Los Angeles

Kim Abeles

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Mounted as a kind of mid-career retrospective, this exhibition surveyed the prolific Kim Abeles’ work from 1979 to the present. She tends to work in series, 12 of which were represented in this show of more than 80 works. Combining elements of assemblage, Dada, and the diction of instructional materials, Abeles creates shrines that are often armed with an insistent social message. Beautifully conceived, designed, and produced, the catalogue that accompanied the show successfully advanced Abeles’ primary goals: to captivate and educate. Presented as a faux–World Book encyclopedia volume, it comes complete with a profusion of cunning little illustrations, and World Book’s signature red leathery cover. The encyclopedia conceit is the perfect vessel for Abeles’ tone, which mixes lightheartedness, dead seriousness, and idealism with an earnestness that is rare in the ’90s.

Her feeling for materials, her range of interests, and a sly, sometimes grim sense of humor are Abeles’ strengths. She works wonderfully with cloth, dead insects, feathers, and bone. Frankenstein’s Heart, 1993, a collagist’s collage, has a numbering system keyed to the materials used in the piece, so the viewer can do an inventory of its 29 elements. These include: a camera lens, smog, marble, a wasp’s nest, soil, a mirror, satin, hair, incense, embroidery, sand, hits of maps, and clockworks. Abeles’ “Kimonos” series, 1979–82, is made up of evocative works that progress from garmentlike forms as reliquaries to racks, booths, and shelves that serve as poetic repositories. Particularly striking, Ritual for Instinctual Return, 1981, features neat rows of dried pigeon feet and glinting stacks of the tiny metal ID rings the birds wear around their ankles. The piece has a lovely, solemn aura, and the kimonos in general have much of the dark mystery and slightly grungy ethereal quality of the best assemblage. There is a rather tongue-in-cheek series on the odd circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Palestine, and another about Saint Bernadette, as well as an installation of objects, photos, and texts belonging to people infected with the AIDS virus, with an accompanying brochure designed by Abeles in the form of tarot cards on one side and AIDS information in Spanish and English on the other.

“The Smog Collector,” 1991–93, is probably the series that has brought Abeles the most media attention. By placing stencils on objects and leaving them outdoors to accumulate delicate layers of the grime that is a major component of L.A.’s air, Abeles created a host of artworks including images of food on chinaware, likenesses of lungs on sheets of glass, and, most amusingly, a set of commemorative plates on which the faces of American presidents are grayly portrayed by the thin layer of pollution. Some pieces in this series have tips about fighting smog written on them. The ghostly, pretty gray images the smog particles leave on glass or china look like smoky, expert etchings—attractive rather than repellent—which may almost defeat their cautionary purpose.

For some viewers, there was a conflict between the artist’s urge to be poetic and to make didactic points. This viewer was most pleased and moved when Abeles allowed her materials to exercise their own considerable eloquence.

Amy Gerstler