PRINT March 1968

Some New Los Angeles Artists


JAMES DE FRANCE HAS CONSISTENTLY directed himself to the projection and suppression of tangible and illusory energies. It is in the balancing of these forces that his paintings attain their merit; they assert objectness (or at least a relief-like quality) while maintaining a purely painterly quality. The recent works have seemed unusually bleak and repetitious; greyish or whitish square panels or canvases with a uniform series of regular openings cut into them, the state of the surface appearing to have been finally arrived at after much struggle even if the composition was arrived at by the use of graph paper. Superficially they would seem to be minimal after the fact. Before this last easy dismissal, with sustained observation and internal comparison of his works we would find a keen range of closely felt and carefully thought out moves.

The canvases are easel size, a comfortable five feet square, tidily acceptable but for the depth of the stretcher bar and the lack of an obvious painted surface articulation. These factors cause the paintings to be read as slabs and they immediately acquire tremendous weight and bulk. The objectness is enforced by the carrying of the uniform textural paint and color (as subtle as they may be) around the edges of the canvas.

The piercings are three by six inch cuts into the canvas, secured in place by bracing behind the surface. The wood interior edges of the holes are painted white and the screw heads call attention to the construction. The eight holes are arrayed symmetrically about an inner zone emphasizing the heraldic frontality of the architectonics. The negative cuts are the most prominent feature on the surface and are emphasized by the shadows (multiplied if lit from several sources). By opening the interior De France emphasizes the ambiguous character of the figure ground relationship between the painting and the wall. Nearly all of his works have dealt with this theme of voids opening a pictorial surface, and the problem of compensating for their creation. It can be thought of as his subject matter, for it has appeared in various guises as scrappings in heavily built up impasto, as wedges of space trapped in geometry; holes have been opened and filled with other materials, backed with board, and simply left open. This subject recalls the burlap scorings and sewings of Burri—with whose work De France was not familiar when he began—and it is an abstract adaptation of such morbidly Surrealist and post-Surrealist themes as sores or wounds.

The distance between the holes is a variable within close tolerances, and they are arrayed within a specified working area; the varying proportions lead to subtle adjustments in the statements. If pulled in more closely toward the center, the central area becomes clearly defined as a shape and by compensation the outside perimeter and the separation from the wall become critical. And if the holes are extended more toward the edges of the canvas the center becomes lightly radiant and the outside area works as an enmeshed frame. If the central area and the outside edge are of about equal visual weight, the openings become so dominant that the entire shape appears stamped out like a pierced grid block or screen. Thus the areas, openings, arrangements, and surface are wedded into an indivisible and interrelated whole.

De France’s two most recent series have been most retiring, but not “invisible,” in coloration. Zolatone, a speckled paint with industrial associations, has been applied in more than a dozen layers of different sprayings to obtain a warm grey surface. With its minute black and white agitations, this paint or application creates a uniform, neutral, and tactile field capable of highly diverse interpretations. They are immensely active; some of these works seem quite hostile in their blank denseness. In their direct and heavy poverty they issue a tough but poetic challenge to acceptance. The more recent are less difficult, more buoyant in the use of subtly dyed color buried beneath a frosted but comforting snow of whitish sprays. They are thick yet tender, open to extension and development, produced in groups but each painting having the power to stand alone. De France contributes to a prevalent Los Angeles concern for carefully measured degrees of atmospheric sensation.


FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS Peter Alexander has been perfecting his simple volumes of cast plastic. He began by carrying over his figurative interests, placing wax effigies in definite layers of deeply tinted surfboard coating resin—a material with which he had gained familiarity in his youth. Figures, and later clouds, carefully and realistically treated were submerged inside prominent and somewhat distracting horizontal divisions. These subjects and methods were soon dropped in favor of spherical shapes, clear or barely tinted, embedded within solid, single cast blocks. The blocks, “anonymous” cubes and flattish rectangles, were then explored for their inherent potentials. By this point conditions of color and transparency were set. The material, now a professional quality polyester casting resin, shows on close examination a liquid corpuscular structure that is appreciably pulpy or organic and is a mark of Alexander’s individual use of the substance. The coloration varies from clear, smoky bluish, to a full and nearly fragrant pink. Certain series of cubes and blocks reveal a single mysterious cloud of whitish vapor suspended at about a middle point.

