Los Angeles

Patrick Nickell

The Luckman Gallery

Occasionally, an exhibition at a smaller LA venue suggests the bigger ones might be getting sleepy at the wheel. This season—marked by such misuse of space as the too-close-to-corporate J. Mays car show at LA MoCA and LACMA’s Edmier/Fawcett Pygmalion-fest—was ultimately made memorable when Cal State’s underrecognized university gallery mounted a long-overdue first survey of works by local artist Patrick Nickell. Like wallflowers, these pieces never flaunt themselves but are well worth getting to know.

“Built for Speed” shared its title with Nickell’s first solo show, in 1990, at the now-defunct Sue Spaid Gallery. The title’s reuse reflects the artist’s ability to breathe new life into castoffs, and the phrase itself notes his penchant for soapbox-derby technology and lemonade-stand production budgets. Already glimmering with his oeuvre’s core values are untitled works made between 1991 and 1994 in which rings and other shapes bent out of corrugated cardboard are wrapped in clear plastic, creating units of homemade dazzle. Operating by a logic in which structural and aesthetic functions go hand in hand, Nickell clusters them into formations resembling necklaces, chandeliers, bouquets, and windows of leaded glass, harnessing his materials’ translucency, malleability, reflectivity, rigidity, and tensile strength.

While Nickell’s building blocks rarely get more highfalutin than cardboard, hot glue, and scrap lumber, no works are born of a glib intent to insert materials presumed low into an arena alleged lofty. Among Nickell’s mostly untitled works are objects resembling an asterisk, a movie projector, kitchen implements, and a disembodied clown’s mouth on a pedestal; all toy with assorted attitudinal bents, from a flair for the baroque to a tendency toward prudence, from deadpan funny to deeply serious.

Since 1999, Nickell’s work has become more precise, and perhaps more formulaic, with his now-familiar cardboard-and-plastic facets tiled together into architectural model–like structures. But as much as Nickell likes to recycle, he also knows when to throw the formula. The show’s newest work, an untitled sculpture of cutout plywood and cardboard from 2003, could be the outline of a thought bubble or a country, lifted from the page, enlarged, emptied, turned on its side, and painted pink. Leaning against the wall, it flirtatiously awaits an inscription from its viewer. Like nearly all his works, the latest defines itself by packaging empty space: a clever way of making sculpture and a potent clue to Nickell’s interests. Taking evident physical and intellectual pleasure in discovering what can be gained or extracted through play, he turns his common materials into value-added items—containers that shyly but persuasively ask you to lend them your thoughts for a while.

Christopher Miles