURNS.”

California on fire: the iterative disaster of the bush that burns but won’t burn up. For this Day-Glo cynicism at its most billboard clear, see Expect the Worst (all works 2017), an eighteen-by-twelve-foot wall work where the all-too-recognizable facial features of the likes of Mitch McConnell, Ann Coulter, and Kellyanne Conway peer through slits in the orange paint dominated by the black block letters of a modern motto, “EXPECT THE WORST.”

Dewitt’s doomy wordplay (the exhibition is titled “Safe Words”) may be meant as literal protest but is also, and more interestingly, an attitudinal kind of coping: the anticapitalist declaration that lets you continue capitalizing. The one piece that seems nakedly cruel is OH NO, a four-panel text work over a doorway—the O’s are pictures of a melted, cracked earth. But where the meme lives and dies by mutation, and thrives in the motility of custom merchandise and Twitter posts, on gallery walls even the most catastrophic irony (“COASTAL / ELITES”) is framed mostly by a papery impotence—since nobody wants the world to end, right? . . . Right?