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Laundromat Series Awash in Art History

June 25, 1999|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Steven Pippin first attracted international attention a few years back with a bit of inspired madness: bleary photographs made with a toilet he had converted into a camera. The delightful madness continues: The 39-year-old British artist is now a finalist for the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize.

At Regen Projects, Pippin's second solo show in Los Angeles features work from a loopy 1997 series in which he converted a dozen washing machines in a New Jersey laundromat into rudimentary flash cameras, all for the purpose of re-creating the legendary motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). In 1878, Muybridge set up a sequence of 12 trip-wired box cameras to conquer the problem of motion in still photography, and he famously recorded Leland Stanford's horse, Sallie Gardner, galloping at a Palo Alto racetrack. Pippin's project too culminated in the somewhat skittish appearance of a horse and rider for a photo shoot at the makeshift laundromat-cum-studio.

The show at Regen includes laser-print copies of the technical drawings that show how Pippin cleverly converted the front-loading washers, whose boxy, glass-windowed shape already recalls an old-fashioned television set. (Sensibly, developer and fixer are added through the automatic soap dispenser.) A 20-minute video documents the process of converting the machines (oblivious laundromat patrons go about their wash-day chores) and of making various motion studies.

Finally, three sets of images line the walls--a test sequence, another of the artist walking backward and one of him running. These strange, circular pictures, their surfaces mottled with black crease marks from where the negatives were tossed and tumbled in the washers, show a business-suited, Chaplin-esque figure (or sometimes just a blur of arm or leg) passing across the visual field--from a washing machine's point of view.

How many times have you sat at the laundromat blankly watching the suds spin? Here, the machine looks back. Remarkably, Pippin manages to restore an unnerving sense of giddy eccentricity to today's don't-think-twice ubiquity of photography.

The high point of the videotape comes when a horse and rider nervously enter the laundromat. Pippin ends the tape with a quick-cut sequence of the resulting camera stills that show the pair riding by. If that isn't worth the Turner Prize, nothing is.

* Regen Projects, 629 N. Almont Drive, West Hollywood, (310) 276-5424, through July 3. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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The Lost World: For his promising solo debut at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, young artist Glenn Kaino partakes of an established sculptural tradition that extends from such formidable predecessors as Chris Burden and Michael McMillen in the 1980s to Jason Rhoades in the early 1990s. The show is permeated by a tinkerer's sensibility, familiar to teenage car customizers, youthful builders of ham radios or model airplanes, and post-adolescent garage bands. It's "boy art" redux, here inflected with a cinematic gloss.

The mise en scene is established in the front room. Casually cropped, saturated-color photographs of tropical fish in an aquarium suggest a floating world of suburban daydreams. Across the end wall, nine foam boogie boards painted in bright, solid hues and cut into stylized silhouettes of cars are scattered about in a visual echo of the photographic angel fish and guppies.

The rear gallery houses the main event. A kind of pseudo-movie-miniature, built from simple scaffolding and brightly lit by spots and reflective baffles, occupies the space, ready for its close-up. A large plastic tank, flanked by subsidiary tanks connected through a tangled network of tubes and whirring pumps, is filled with sea water.

Instead of tropical fish, though, the center tank holds a boomerang-shaped island, also apparently cut from a foam boogie board. Suspended like stalactites beneath the island--and thus hanging below the water's surface--are an array of murky urban structures. Kaino's Atlantean fantasy of a lost world hovering just below the surface is constantly churned by streams of water, which are shot from four motorized Super-Soaker squirt guns.

Kaino has a way with simple materials, and he's able to nimbly suggest an easygoing mutability of forms that enhances the daydreamy quality of his work. What's missing is a visual payoff that's quite up to the level of the labor-intensive feeling of the show, which seems to hold the potential for a more resonant poetic riff on the poignant question of youthful loss.

* Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through July 3. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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