Los Angeles

Ann Preston

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Ann Preston is one of the strangest, most inspired, reclusive, and underrated artists working in Los Angeles. For over ten years the 51-year-old Preston, a 1980 graduate of CalArts, has produced an astonishing body of beautiful, disturbing work. But since her work doesn’t assault the viewer in the shrill vernacular of dildos, blood, sex organs, and lipstick, and since she is too old to bask in the glory accorded the diaper-clad art pups who tumble fresh from the MFA crib, she is relegated to cult status—an artist’s artist. Preston, whose strategy is subtle, her esthetic infinitely more complex and refined than that of her gender/genital–obsessed peers, produces some of the best sculptures made by anyone right now.

Formally stunning, her objects have a flawless veneer that masks mutation, perversion, and disease. Eerie and radical, there is also something primitive about them. Their underlying malignant character pulses like a well-mannered demon. As with the most effective pieces of evil, these objects seem sweet. You drop your guard in the face of formal precision, and boom, you’re in cahoots, part of the treacherous plot. This work lures you in, speaking through objects of guilty pleasures, of the allure of beauty and of its manipulative power.

Preston’s recent show consists of drawings and sculptures of aneurisms, fetuses, babies, baby heads, and a blanket. All could be extracts from a pathology museum or a David Cronenberg movie. Baby (all works 1992–93) is a soft happy baby made out of concrete, sucking a thumb on its right hand. The left hand plays with its right and only leg, which flexes up like a fish tail. The missing left leg doesn’t appear to be needed, its absence goes almost unnoticed. In its place is a four-foot steel pole, your basic pedestal, which holds the baby up by its rectum; it sits on the pole like a lurid prize. Even though the pole is crammed up there, plain as day, it looks so quiet and gentle you feel like you’re the one making up the horrifying image.

Twins is a set of mutated baby heads made out of beeswax, rosin, and caramel-colored pigment. The oversized heads with their indented skulls, blank eyes, bulging cheeks, thick lips, open mouths, and taunting little tongues are gloating, mesmerizing balls of kickable symmetry. The inert oval heads look like humongous pieces of candy. Feti consists of two standard-size cast-aluminum stanchions, and at the tips of each are two identical forms—fetuses. The stanchions are oddly ribbed with three echoing folds (an Art Deco circumcision) and bear a terrible resemblance to antique walking canes.

It’s amusing to think that Preston could make her most disturbing work by simply making babies. As wax, concrete, or aluminum objects, the babies take on another kind of power, they become a hallucinatory morality play. In their static silence they are obviously lifeless, and come off as dead, but they also serve as a memorial to the radical poetic havoc they convey in life. They’re a subject that’s treacherous to objectify, to separate, to fragment, to turn inside out.

Benjamin Weissman