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Innocence lost in a violent cycle

March 18, 2005|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

The narrator is 11, his two buddies 12. It's an aimless summer day. The boys sit on the grass of the narrator's yard, smoking, scowling, searching for a vehicle for their preadolescent angst. Before long, they muster purpose out of the identification of a common enemy: Simpson, a boy their age whose chief crime is excessive freckles.

The snarling trio embarks on a mission to torture the poor scarlet-splotched kid. The boys find him at home, alone, bouncing a ball against his garage door. He has easy target written all over him, from the childish red and white stripes of his T-shirt to the slight whine in his voice and his pleading eyes. He's a quintessential innocent victim -- his victimhood a direct consequence of his innocence. Part of what makes the story told in J.J. Villard's short animated film, "Son of Satan," at Cirrus, so compelling is that ultimately, every character suffers from a sort of innocence or unknowing, however tough his veneer.

After the three taunt poor Simpson, accusing him of sexual crimes clearly beyond his imagination, they declare him guilty and sentence him to hanging. They carry out the punishment at the house of the narrator, whose conviction starts to tremble at the real harm he's inflicting. To save face among his friends, he stays tough. Simpson is a puffy wreck barely alive when finally cut down from the noose, and the narrator is steeped in fear and panic and defiance. When his father returns home and beats him for his misdeeds, we sense a cycle perpetuated, a wheel of misfortune being greased.

Villard graduated from CalArts recently with a degree in character animation. This is his first solo show in L.A., and it's deeply absorbing. The 12-minute film, inspired by an autobiographical Charles Bukowski story, has been shown and celebrated at various film festivals. It runs here in the company of dozens of the drawings that went into its making, as well as several sculptural installations.

Villard draws with a raw bravado that's a pitch-perfect match for the story. There's an intensity to the lines, the expressions, as if at every step he, and especially the characters, have something to prove. Most of the drawings are monochrome. Color is used selectively and forcefully, like a pungent spice. Villard strikes a visual tone somewhere between comic book and graphic novel, the emotional complexity of the tale lurking within the relative simplicity of its telling.

Shifts in scale and perspective are incorporated seamlessly, sweeping the viewer into the action, sometimes from the angle of perpetrator, sometimes victim, sometimes bystander. When the narrator bites his father's hand toward the end of the film, he appears a tiny kid chomping at oversized, disembodied authority, just what every child is developmentally programmed to do. It's hard not to see him, briefly, as the underdog. Earlier, though, when he's leading the charge against Simpson, we look at the quaking victim through the silhouetted figures of the gang, as if one of them -- not a comfortable position.

Villard is unafraid of ugliness. He exaggerates it to the point of the grotesque, so we can't help but get a good look. The sculptures, too, manifest the abject and abandoned. Like the film and drawings, they hinge on the intersection of innocence and violence, alienation, belonging and belief.

In the sculptures, Villard assembles common castoffs with child-size mannequins bearing animal heads. One goat-headed figure sits atop a stack of old trunks. Another pulls a little red wagon loaded with junk -- an old wooden school desk, a washboard, a statue of Mary and a few antique photographs. The edgy tightness of the film feels more diluted in the sculptures, but that may be, in part, because the sculptures don't have the benefit of a narrative to hang on. They're evocative, open-ended tableaux, difficult, kitschy and nostalgic at once. Villard's show is an auspicious and haunting debut.

Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., (213) 680-3473,; through April 9. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Moments that aren't so fleeting

The best of Gale Antokal's beautifully executed new drawings recall black-and-white snapshots. Not because they have a high degree of verisimilitude (largely, they don't), but because what drives them is a compulsion to grasp the fleeting moment. Like a photographer, Antokal overtly engages time, responding to life as a continuum of ephemeral moments and gestures. These moments, isolated as still images and standing in for a larger whole, have the potential for a kind of synecdochical power.

Many works in Antokal's show at Couturier realize that potential with grace. A group of drawings of birds is especially resonant. In each, the birds seem to have just scattered upward, speckling a pale sky with a flurry of upturned wings and blurred feathers. The birds are not in flight but in transition from earth to air. They hover and flap; their suspension feels palpable.

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