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LAXART lards on the messages

Daniel Joseph Martinez's outmoded installation inaugurates a new nonprofit gallery.

April 01, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

If Daniel Joseph Martinez's exhibition were a screenplay, it would get sent back for a rewrite, accompanied by such notes as "insufficiently developed," "derivative," "cliched" and "pretentious."

As art, it's last-gasp Conceptualism, a toothless blend of symbolic politics, stale entertainment and bathetic grandstanding. Although this style has fallen out of fashion on the international exhibition circuit, it is still favored by an aging generation of tenured academics, especially in the provinces where old habits die hard. It's sad to see it in Los Angeles.

At LAXART, a nonprofit gallery newly opened on La Cienega Boulevard, it begins with the title, which is a doozy: "How I Fell in Love With My Dirty Bomb (Opium des Volks) Flesh Eating Prosthetic (Phagocitage des protheses)." Putting a Pop gloss on the colon-punctuated titles of academic essays, Martinez's super-sized title suggests that visitors are in for a scathingly funny extravaganza fueled by caustic wit, biting sarcasm and up-to-the-minute social criticism.

But the installation is none of these things. It pales in comparison with the popular movies it draws on, from its titular riff on "Dr. Strangelove" to its opportunistic borrowing of Kurtz's grim soliloquy about horror, tragedy and fanaticism in "Apocalypse Now," which serves as the soundtrack for a 5-minute video projected on a back gallery wall.

The front gallery seems empty, despite having had its floor covered with a 5-inch-thick layer of black asphalt and lard. The 8-ton layer of blacktop forms a rug-like rectangle in the middle of the floor. Filling in the space between the asphalt and the wall is 800 pounds of carefully slathered lard, which forms a neat, white, frosting-like frame to the black expanse.

Martinez's temporary, industrial-strength floor covering is to Minimalism what reheated leftovers are to a freshly cooked meal: perfectly adequate but nothing like the first time around. Recalling Walter de Maria's galleries filled with topsoil and Joseph Beuys' career-making fascination with animal fat, Martinez's installation is the designer version of art from the late 1960s and early 1970s, an antiseptic rehash that abandons the present as it yearns for past grandeur.

On the two longest walls hang a pair of big, grainy, black-and-white prints. One depicts an Olympic-style pedestal in an empty stadium. The other shows the balcony of a modern apartment building.

Alone, the images might remain anonymous. But together they recall the gloved Black Power salute runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith made during their medals ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The enlarged image of the empty balcony triggers memories of the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes.

Martinez's use of these iconic images mimics Gerhard Richter's "October 18, 1977," a chilling suite of paintings depicting the arrest, incarceration and mysterious deaths of several terrorists who were members of the Baader-Meinhof group. Made in 1988, Richter's icy images brought the recent past into the present with unsettling force.

In contrast, Martinez's evocation of righteous rebellion and the slaughter of innocents adds nothing to discussions underway in popular media. Generated by the lily-white look of the Winter Olympics and the moral ambiguity of Steven Spielberg's "Munich," these debates make Martinez's installation look out of touch and formulaic, nostalgic for an era when avant-garde art led.

Likewise, his video in the back gallery adds nothing significant to Marlon Brando's performance as Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's harrowing rendition of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

Martinez's video is a close-up of two hands paging through a palm-size flip-book that depicts riot police walking down a street. The book's rudimentary illusion of movement proceeds in fits and starts because the hands have been inserted into movie monster costume gloves. It's not a bad scene to watch as you listen to Brando but the original movie is far more compelling than Martinez's studious recapitulation.

The rest of his works consist of slogans printed on big vinyl banners, on page-size flash cards, on the gallery's brick exterior and on a billboard down the street. Like tidied-up, toned-down Barbara Krugers from the 1980s, Martinez's phrases combine the urgency of oldfashioned manifestoes with the simplicity of old-fashioned advertising.

They include such zingers as "not all who would be are narcissus," "how will we know when its time to throw bombs" and "the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant."

Dressed in a black-and-white palette like some kind of Minimalist dandy, Martinez's messages are meant to signify intellectual seriousness and the social importance of the formal occasion -- the inauguration of LAXART. Instead, the tuxedo-toned installation they are part of comes off as an insincere requiem for a style whose glory days are long gone and whose easily imitated look has been usurped by a desire to get attention by any means necessary.


Daniel Joseph Martinez

Where: LAXART, 2640 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays

Ends: April 29

Price: Free

Contact: (323) 868-5893;

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