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ART REVIEWS : Isermann: Mutations of Art and Design

March 25, 1994|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jim Isermann has long been a connoisseur of 1950s and 1960s kitsch: atom clocks that would be at home in Denny's along any interstate highway; boomerang coffee tables boasting a rec-room insouciance; flower-power paintings rendered in the ice blues and pinks once so dear to suburban teen-age girls armed with matching Princess telephones.

Today's kitsch was yesterday's mid-cult pretension and will be tomorrow's high style--resurrected first by the subculture and then by the canny omnivores who purvey such things to those willing and able to put up hard cash.

Isermann revels in the irony of such cultural recyclings and cross-generic mutations of design into art--and back again. But he does so without the cynicism that informs the neo-Pop work of Peter Halley, similarly concerned with bankrupt styles and inherited vocabularies, or Ashley Bickerton, who investigates the blurred boundaries separating the commodity from the art object.

For those unfamiliar with Isermann's lattice-work panels, bean-bag chairs, shag rug "paintings," stained-glass windows and other decorative objects--all rendered courtesy of a period palette that is half-poignant and half-seductive--a mini-retrospective at Sue Spaid Gallery showcasing work of the past decade is revelatory.

It suggests the extent to which Isermann's recuperative aesthetic has itself been reformulated as a style by a number of younger artists and provides a context for his newest creations, a series of hand-pieced, fabric wall hangings concurrently at Richard Telles Gallery.

Caught somewhere between patchwork quilts and modernist paintings, the new works are visually dazzling. The zig-zagging florals, intricately interrupted plaids and concentric pinwheels enact Isermann's familiar slippages, while openly embracing certain feminist strategies that have long been buried here. Marked, like all of Isermann's work, by unrepentant beauty and under-recognized complexity, they secure the artist's position as the Watteau of thrift-shop rococo.

* Sue Spaid Gallery, 7454 1/2 2 Beverly Blvd., (213) 935-6153, through March 30; Richard Telles Gallery, 7380 Beverly Blvd., (213) 965-5578, through April 16; both closed Sunday and Monday.

* Landfill World: Anything overwhelming commands attention by virtue of sensory overload: too big, too loud, too much. It's a cheat only if there's nowhere else the work wants to (or can) go, as with Frank Stella's hyperbolic reliefs of the 1980s, Robert Longo's sculptural hysterics and many of Cady Noland's aggressively low-brow scatter pieces.

Jason Rhoades' new work overwhelms but does so as a means to an end. That is not to suggest the artist doesn't take his sweet time alternately frustrating and mesmerizing an audience, who is confronted with an excess of weirdly dysfunctional stuff custom-crafted for urbanites in the throes of one or another transitional crises.

We're talking Styrofoam bookcases; area rugs made of stapled yellow index cards; bedroom and kitchen ensembles made of cardboard boxes swaddled in sheets of yellow legal paper; pick-up truck seats covered in yellow sheepskin with bananas stuck in the folds; a combination ceramic kiln and stereo made of tin foil; plastic waste buckets; paper bushel baskets; discarded burrito wrappers, and enough ersatz, domesticated, would-be landfill to cover every square inch of the Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

This back-handed paean to home improvement is quite pointedly titled "Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts." The Fiero, a short-lived model introduced by Pontiac in 1984, was an American product fabricated to marry Japanese efficiency and Italian style; a yellow one is parked in the gallery's lot. A commercial flop, the car emblematizes sham design. It also represents a desire to cultivate a rarefied aesthetic impossibly at odds with an indigenous style.

"Swedish Erotica" works similarly here. It conjures a U.S. company whose name capitalizes upon the allure of European sex films of the 1960s--from "Wild Strawberries" to "I Am Curious (Yellow)"--in order to market home-grown sleaze.

"I Am Curious (Yellow)" might be the subtitle of this show, with its surfeit of yellow and its spiraling references to another borrowed Swedish aesthetic, the tremendously successful Ikea chain, which peddles prefabricated furnishings to Americans equally enamored of a national tradition of handcrafting and a murky vision of Continental high style.

With sweaty intensity, Rhoades redoubles our double fixation. Ironically, his fervor illustrates the politics of inauthenticity while arguing for the artist's passion for his tools, his materials and the fabulous (if essentially useless) things he can do with them.

* \o7 Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 8525 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 652-9172, through April 16. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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