The place depicted in "Sense of Place," at USC's Fisher Gallery, may not be the Los Angeles that you observe on daily travels. It's certainly not the city that nestles cozily in memory, or the one you brag about to Midwestern associates. But the artists who drew and painted it see this view of Los Angeles as a shatteringly true picture.
It's actually three separate pictures that share a troubling vision. The city portrayed by D. J. Hall, F. Scott Hess and John Valadez as exotic and glamorous, debauched and insidious is home to people of vastly different circumstances who are all uneasy.
Not every viewer picks up the negative aspects of Hall's exquisitely painted portraits of glittering women. Her stylish subjects, including herself, bubble over with the satisfaction of having nice clothes and well-tended bodies, plus the luxury of lunching in gorgeous outdoor settings. Their giddiness rises to such a pitch and their surroundings sparkle so gaily that the women seem plastic, but their condition is what millions aspire to and it is undeniably seductive.
When Hall established herself about 10 years ago with realistic portraits of the wrinkled resort set, there was little question about her position. Obviously appalled by America's fixation on youth, wealth and leisure--and terrified of being swallowed up by it--she turned out wicked interpretations of lounge lizards as she relished every varicose vein and lump of cellulite.
But as Hall and her art have matured, she has become more forgiving and her work has taken on an ambiguity that makes it much more interesting. Instead of preaching from the outside, she now implicates herself with all the other gorgeous blondes who appear so ecstatically shallow.
You don't get to know them at the intimate parties Hall paints so beautifully (from composites of carefully orchestrated photographs); their eyes are covered by sunglasses that reflect squeaky clean environments and they put on happy faces as they smile for the camera. But they are willing participants in a body of work that is effectively ambivalent.
Aware that it's absurd for grown-up women to pose with bunny-shaped cupcakes or to take a lap dog to a restaurant, they throw caution to the wind in return for having a glamorous image of themselves hung in an art gallery. You get the feeling that they know exactly what they are doing: playing a role and getting a big kick out of female camaraderie while posing for a compromising picture. At least for the moment, they become the thing that both repels and attracts them.
If Hall's work has a soothing cosmetic surface, Hess' rumbling paintings make you feel queasy. He casts landscapes in a queer green and purple light, paints doorways and windows with zigzag contours and turns people into ghoulish pariahs. Nearly everything seems in a state of disintegration as you peer down into messy rooms or scan a scene of impending violence at the beach.
One of the most benign paintings on view depicts a pregnant woman and her husband seated on a deck, but they seem intensely uncomfortable. When a couple picks up an order at a drive-through restaurant, the scene has the flavor of a surreptitious drug deal while the floozy woman in the car appears to be a prostitute.
Other works suggest the aftermath of an argument or disaster. Life goes on as depressingly as usual following an explosion, in a painting called "Car Bomb." People have moved away from a table of food in "Spaghetti and Meatballs"--to argue, vomit or submerge themselves in television. Nastiness is everywhere; often the worst of it is being in the same room with people you can't stomach.
Hess' painting is, as they say, "strong" work, but it is also a schtick. His taste for the lurid is akin to that of Paul Cadmus, while his moral tone has the oppressive ring of American regionalism of the '30s. A Midwesterner who studied in Vienna and came to Los Angeles a few years ago, Hess observes his new home with the fascinated horror of a disapproving outsider as he paints apocalypse in Lotusland.
Valadez, a native of Los Angeles with strong ties to his Chicano and Mexican heritage, is also judgmental, but his work is mollified by empathy for members of an underclass. Unlike Hess, who draws from scratch, Valadez depends heavily on photographs and pictures from magazines, newspapers and other printed products.
Working in pastels, he enlarges these images, either isolating individuals or putting them into a new context with other people and objects. Though quite masterfully drawn, the figures tend to look like cut-outs and his work retains a collage-like aspect. This can heighten an intended tone of alienation, but it can also create a disjointed sense of artifice.