The tendency of the resin to absorb water vapor which can be induced and controlled by the sculptor causes the droplets to concentrate at the hottest point in the volume during the curing period. So illusory are these hovering puffs that from certain views or under certain lighting conditions they do not exist. In other situations they are dominant enough to seem to be the entire point of the piece; the block becomes a secondary, supporting structure. In size and configuration these clouds vary from piece to piece. In one it might be an oval formation floating high, in another a Rothko-like rectangular bank; in the most expansive it fills the volume almost to the edges, rounding the inner corners so the piece resembles a ghostly dimensional television screen. The globes and spheres, while more definitely solid embedments, also provoke a series of remarkable distortions and multiplications due to refraction, leading one to doubt their actual existence, question their cause, or wonder at their true color, shape and dimension. In all of Alexander’s work (including the figurative etchings of years ago) one is drawn into a carefully defined and limited space. Though bounded, one is led to manipulate sight angle and light incident to work out a coherent and full experience. They are solid but transparent aquariums containing suspended color, and light must play within them. Even the difference between the effects, caused by the amount of light and its nature, daylight or artificial, proves to be enormously variable and highly provocative.

After experiencing the poetics of the embedments and clouds, one could expect that the most recent series of prisms and pyramids would be more rationally mechanical. They are solid pinkish casts with no (or at least very little) interior additions, and the distortion of edge line and planes through refraction, the intensification of light as color, and the release of prismatic color bands into the surroundings are all spectacular effects. But also, given the angular shapes, reasonably to be expected. One suspects they function so well because the optics are so easily arrived at, inherent results. However, despite the pretise handling of the forms, the material appears here so sensuously romantic that they recall the luscious and Baroque Rubens more than mechanistic Newtonian physics. Imagine if you would an exotic and sensual sort of geometry.


BARRY LE VA TURNED FROM painting to sculpture about three years ago. His first major pieces were stuffed, cubic, cloth volumes. The canvas cloth was. spray-painted with enamel. During one painting session he realized that the scraps strewn in disorder on the studio floor possessed more vitality and possibility of development than the work with which he was then engaged. In the past year and a half he has produced a dozen pieces of increased size and numbers of parts fabricated primarily from felt. He began with painted canvas but for a number of reasons (chipping of paint, slightness of weight, etc.) rejected it in favor of the other brightly colored material. Originally attracted by the vivid hues, he decided they were too sensuous and more recently has limited himself to black, and then grey.

The parts in a Le Va sculpture include broad sheets of the felt, strips, streamers, wood forms covered with the fabric, and hundreds of ball bearings. These are all positioned on the floor in varying arrangements, and still, after the experience of viewing the advanced works of Morris, Judd, and Andre (because they deal with volumes or thickish planes), Le Va’s works bring about a number of surprising and incorrect responses. A first suspicion is that they are somehow minimal or primary in orientation, for the units are basically rectangular and are severely limited in height, rising barely nine inches above the floor plane. But this view is untenable for, in any direction, order is mixed with chaos; twisted and irregular units cluster, and sections fold across each other.

