San Francisco

Rachel Lachowicz

Patricia Sweetow Gallery

These days, the term “signature style” is often applied not only to brushwork, composition, and subject matter, but also to distinctive materials, which tend to become inextricably intertwined with the identity of the individual who uses them first or to most interesting effect. In the early ’90s, Los Angeles–based artist Rachel Lachowicz became known internationally for using red lipstick to create parodic appropriations of famous works by male artists—remaking, among others, Michelangelo’s David, a Carl Andre floor piece, and a group of Richard Serra’s leaning slabs. Lachowicz also made use of face powder and eye shadow, but lipstick and appropriation were her signature material and method.

As the decade came to a close, Lachowicz began to build images out of arrangements of small tins designed to hold cosmetics, ultimately also producing her own versions of said tins. Combining various shades of “face paint” and binder with materials including graphite and charcoal, she used a machine of the kind developed for the beauty industry to compress the mixtures into containers of various shapes. In some of the resultant “paintings,” such as her version of a Chuck Close self-portrait, the use of squares of color pixilates the image, transforming curved lines into a jagged succession of horizontals and verticals. Recently, the artist has refined her technique to moderate this effect and now painstakingly arranges up to five different colors within each individual tin, making the representation of complex shapes that much more convincing.

Among the six new works exhibited recently at Patricia Sweetow Gallery, the only appropriation—of a Warhol canvas—uses this method to reproduce its floral subject in smoky shades of green, gray, and black. The work is seductive, but, in the context of the others presented, feels slightly dated. The remainder of the show indicated an important shift in the conceptualization of Lachowicz’s work: She is still using cosmetics, but the newer works appear to address something beyond art-historical commentary or post-feminist theory. Standing Curve (all works 2005), the largest piece here, appears, from one side, to be a section of a gleaming, four-foot-tall polished stainless steel cylinder. But on the other side, it is covered with a grid of tiny rectangles of mixed blues and greens that evoke the sea or sky. And just as each cell in a body holds a DNA map of the whole organism, each tin of color is both complete in itself and an integrated element of the entire piece.

Some works in the show seem to have developed out of the shape of the units used to compose them. The soft, biomorphic cylinder of Truncated (pink) has been formed out of a skin of bright pink dots—actually squarish tins filled with shades varying from cerise to pale rose. The sculpture’s eccentric combination of color and shape suggests an improbable meeting of Japanese anime and Jean Arp. Untitled (black) is a box comprising rectangular tins conjoined in a way that suggests the disciplined chaos of crystal growth. And Icosaeder, a smaller wall piece, takes the compositional device a step further: Over a flat disc of tessellating triangles, Lachowicz has built an irregular, domelike lattice of the same sharp shapes. The dome’s ragged, seemingly incomplete form evokes growth, as if it is on its way to becoming something else—an apt parallel to Lachowicz’s new work as a whole.

Maria Porges