Los Angeles

Renée Petropoulous

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Throughout her career, Renée Petropoulos has explored the contours of public space in immediate, human terms. Her installations actively question who the “public” is and subtly alter how its designated spaces are used. Collaging together fragments of shoppers’ conversations at a women’s clothing boutique in a sound work titled Nearly Ten Months, 2003, for example, she ingeniously demonstrates the social function of language, the way words form an imperfect surface that separates individuals. And in Is It Possible, 2005, she turns the floor of the San Leandro County Juvenile Court lobby into an intricate word game by fitting colored terrazzo circles keyed to quotations from Rainer Maria Rilke and the rueful musings of young defendants themselves (WHY DID I HAVE TO END UP HERE?). Entering the lobby, one thus also enters an associative net that at once physicalizes anxiety and suggests an escape from it. For Petropoulos, surface is a provisional meeting between public and private.

“Social Arrangements,” Petropoulos’s dazzling, wryly titled exhibition at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, extended these investigations into the realm of geopolitics. The show comprised several bodies of work that together span almost a decade, projects that subtly inform each other to create a lively associative flow. Petropoulos’s works have always been complex and challenging—sometimes to the point of opacity—when encountered individually. But displayed together, their intentions become clear.

Hung near the entrance to the gallery were six “studies” depicting changes in the shapes of three countries between the early twentieth century and 2007. Abstracted from maps, the countries—Uruguay, Germany, and Oman—appear as inky black silhouettes against a white background. The contrast between the femur-shaped mass that is Study for a Representation of Oman, October 15, 1922 Part A, 2007, and its diminished correlative, Study for a Representation of Oman, October 14, 2006 Part B, 2006–2007, is mildly interesting, but it’s Petropoulos’s deadpan use of the word REPRESENTATION on the small brass title plaques that most effectively raises the question of dislocation explored by the remainder of the show.

In the main gallery, two striking elliptical panels, Trip From Sri Lanka to Zanzibar (by boat) 2006–07, 2007, and Trip Through the Gulf States (by air) 2006–07, 2007, were hung on opposite walls. Shaped like surfboards, the wood panels are densely layered with paint and evoke, in classically abstract painterly terms, the sensation of these two modes of travel. Trip Through the Gulf States (by air) is a cyclonic vortex of blue and white swirls, land masses seen from the air through smoke and clouds. Trip From Sri Lanka to Zanzibar (by boat)—named for the ancient Arabic trade route between Asia and Africa—is more engulfing and hypnotic. Deeply crosshatched blue and green lines evoke a sea journey’s repetitive motion. Both pieces are centerless, the geometrically irregular shapes defying any middle. Accompanying sound tracks present a hallucinatory evocation of colonial experience as the voices of slave traders, explorers, African princesses, storytellers, eco-tourism developers, suicide bombers, and chanting monks emerge over a backdrop of ambient sound.

In the side gallery, fourteen immaculate watercolor, gouache, and pencil drawings of cement blocks were arrayed in a row. Developed over a decade in the artist’s spare time on trips and at home in LA, they are surprisingly tender. Painted with delicate camel-hair brushes, these works on paper recall the meticulous watercolors made by nineteenth-century tourists to document noteworthy landmarks. Cheap and functional, the blocks become an arbitrary, comforting link between places, from upstate New York to El Salvador. In one departure, Petropoulos re-creates a frame from the movie Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Dark trellised foliage disappears into clouds like a love poem blown out across the sky.

Chris Kraus