Le Va begins a work by drawing, composing parts and arrangements on graph paper. The grid is not used to generate designs of shapes but, as in architecture, to determine a scale ratio for eventual enlargement. An ideal area is determined, and varying sizes and combinations of possible relationships are worked out. The actual parts are then produced. There remains only the final step of presenting or placing the work. For those who have had an opportunity to see him set out a piece certain aspects of an unself-conscious performance appear, and this serves as a reminder that his work probably has its roots in Abstract Expressionist painting. The floor, a supposed neutral plane, can also be interpreted as an active field, an actual “arena,” which operates as an integral and positive feature like an exposed and unpainted canvas. The parts are combined into roughly an equal number of ordered and chaotic areas as in some of Hans Hofmann’s paintings of the early ’60s with their balance of expressionist brushwork and clean-edged geometry. Each time the parts of a piece are set out afresh an entirely new grouping, if not a new sculpture, results, for his plans are only used to inaugurate the parts and not as a precise layout. He might start a presentation with the drawings at hand, but he prefers to react to the feel and structure of a different space and to the parts ready for distribution. The largest elements are cast out first and arrayed and arranged and so on to the smallest. An area does not work well if it seems pleasing; the parts are then provoked and manipulated (moved or even kicked) until it feels right—either very planned or very unforeseen. A piece is completed when all combinations of parallel and diagonal alignments, varieties of folds and weighted masses, overlaps, empty areas, and zones of disorder are mixed to a maximum degree. Because of the plastic or flexible quality of his art, one could consider his work ended when the elements are made, or when a piece is presented. But since undoubtedly it must be picked up sometime and thus the arrangement either modified or completely destroyed, his sculpture is never finished. Or if finished, it can never be permanent in the form it now takes. Le Va’s compositions balance at the tenuous point of change, a suspended state of flux, and from this comes their fascination.


WITHIN TERMS OF RECENT WIDESPREAD interest in box constructions, Cheng’s objects could be reasonably accepted as sculpture. To support this claim he includes vacuum-formed volumes in his plexiglas enclosures and has done a series of mechano-humans cast in bas relief. But it is wiser to understand that he is a photographer with an industrial orientation and thus a more reasonable approach is to understand his work as elaborately and originally mounted and framed photos.

In mood his entire body of work is decidedly serious and evidently pessimistic, for his choice of subject matter is single-minded in form and treatment. A singular basic theme is the mechanical volumes of cars, trailers, dirigibles, balloons and such circular framing devices as tunnel archways and the windows of cars. In his strictly two-dimensional montages these objects are cut out, sectioned, and remounted. The situations are immediately recognizable, but edited and re-composed, flattened out to symbolic potential. The images are placed onto long roadways, set into landscapes, or up against full cloud groups that move swiftly back to infinity, but through sharp value control he produces a narrowing of space. As with a telephoto lens effect, Cheng forces the montages to convey a singular malaise—the loneliness and panic of the open road or of open space pulled close and made oppressive by his bulbous tank like subjects.

Equally potent are his multiple views of a single negative developed through a tonal range in exactly controlled darkroom processing. They point up the factual, repeatable nature of the photo but, just as importantly, an equally basic quality we largely ignore, the mutable factor of key control. From the suggestiveness of a barely resolved tracery to the smoggy density of high middle value, to the somber and stark contrasts of low dark, each stage reads as a different image causing an entirely different set of associations to be aroused. Side by side, the test strips combine to reveal the subjectiveness which can affect the interpretation of mechanically rendered but manipulated data. Another montage presents various views of a walking elderly man shown in various positions in space. As in a Muybridge or Marey motion study, or a Flemish primitive’s simultaneous compression of a religious narrative, the abundance of sequential material composed into one unity confounds reason yet eerily enchants by seeming plausible.

In the sculptures, simple boxes preserve the spatial arrangements of bleached and dyed photos. All of Cheng’s images are distant yet realistic. Gas trucks on a bleak highway, wheelchair patients, a stilled balloon seller, junked cars and hanging carcasses are all related as equally depressing, ponderous, and previously or potentially mobile volumes. Each photo is sealed between the halves of a vacuum-molded plastic shape that follows the contours of the subjects and is paired to bow outward in front and back. The subjects are bagged and preserved as surely as produce from the frozen food counter and just as compressed and airless. The surface of the molded plastic is protected from touch by the clear box and picks up reflections of light which play across the invisibly clear protrusions, adding a tangible volumetric sense and at the same time rendering the pale photos hallucinatory. Numerous primitive peoples are reported to believe the camera steals the soul. Whatever soul Cheng’s objects possessed is distilled to an encapsulated, weightless silence.

Fidel A. Danieli