Smart, hip, German, fond of art-world name play and pop culture references, Cosima von Bonin is the sort of artist whose U.S. solo debut no self-respecting contemporary art museum could refuse, and MOCA would seem a perfect fit for it.
Von Bonin doesn't make things easy, however. An artist long committed to collaboration, she spent much of her early career coyly dodging the limelight of the solo show. Her first such exhibition, in 1990, consisted of 32 helium balloons printed with the dates of other artists' solo debuts. Another, in 1995, involved a performance in which she barricaded herself and a friend behind a wall of furniture, restricting her spectators to a view through a narrow doorway, then hurled wet kitchen towels in their direction.
Her materials, although clearly not arbitrary, seem to reflect multiple personalities. They include thrift-store textiles, stuffed felt, slick powder-coated steel, video, found photography and "ink and bird droppings on paper." Her forms are variously cartoonish and craftsy (oversized stuffed animals and quilt-like textiles), sleek and sci-fi (lacquered furniture-like sculptures) and hipsterish and cool (a video featuring languorous youths wearing overcoats and dog masks), with the connections between them rarely evident.
Her catalogs are little help, since as a rule they maintain -- apparently at her direction -- "an arbitrary relationship to the exhibitions they accompany," according to one contributor, "and only rarely serve a documentary or illustrative function." In the catalog for this exhibition, all 62 of the plates are devoted to just one of the show's five or six bodies of work, the textiles -- despite there being only about a dozen examples in the exhibition. (MOCA edited the essays, apparently, and Von Bonin oversaw the design.)
In short, this is a tricky artist to pin down, and the museum makes little effort in that direction -- which would seem to be a good thing but leaves the work feeling diffuse and inconclusive. The wall texts are minimal and the installation something of a mishmash. A good quarter of the space is taken up by the earliest pieces, a video projection room and the massive set for the video shown there -- the overcoat-and-dog-mask piece, called "2 POSITIONS AT ONCE."
The rest is given over to a free-form entanglement of the last decade's work: tapestries, animals, metal sculptures, a rather puzzling arrangement of children's clothing, and several rustic, hut-like structures made from painted wood.
There are captivating moments throughout. The video -- which also involves some chalk drawings, several dogs, a group of Von Bonin's former students, a catamaran covered in felt and a DJ or two -- is entrancing in the peculiarity of its logic. The animals are irresistibly appealing, with their clean, handsome lines and dignified presence. And many of the tapestries are quite beautiful. Indeed, I would have been happy to wander through labyrinths of them, forgoing the rest of the work altogether.
The effect overall, though, is one part fascination, two parts bewilderment, frustration and indifference. It's difficult to shake the sense that no one involved quite had a handle on what Von Bonin is doing or how best to funnel the energy of her activities into the space of an American museum.
Part of the reason the tapestries stand out so vividly, I suspect, is that their materials -- blankets, towels, handkerchiefs, swaths of flannel and plaid -- are so wonderfully real and tactile and that they are contained within four distinct edges. The same could be said of the video, which is really little more than a handful of poetically resonant objects thrown into a decisively demarcated space.
The exhibition and the catalog lack such borders, and the result is a sort of floundering. This isn't especially difficult work, but it's elusive. Without some degree of resistance -- curatorial, institutional or architectural -- it loses a lot of its steam.
'Cosima von Bonin: Roger and Out'
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: Jan. 7
Contact: (213) 621-1749 or www.moca.org