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Like the strands of dreams

September 05, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Art Critic

Ephemeral, transient, fugitive -- a central theme in Kori Newkirk's Conceptual art resonates through various forms. Thirty-one photographs, beaded curtains, neon lights, murals, collages and video projections made since 1997 constitute his modest traveling survey at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. If the show feels somewhat thin, look again: The subject of dislocated estrangement makes it so.

The Bronx-born, L.A.-based artist is most closely identified with the beaded curtains, perhaps because of their eccentric materials -- long strands of synthetic hair strung with colored plastic beads. (The artist has cited Stevie Wonder and Venus Williams as inspirations, and he has described his work as "ghetto-fabulous Conceptualism.") "Jubilee" (1999) was the first, and in some respects it's an anomaly: brightly hued and nearly abstract rather than descriptive of leafy green landscapes and Tiepolo skies, like many of the others.

"Jubilee" is a lovely, smeary wall of yellow, orange and blue. A loose image forms, evoking a roaring conflagration -- flames against sky. L.A.'s 1992 uprising in the wake of the Rodney King beating trial was one motivation. The beaded curtain is the kind that might be hung across a doorway rather than against a wall, as the artist displays these Conceptual "paintings." The result suggests art as a veil of passage -- a trial by fire.

Newkirk's landscape curtains are less dramatic, although journeys are still implied. One curtain is a contemplative view through tall evergreens toward a patch of pale blue, another a dark glimpse into a forest clearing, a third a few spare trees silhouetted against clouds. In a fourth, just the dappled clouds themselves flicker into view. A symbolic narrative of personal enlightenment or transformation is subtle but inescapable, while a quiet tension between urban materials and bucolic subject suggests an escapist dream.

The work has a formal and theoretical relationship to art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose nonfigurative beaded curtains used sparkly color to refer to sacred substances such as blood, water and light. Gonzalez-Torres, who died in 1996, not yet 40, established the formal language that much of Newkirk's work employs. For both, art is a mirage with a quiet political dimension, but it does not moralize.

Basketball is another frequent subject, prompted by the common but erroneous assumption that Newkirk, as a tall African American male, would be an avid fan or player. Despite the racial and gendered stereotyping, his alienation from the sport is poignant and provocative, especially in a charged pair of phallic photographs of basketballs lying still on an empty asphalt court.

Two sculptures of paired basketball hoops replace the nets with woven strands of hair, entangling them in a homoerotic web. In addition to Gonzalez-Torres' sexualized pairing of common objects, these works also recall David Hammons' decorated backboards and Lorna Simpson's photographic meditations on the semiotics of black hair.

Less successful is Newkirk's foray into contrasting themes of whiteness, which take such punning forms as snow and representations of great white sharks, but to scant effect. (A white neon cube of icicles is wryly titled "Maybury" apparently to skewer the all-white North Carolina town of TV-sitcom fame.) The puns are more resonant in "Void of Silence," a large photograph of a black hand with crossed fingers against a white background; crossed fingers simultaneously imply a fervent human hope and art's inevitable falsehood.

The most arresting works in the show, initiated by Pasadena's Fellows of Contemporary Art and organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem, are two recent short videos. In one, Newkirk walks an urban alley in the dark of night, dragging a pair of clattering intravenous stands entwined with lights. The ghostly neon processional casts the artist's isolation as the strange, even morbid journey of a monstrous phantom.

In the other video, he becomes an actual chimera, flitting through the grass in a park-like setting reminiscent of the landscapes in his beaded curtains while clad only in a silver thong, glitter spewing from his mouth. The frenetic, flash-cut editing makes this puckish parody of self-regard into a magical midsummer daydream.

Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., (626) 568-3665, through Sept. 14. Closed Monday and Tuesday.


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