The style that became Picasso's trademark is characterized by a prevailing sense of visual catastrophe, achieved largely through the chopping, skewing and scattering of recognizable forms across the space of paper or canvas. Noses drift onto foreheads, eyes fall askew, arms sprout at unlikely angles. It's an aggressive, even ruthless technique that was rarely flattering to the women in Picasso's life but came to a chilling sort of fruition in his 1937 masterpiece "Guernica," a painting that evokes the devastation wrought by the German bombing of a Spanish town.
Deborah Grant engages Picasso on his own terms in her smart, agile and visually exhilarating exhibition at Steve Turner Contemporary, chopping, skewing and scattering many of his signature forms into her own compositions to address the current war and other contemporary issues. The hashing begins with the exhibition's title, "A Gin Cure," an anagram of "Guernica." Several poster-size works on paper combine black silhouettes of "Guernica" forms -- the horse, the bull, a human figure, an arm gripping a broken sword -- with fields of Grant's own intricate doodling. These forms reappear in another series as wall-mounted, birch panel cutouts, their surfaces covered with more doodles, cartoonish figures, bits of text, blocks of color and other motifs.
The remaining works were made on 18- by 24-inch squares of blackboard. Some are enamel paintings, rendered on the dark ground in shades of white and gold; the others involve white paper cutouts. The latter, which combine several of the same "Guernica" forms with more realistic silhouettes of tanks, houses and children, among other things, are the most striking of the show's works and arguably the most powerful. Grant's isolation of the forms underscores their intrinsic urgency.
The work is less critique or homage than an energetic dialogue, in which Grant marshals the potency of Picasso's form and winds it into her own graphic vocabulary to address the state of the world today. They're complex, deeply felt works that take time to penetrate but definitely reward the effort.
Also on view at the gallery is "P2-3D," a 2003 video installation by Ruben Ortiz-Torres and Yoshua Okon dedicated to the life, work and philosophy of one Bill Al Capone Mufflers, an East L.A. muffler dealer with character to spare. His Whittier Boulevard shop, El Pedorrero (The Farter), is designed according to an elaborate system of color theory devised by the proprietor, and doubles as a museum containing just about every sort of tchotchke you can imagine.
Mr. Muffler expounds on a variety of topics over the course of the 14-minute video, including gender relations, advertising, the "Mona Lisa," the social function of the museum and something he refers to as "the pure science of the truth of life." He speaks with such authority that his rather mystifying theories come to seem weirdly plausible.
In tribute, no doubt, to the fantastic peculiarity of their subject's world, the artists have rendered the entire video in 3-D, providing special glasses for viewing. Occasionally, they embellish the footage with wonderfully corny effects -- plastic snakes that lunge out at you, free-floating penises, shots that exaggerate the tremendous roundness of their subject's belly. The optics take getting used to -- it's impossible, I eventually realized, to get the effect of the 3-D and read the subtitles at the same time (the dialogue is in Spanish) -- and you might walk out feeling a little blurry, but the exertion is well worth it.
Steve Turner Contemporary, 275 S. Beverly Drive, Suite 200, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-3721, through Feb. 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.steveturnergallery .com
Paintings create a sense of absence
The paintings in Chris Vasell's first exhibition at Blum & Poe Gallery, in 2005, were lush, mysterious works, characterized by veil upon veil of dark, watery pigment. In many cases the veils draped over ghostly outlines of faces or eyes, which lent an ominous weight to the show's title: "Don't go outside they're waiting for you."