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Wry View of Suburbia's Bland Sameness

May 14, 1999|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

America as social dystopia has become almost as familiar a theme in late 20th century art as America the natural utopia was in the late 19th. Jane Dickson, whose intriguing recent paintings are on view at Sandroni Rey Gallery, is preoccupied with "the spoiled view." In earlier work, she gazed down at gritty, nighttime street life from her former studio overlooking Times Square, or she peered into others' windows to record the lone figures staring back at her. Her new paintings veer away from life on the edge to focus on the dead center. Suburbia, in all of its bland ubiquity, gets what it deserves in Dickson's disquieting, gently ironic work.

Painting directly onto carpet or artificial turf gives Dickson's work an immediate novelty, but such gimmickry usually has all the lasting appeal of a trick candle that sparks up again and again in exactly the same way until it's no longer amusing. Here, however, the use of carpet and turf ultimately compounds the quiet power of Dickson's vision by fully, literally integrating surface and content.

Synthetic, machine-woven carpet makes a fitting foundation for views of generic tract homes that are commonly filled with the stuff. Comfort and convenience define the suburban American dream, not character. The snug uniformity that Dickson evokes in her iconic portraits of houses has its appeal, but it also has a price: It comes at the expense of soul.

The bumpy surfaces Dickson works on cause the contours of her images to disintegrate in a way that's reminiscent of the grainy quality of bad television reception. TV sets gleam from a few of the paintings here, beckoning a visitor inside in one, and mesmerizing a child into her own private reverie in another. They serve at once as comfort, temptation, solace. Such still, psychologically charged spaces, articulated in dramatic contrasts of light and dark, invite comparison to Edward Hopper, but Dickson's work also has some of the cool horror of Lewis Baltz's photographs of office parks.

A third group of paintings, representing circus scenes and painted on the conventional support of stretched linen, comes as something of a redemption after the works on carpet and AstroTurf. Circus culture has its glamorous and its seedy sides, and Dickson opts for the brightly appealing and innocent. In an image diametrically opposed to the stifling conformity of suburbia, she paints a trapeze artist swinging through space as freely and gracefully as a bird. The bold stripes of the tent buckle sweetly behind her, like lips puckered for a kiss.

The circus may be an American institution, but joining it has become emblematic of the desire to break free from conventional life, to escape from the world housed in the bland boxes of Dickson's other paintings. Cumulatively, Dickson's work ends up being more complicated than a mirror reflecting our acculturated desires. It functions instead like a prism, delivering several views of several different American dreams.

* Sandroni Rey Gallery, 1224 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 392-3404, through June 5. Closed Sunday-Tuesday.

*

In Concept: Considering that Jennifer Bornstein's work presumes to be about place--in memory, imagination and reality--it's dismaying to conclude of her current show at Blum & Poe Gallery that there's no there there. A young L.A. artist, Bornstein aligns herself with a currently hip, Conceptually driven practice of photography, but it would take quite a generous scraping together of the inconsequential elements here to muster up anything quite as substantive as a concept.

In the main room, Bornstein has erected a wall with plywood viewing platforms a few inches high and extending from either side. On one side of the wall hang three color photographs that follow the conventional format of family pictures, with the artist and one or two others in friendly contact and in neutral outdoor settings.

On the opposite side, Bornstein projects a short film composed of individual shots of those different settings: a paved path through a grassy park, grass bordered by palm trees, an expanse of rocks, and so on. Because the camera never moves within each shot, the film plays like a tedious slide show, and none of the components of the installation reward attention.

Another short (and equally banal) film, projected in the gallery's back room through a gratuitous wood and mirror periscope device, shows numerous colored yin/yang symbols grouping, twirling and dispersing.

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