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A message in the starkness

August 18, 2006|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

Jutta Koether is not a painter who is particularly shy with color. Indeed, the tone of her palette over the last decade has tended to fall somewhere between jubilant and hysterical, with shrill reds battling queasy yellows, cake-frosting pinks and electric acid greens in fevered, Expressionistic compositions.

In her current show at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, however, Koether has forsaken color altogether. Thirteen predominantly black canvases are characterized by a profusion of broad, frenetic brush strokes, scattered knots of scratchy white lines and a few stray fragments of enigmatic text.

The show's press release situates the work in the context of what it refers to as Koether's "search for productive dissent," and on this level -- conceptually -- the paintings make a very compelling case. There are no explicit political references, but the project feels nonetheless quite topical: a cogent response to the state of global tension perpetuated by the ongoing violence in the Middle East and elsewhere.

This is clearly not Koether's sole intention, but it's an effective one. The act of draining the color from a gallery exhibition at a time of war comes across as a logical and eloquent gesture of protest, something like draping the mirrors of a household in black during a period of mourning.

Despite the absence of color, the paintings are exceptionally energetic. This isn't an elegant or romantic sort of black, not the black of deep space or existential nothingness but rather the scuffed and dingy black on the stages and floors of nightclubs. It's punk rock black, nihilistic but full of fervor.

Koether is a musician as well as a painter -- she's collaborated on multiple occasions with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth -- and there's definitely a performative element at play here. The improvisational vigor of the brush strokes underscores the intense involvement of the artist's body. You can almost see Koether's arms waving across the surface of the canvas.

To the extent that the paintings can be considered political, this is perhaps their most poignant message: a humanistic affirmation of the individual gesture. "I am here," the artist seems to be declaring, "I exist" -- which, in the face of war, is a significant statement.

One senses as well evidence of a classic battle -- the artist's furtive struggle to shape the blackness, to draw something up out of nothing, to create. Whether there might also be some irony in this essentially romantic position is difficult to say.

For all this energy, however, the presence of the objects is disappointingly thin. The paint is thin, with no real texture and a bland matte finish. The canvases are also thin, and not especially large -- or not large enough, at any rate (48 by 60 inches), to give the impression of dominating the room, which is what they seem to want to do. What should be a resounding, in-your-face, punk rock confrontation thus winds up feeling dishearteningly provisional and polite.

It is a subtle shortcoming but significant. If the works are intended as protest, they need to have the presence -- to be big enough, heavy enough, determined enough -- to stand up to the thing they're protesting. At least they need to stand up to the viewer -- to attempt to shake us out of the complacency that is allowing that thing to go on. Though compelling on many levels, these works fall decidedly short of soul-shaking.

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5795 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 933-2117, through Aug. 26. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Looking beneath the surface

The work in Colombian artist Leyla Cardenas' elegant exhibition at d.e.n. contemporary art, her first in the U.S., is a curious spin on the concept of graffiti. If a graffiti artist carries her materials out into the world to make her mark on the surfaces of other people's walls, what Cardenas does is basically the inverse. She takes the surfaces of other people's walls back into her studio to make their mark on her own work.

Cardenas collects these surfaces by applying sheets of a strong adhesive to the walls of decaying buildings and pulling up as many layers of paint and plaster as happen to come loose. She then arranges these fragments into various semi-sculptural configurations.

In several works, she's mounted them behind or between mid-size sheets of clear plexiglass, which she floats several inches off the gallery wall using slender metal pins. In "Inside Out," she's suspended the fragments on long sections of wall-mounted wire so that they hang and sway like a cluster of exotic blossoms.

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