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Art Reviews : George Herms' 'Project X': Rust Never Sleeps

November 18, 1994|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

California assemblage art can be thought of as a long-playing ode to rust. Rust is a romantic metaphor for the passing of time. It insinuates the poetry of use and the beauty of waste. It has lost a bit of its frisson due to overexposure over the years. But George Herms, whose "Project X" is now on view at Kohn Turner Gallery, demonstrates that certain materials, like certain aesthetics, never die; they merely await reincarnation.

Here is a surfeit of rusty things--gas cans, silverware, car parts, mattress springs, muffin tins, tools and so on--as well as old pieces of newspaper and discarded pieces of clothing that, by proximity, look rusty, too. These post-industrial discards are amalgamated into sculptural assemblages, and arranged in, on and above grid-like shelves--one of Herms' favorite modes of display, borrowed from surrealism.

Indeed, the most interesting of these assemblages are those that owe the greatest debt to surrealism and its attraction to peculiar juxtapositions. Among them is a piece titled "Appolinaire," which enshrines a chipped coffee cup from a restaurant named after the famous poet and a huge tangle of wire suspended from the ceiling like a tumbleweed floating out of a dream, studded with a scythe and a piece of melting glass.

Despite the deadbeat allure of individual pieces, the show works best as a whole--as a kind of studio-cum-mindscape. What ties it all together is Herms' longtime signature--the word "LOVE," stamped in capital letters with a backward E. "LOVE" shows up in corners, on the undersides of objects, on dangling pieces of yellowed paper. This word is a perfect talisman for a man who has never allowed his wit to compromise his generosity of spirit, and a perfect gift for those viewers willing to pick through the refuse to find it.

* "Project X," Kohn Turner Gallery, 9006 Melrose Ave., (310) 271-4453, through Dec. 17. Closed Sunday and Monday.

*

Jokester: In Michael Coughlan's new work at TRI Gallery, profound truths masquerade as dumb jokes--maybe so successfully that when they unveil themselves, these truths feel like an intrusion, or a party-pooper's pieties.

Dumb jokes are fun, and it is hard not to have fun in the presence of a large, papier-mache mountain with glistening soap bubbles spewing from the top and popping delicately on their way down to earth. Equally crowd-pleasing is a plywood shelf, empty except for three lonely rubber worms, and a few nylon rope cobwebs in the corners.

Coughlan, however, wants to offer more than a series of quirky visuals. He wants to paint a wry portrait of the artist as callow youth. "Self-Portrait as a Small Volcano" thus is about the problem of being full of ideas whose transparency is evident to everyone else except you. "Still Life for the Fecund Ascetic" is about being cursed with a head so empty that everybody and everything--except the proverbial worms--have taken a hike.

There is something winning about the capacity to operate on multiple levels. Like that of Dennis Oppenheim, Rebecca Horn and Jack Pierson (an idiosyncratic trio, yet all come to mind here), Coughlan's work is both playful and conceptually dense. Yet there is a flip side Coughlan must consider as he goes for it all. And that is the fact that it is more difficult than it looks to wed whimsical form to serious (if self-deprecating) content. This work is very promising (the titles alone are quite wonderful), but it still feels semi-detached, as if one or the other--form or content--would do just as nicely as both.

* TRI Gallery, 6365 Yucca St., Hollywood, (213) 469-6686, through Nov. 27. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

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