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Harrowing, hallucinatory visions

October 24, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Sex and death pretty much did it for Sigmund Freud. When the good doctor boiled life down to basics, those two experiences explained the most important aspects of human behavior. They formed the bedrock of our myths -- religious, historical, literary and visual.

The unholy alliance of sex and death -- and its representations in the news and movies -- is not enough for Wangechi Mutu, a young artist whose gorgeously horrifying collages stir all these elements into a stew that is as fresh, raw and fascinating as it is harrowing, hallucinatory and hard to swallow. At Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 11 riveting works on paper and one collaged directly onto the wall make up a stunning solo debut. It's among the best in recent memory.

Mutu is a force to be reckoned with. Her collages combine image fragments clipped from fashion, porn, motorcycle and travel magazines with colorful puddles and translucent washes of ink. She paints with casual ferocity, letting the inks mix in dappled patterns that recall the hides of fabulous animals or the ravages of terminal diseases.

Her large works, which measure 3 to 5 feet a side, look like illustrations for the nightmarish fairy tales the Brothers Grimm might write if they were alive today. In "A Lilliputian Haunt," an airborne three-legged, one-armed, two-horned demon pesters a nubile, blue-eyed, pink-skinned beauty balancing precariously and vulnerably on an antique African stool.

Ecstasy and anguish dovetail in "The Bourgeois Is Banging on My Head." An alien with a large cranium stabs at the head of a kneeling supermodel, whose multihued, elaborately patterned skin makes the X-Men and the mutants in "Star Trek" look as proper as the Amish.

In Mutu's freakishly realistic art, prosthetic appendages are the norm, as are mix-and-match faces that suggest plastic surgery gone horribly wrong -- or perhaps skillfully practiced by back-alley renegades. Her pain-addled figures recall Thomas Pynchon's chilling descriptions of the makeshift prostheses that tinkerers and handymen cobbled together to repair some of the bodily damage of war. These loaded pictures are the futuristic offspring of Hannah Hoch's scathing collages from the 1910s and '20s.

Mutu pastes sequins onto some of her works and cuts ordinary contact paper, printed to resemble marble or hardwood, into long, sinuous blades of grass in others. All are on Mylar -- the synthetic version of vellum, an ancient surface for writing and painting made from calf and lambskin. The medium creates a cloudy, atmospheric background that invites daydreams.

Such blood-and-guts physicality mixes with Mutu's delicate touch and impressive formal sophistication to yield dazzling pieces that simultaneously attract and repulse. Her exhibition is an operatic extravaganza in which sensationalism is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath its surface are buried legions of undead, with more terror and humanity than we're used to seeing on TV or in the street.

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5363 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 933-2117, through Nov. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


A painter shifts into high gear

Bart Exposito's new paintings make his earlier ones -- which are terrific -- look like old Volkswagen Microbuses bumbling uphill in the slow lane. Picture a Ferrari whooshing by in a blur of color and sharp angles and you'll have an idea of the serious changes that have taken place in the 33-year-old painter's work since his last show in Los Angeles, 18 months ago.

Back then, Exposito coaxed lumpy shapes with rounded edges into funky forms that felt cozy. Their nesting components seemed to have been massaged into position, where they snuggled comfortably. Their rich earth tones and high-keyed accents added to a sense of patchwork organicism.

At Daniel Weinberg Gallery, eight new paintings show Exposito turning away from stability, security and solidity toward breakneck speed and delicious, often delirious, intangibility. He does this formally, by dispensing with his earlier compositions' reliance on closed shapes. In their place are line and color, elements notorious for precision and emotional appeal -- just like high-end sports cars.

Exposito's new acrylics on canvas are fine-tuned machines that deliver sizzling visual workouts. Perfectly straight lines race around their surfaces with whiplash energy. Decisively guided by a sure hand and sharp mind, they evoke Space Age lariats, simple tools of an outdated trade catapulted into the future, where they perform dazzling stunts without getting tangled up in logic.

The colors Exposito uses are odd but not extraordinary: highlighter yellow, spring-bonnet pink, khaki and olive drab. He just combines them as if he's been mixing colors for decades, splicing in various icy whites with warmer tints, along with a supple spectrum of off-blacks. Black and white never looked more lush or supple.

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