Los Angeles

Alexis Smith and Doug Wheeler

Riko Mizuno Gallery

All too infrequently, The New Yorker runs a politely Dada bagatelle by Donald Barthelme, Saul Steinberg, or James Stevenson consisting of oddly matched, quasi-intelligible but ironically incisive pictures and captions; it’s audience-oriented (penthouse pot smokers, faded prep-school ingenues, cat lovers), so it’s light and ticklish—perfect bathtub reading. But I like it when it’s heavy, too, and innerdirected (even solipsist) as it is with Alexis Smith, who does much the same thing in ordered, sectioned, horizontal collage/drawing/text narratives under glass along white gallery walls. Smith’s vignettes deal ostensibly with a didactic lecture on the relativity of light and gravity (the anecdote of scientists zooming up and down in an elevator while a beam of light “bends” through a hole), personal identity (slanting her eyes with her fingers and quoting from Charlie Chan scenario), or dreams. Everybody else I know likes it, too, and I wonder why such convoluted art, which has to be painfully “read,” is so pleasantly accessible. Maybe it’s because Smith is a genuine will-o’-the-wisp, floating gracefully over dangerously preachy Conceptual/feminist territory without being overly eclectic or strident. On the other hand (always the nay-sayer, me) we in the art world are pretty much illiterate (reading Wittgenstein, How Things Work, and nothing humanist in between), and naively touched when somebody puts together a tender little story. I think, however, it’s only a little of the latter (the inevitable formula-cuteness of e-n-i-g-m-a), and much more the tidy, inviting, tiny scale, the delicacy of both pasteup and meditation. Delete “painfully” from “read.”

Doug Wheeler is a moderately neglected (locally) artist (perhaps owing to a grapevine reputation for surliness and seclusion) involved with lights, environmental effects, and a singularity which might be called the new icons—plexiglass rounded rectangles with neon periphery—at least as early as Irwin or Turrell. Although he was big in Europe for a while, Wheeler gets few opportunities around Los Angeles; in a new era of antitechnology, Wheeler is still considered an unfashionable plug-in, electric artist. He had a chance to do a piece at the Mizuno Gallery but, fussy as he is, canceled when the room wasn’t working. Instead, Wheeler installed recent drawings which, heretofore, he’d been reluctant to show because they’re complex, eclectic, personal, and because, admittedly, they’d interfere with his identity as the fabricator of those icons; now, a little older and wiser (and dealing with an audience a little more knowledgeable than the ’60s supergraphics buyers), he knows the climate is improved . . . and he’s right. Wheeler’s drawings are superb. Two-layer (tracing paper over graph paper) altered working drawings (e.g., the Tate installation of 1970), aeronautical charts, laid over with fantasmagorical deserts, weather instructions, seamless “rooms” for Globe, Arizona (hometown), and flower symbols for girlfriends. From 8 to 10 feet away the drawings have the gauzy prettiness of halations and moirés; closer, the intrigues half appear; frame-to-nose, Wheeler’s precisely indulgent flotsam and jetsam are the psychic morsels you always suspected buzzed in the air before his lighted walls. It’s well he showed these: they’re different and good; they humanize what usually comes off as laboratory (accent: second syllable) art; and, hopefully, they’re harbingers of major work.

––Peter Plagens