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`Rebecca' creates a frozen tableau

May 26, 2006|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

The front door of the Happy Lion opens into a long, dark corridor. Feel your way to the end, turn a corner and the darkness envelops you. You begin to notice the faint chirping of birds. The concrete beneath your feet turns to soft, thick carpet, and it feels like stepping into another world -- one you're not entirely sure you should be stepping into. Just ahead, you see a door standing slightly ajar and a chill goes down your spine.

It's an exquisitely unnerving buildup with an appropriately creepy payoff. Peek through the door (it won't open more than a few inches) and you see the eerily realistic figure of a mostly nude woman, sprawled across a bed in a large, fully furnished room.

A pink chiffon dressing gown spills out beneath her; on her feet are what look like ballet slippers, with ribbons that wind up around her ankles. There are pink roses strewn everywhere, and a vase on its side on the floor. There are four empty glasses with straws on a side table, and a book with photographs of ballerinas lying open on the carpet.

The installation is the work of Australian-born, L.A.-based artist Kristian Burford, whose last show with the gallery, in 2003, was a similarly staged tableau involving a young male figure, "Christopher." The short title for this work is "Rebecca"; the long title, which you'll find on a printout near the entrance to the installation, takes up an entire page and explains the scene in curiously specific narrative detail.

The story is less horrific than you might first imagine (she's not dead) but may be ultimately more distressing, thanks to the eloquent and tender realism with which it's relayed. There is a worthy tradition of pointedly sensationalistic three-dimensional tableaux, descended from Duchamp's "Given: 1. The Waterfall / 2. The Illuminating Gas" and Ed Kienholz's "Back Seat Dodge '38," but this is something different: more along the lines of a character study. Though startling at a glance -- the graphic immodesty of the woman's posture is difficult to ignore -- the work aims less to shock than to elicit empathy, and in that regard it succeeds admirably. It's disturbing not because it's graphic but because it's absorbing and has such a convincing air of truth.

"Rebecca has returned to the house in which she grew up," the story begins, "to convalesce after waking from a coma three months ago. She awoke to discover that her body was paralyzed from the neck down."

She sustained the injury in a diving accident, the text explains, and spent 164 days in a coma. Her attitude in the wake of the accident, though never outlined explicitly, seems to waver between despondent and sardonic.

Since returning home, "she has endured a sparse but consistent pattern of visitations from friends and family brave enough to witness the wretchedness of her condition -- or innocent enough to fail to comprehend it." On this particular afternoon it is the latter, in the form of twin 7-year-old nieces who've developed a game that involves dressing and arranging Rebecca's immobile body to approximate imagined characters.

Just now, with a perversity that only she seems fully able to appreciate, they've chosen to make her a ballerina. At the moment we happen upon the scene, one girl has disappeared to the garden, where she will be caught pillaging her grandfather's carefully tended roses, while the other hides in the closet behind her aunt's bed.

"Recognizing that Simone has taken an excessively long time to return to her room," the text concludes, "Rebecca has correctly surmised her circumstance and now considers the certainty of her own discovery with satisfying indifference."

Between the unsettling prologue, the absorbing atmosphere, the carefully wrought detail, and the resounding punch line, with its clever ensnarement of the unsuspecting viewer (since it is the viewer, of course, who will discover the spectacle), the piece has all the magic of a good short story and leaves you with much to ponder.

The Happy Lion, 963 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, (213) 625-1360, through June 17. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.

Elegance springs from much stimuli

Imagine a machine in a textile factory that's programmed with every pattern the factory produces -- dainty florals, sweeping arabesques, intricate mandalas and jagged constellations of geometric lines and shapes. At one setting, it churns out country house bedding; at another, Indian saris; at the next, retro prints for club-hopping hipsters.

Now imagine this machine going haywire, jumbling all of these patterns and spewing them out in long, mangled clusters across blurry, dye-smeared stretches of fabric.

Substitute wood panels for the fabric, oil paint for the dyes, and the result would look a lot like the work of San Francisco-based painter Reed Danziger, now on view in her second solo show at Michael Kohn Gallery.

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