Los Angeles

Jim Isermann

Richard Telles Fine Art

In two shows, two blocks apart, 12 years of Jim Isermann’s multicolored work was on display. “Highlights,” a miniretrospective at Sue Spaid Fine Art, showcased chairs, rug hookings, a clock, a lamp, a stained-glass window, two wacky bean bag chairs, and some bold geometric paintings. Isermann’s work has the overwhelming flavor of homemade, handcrafted Op Art, probably because he made everything himself (except the chairs). In this survey of eleven works, the variety of materials suggested a frenetic manufacturing.

Though these pieces border on craft, their high quality, size, and careful fabrication gives them an industrial air. Untitled, 1989, is an eight-foot-square wall-piece, half painting and half rug-hooking. The acrylic yarn matches the enamel paint, and the design flows almost seamlessly among the different surfaces. The hooked-rug half is bi-level and the red shape in the foreground suggests a freeway cloverleaf. Another layer has light-purple and navy-blue concentric squares. The center of the wallpiece is a small, navy-blue square that fits exactly into the center of the knotlike interchange, linking the motif in the foreground to the Stella-like background.

All of these pieces emulate atomic-age decorative designs, yet most could barely pass for authentic thrift-store finds, even when, sadly and subtly, their age is beginning to show. Their originally high-gloss surfaces have dulled through the years to a more classic matte. Their newness, which may have once startled the non-time-traveling viewer, has eroded, hurling them—along with the material to which they are constantly referring—into the collective dust heap of history.

Part two of this exhibition, “Handiwork,” was at Richard Telles Fine Arts. Although Isermann’s new quilt-works lack any kind of space-age batting, fiberfill, or feathers, they are warm and cozy. Six wall hangings, each six feet square, are painstakingly handsewn. The stitching is immaculate. The amazing geometric piecework is never freeform, always precise. A one-hundred-year-old, lifetime quilter could not have made the seams more perfect, and if stitches were brushstrokes, Dutch still lifes wouldn’t even come close to the precision of these works.

Isermann’s quilt designs recall the simplicity of those used by the Amish, but he does not bother with solid-color cotton chintz; rather, he chooses brashly patterned, screaming artificial and natural fibers. The patterns suggest the paintings and rug hookings of “Highlights.” One fabric was specially made by Isermann for a past installation and the scraps were used, as fabric scraps traditionally are, to fashion a quilt.

The “handiwork” of the quiltlike wall hangings gives them a resonance lacking in the earlier works. They are timid and bold, strong and fragile, demure and enticing. Craft, decoration, and Modernist formal motifs stretch across the two blocks between the shows, but only the quilt-works leave irony at the door. Because they depend on a traditional craft they cannot be easily placed in a historical lineage that stems from ’60s quasi kitsch and Op Art. This ambiguity makes them more difficult to pigeonhole, and because of this, more intriguing.

Lisa Anne Auerbach