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Still life goes on divergently at Armory exhibit

August 06, 2003|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

When it comes right down to it, every painting is a sort of still life -- a static image extracted from the dynamic flow of consciousness. A traditional definition of still life would be more specific, however, having to do with images of arranged objects, those objects serving as vehicles for reflections on culture, beauty, mortality, the self.

Still life painting has its own niche, then, but it plays well with others. "Still Life, Still Here," at the Armory Center for the Arts, hints at the genre's expansiveness, but the show disappoints. It makes a better case for the viability of still life in general than for most of the artists included. Organized by freelance curator Jaime Villaneda, the show joins -- tenuously -- nine contemporary Los Angeles painters, photographers, sculptors, and installation and video artists. In spite of its theme, the grouping has a randomness that could be forgiven if its contents were gripping enough, but they're not. Only a few artists hold their own in this flimsy context.

Enjeong Noh and Rebecca Morales do so with grace and extraordinary skill. Noh's dozen oil paintings are dark little gems, meditative studies of objects that are often dense with associations: flowers, skulls, cloth-wrapped boxes, incense burning in its holder. Single roses appear several times in these works, always tired and turning their heads away from us poignantly. The paintings, as spare as they are, feel fully charged emotionally. Noh's exquisite ability to render texture appeals to the sense of touch as much as to sight. Her image of two small celadon cups, one half-filled with pale tea, is achingly intimate.

Morales, too, has a deftness with materials that borders on alchemical. In her gouache and watercolor paintings on vellum, she conjures hair and feathers with particular persuasiveness. One tall vertical work features an image of a long auburn braid, a horse's tail knotted at top and bottom. A patch of cool green moss sprouts near its upper knot, and small beads of moisture cling to some of the braid's wire-thin strands. It's a mysterious and riveting sight, a snippet of something organic rendered as detached, sculptural. In another of Morales' paintings, two birds of prey tussle over a slender snake. Titled "A Fine Line Between North and South," the picture introduces to the show a whiff of political allegory.

From there, this exhibit devolves into an array of earnest, less inspired efforts, some looking quite out of place in a show centered on still life. Alex Donis' garden of flowers made from recycled milk cartons and water bottles is clumsy in a less-than-endearing way, like a class art project assembled obediently on a rainy day. Karen Bonfigli's cut-out condors mounted overhead in the gallery and outside the Armory's entrance are equally pedestrian and even more irrelevant to the exhibition's theme. Her "Labyrinth" installation of sand, dried lavender, flower petals and seed pods feels pleasant enough beneath bare feet but amounts to little more than a simplistic stage set for spiritual contemplation.

Nicole Cohen's video installation "Cafeteria" resonates, nominally, with the still life genre's traditional preoccupation with abundance but is otherwise irredeemably banal. Her other videos, of people at leisure, are projected onto still images of the subjects' environments. The translucency of the projected figures gives them a ghostlike presence as they move about within fixed settings. It's a workable but hardly poetic metaphor for the transience of life, a shallow, filmic update on the classic vanitas.

Catherine Opie's large color photographs of domestic interiors have a reassuring familiarity but contribute nothing of consequence to the larger dialogue. Constance Pohlman's canvases of birds and flowers, with applied shells, leaves and thorns, likewise register as blandly attractive.

The wall-mounted sculptures of Carlee Fernandez offer a little more gristle. Her "Finches With Branches" looks conventionally benign at first glance but has a quiet violence that alludes to our estrangement from nature. The stuffed birds appear to be resting on branches but are actually skewered by them. Her other pieces here, also using professionally stuffed animals, play as much with landscape tradition as with the post-hunt still life, but Fernandez's faintly wicked sense of humor is refreshing here.

Photographs and photographic montages by Emanuel Tet (even if in tedious numbers) draw smiles too. Who could resist a title like "Banana and Chinoiserie at Work"? Tet photographs small toys and figurines in gently absurd combinations -- emerging from a plate of rice, draped in ribbons of pasta, riding a plastic banana. Light as whipped cream (which, in one sequence, frosts some figurines), they link the still life tradition to one of its richest primary sources: the imaginative world of child's play, where worlds are created and interpreted anew every day through the arrangement of common objects.


`Still Life, Still Here'

Where: Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena

When: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, noon-5 p.m.; Fridays noon-8 p.m.

Ends: Aug. 31

Price: Free

Contact: (626) 792-5101

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