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Going, bit by bit, to a big effect

March 02, 2007|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Kathleen Henderson's drawings feel like a spray of BB fire on the psyche. Each image induces a flinch, a wince. Each hits its mark and makes a dent. Cumulatively they launch an assault of surprising force.

Surprising, because Henderson's line carries no aggression. Laid down in densely pigmented oil stick, it has a nervous urgency. It moves in jerks and halts, driven through bare white space by raw, uncalculated energy.

The drawings -- more than 40 of them -- are reason enough for a visit to Henderson's first solo show in L.A., at Rosamund Felsen, but the Bay Area artist is also a sculptor, and her work in paper pulp, tar, wire and wax is just as strangely compelling.

Violence seeps through Henderson's work like poisoned groundwater. There are images of blatant threat -- one figure holding a gun to the head of another -- and images of fear -- a lone figure huddling beneath a folding table. And throughout, there are drawings of that arena of sanctioned violence, the military, that exude unease.

Soldiers march in stiff-legged goose step. Others, walking in sloppy formation, carry rifles against their bare chests. In one drawing, Henderson renders herself in military garb, her figure repeated four times as if constituting her own small brigade. The self-portrait is unusual for two reasons: It is drawn in ocher while the rest are drawn in black or blue; and its subject has an ordinary, exposed human head. In nearly all of the other drawings, the figures (who appear male) are masked or hooded.

Benign costumed play? Not likely. References to the military, to latent violence and armed confrontation bring to mind darker purposes for the concealment, something to do with shame and self-protection, detachment from deeds done. The mind leaps to hooded knights of the KKK and the dehumanized torture victims at Abu Ghraib. And yet Henderson's masks and hoods are not ominous in themselves. They're more cartoonish. They sport stumpy rabbit ears, eyes too big and round and mouths overfilled with teeth. They have a bit of the abject about them, like Mike Kelley's stuffed animals.

This oscillation between innocence and danger, childlike simplicity and innate human brutality electrifies Henderson's drawings. Even those with tender subjects, such as a figure stroking a lamb, have a disturbing edge. The figure's hands extend like dumb paddles, his fingers too fat and long, and his hood's googly eyes registering an un-evolved blankness. In Henderson's BB-like issue, there is something of the toy but definitely also something of the weapon.

Her sculptures exude a similar crude, primal energy. One hundred small bird heads look as if they were worried into being by nervous fingers. Black as the tar they're made of, the little faces (some no bigger around than a thumbprint) poke out from one long wall, beaks gaping, distended or bent. They are to birds what the drawn hooded figures are to humans: caricatures that capture something of the essence of the beast.

Many of the sculpted figures are injured, presumably war victims, their wounds wrapped in thin strips of white fabric. One tabletop figure hovers on crutches, each hand bandaged, and his chest cut off abruptly beneath the neck and wrapped like a severed stump. The crutches support a bare trace of a man, damaged and incomplete, topped by an uncomprehending rabbit head.

The attenuated lines of Henderson's sculptures recall the forms of Giacometti, but mostly they resonate with her own starkly powerful drawings, those blunt scrawlings, sketchy indictments, unsettling war-time laments.

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through March 10. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Disparate styles brought together

The spirit of Kurt Schwitters' "Merzbau" lives on. The total makeover of the Weimar-era artist's Hannover home was formally feisty and politically engaged, infused with an urban energy brought indoors and just barely contained. New Image Art has undergone a similar transformation. Its neutral gallery walls, sheathed in words and images both created and found, pulse with raw dynamism.

The installation is the collaborative work of Swoon, David Ellis and the collective Faile. Each is involved in some way with street art, and each has a distinctive style and method of working. The individual strands of the installation can be pulled apart and credited, but the densely collaged and layered whole works so powerfully that attribution becomes secondary.

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