Among the earliest work Walead Beshty produced after completing his MFA at Yale in 2002 was a series of photographs depicting his own body in various consumer settings -- shopping malls, department stores, supermarkets -- communing unceremoniously with the merchandise. He thrust his head into a miniature tent in the sporting goods aisle; pressed his torso into a wall of artificial flower leis; and draped himself limply across a frilly floral bedspread. Titled "The Phenomenology of Shopping," it was a peculiar and awfully funny body of work that seemed to point to a quirky, satirical sensibility.
Such slapstick would prove only one of several dimensions to emerge in the artist's impressively multiplicitous repertoire. "Passages," his current exhibition at LAXART, encompasses several more.
In the last few years, Beshty has undergone a rapid ascendancy, with solo shows at P.S. 1 in New York, the Hammer Museum and numerous galleries, as well as a spot in last year's Whitney Biennial, producing works that look nothing like the shopping series -- and often very little like one another. Indeed, stepping into one show while having previously encountered another, you may well have paused to wonder whether you were looking at the same artist.
Performative self-portraiture; straight documentation of vernacular architecture; abstract prints made through darkroom manipulations; unassuming portraits of art-world professionals; an installation mimicking the abandoned Iraqi Embassy in the former East Berlin; quasi-Minimalist sculpture that could also be classified as mail art -- Beshty clearly thinks across multiple registers, while remaining either within or roughly in dialogue with the boundaries of photography.
It is a fact that makes his work difficult to unravel in a glance but that clearly endears him to museum curators. It also lends itself to a sort of academic rhetoric that feels curiously out of keeping with the silliness of that first series. The news release for "Passages," for instance, characterizes each of the show's several components as "offer[ing] a distinct iteration of themes related to the traffic of images, hinging upon their spatial, representational and material functions in contexts defined by movement and transition."
Such ponderous language, however, is misleading, belying not only the work's intermittent humor but also its elegant conceptual economy. Each thread is the winnowed articulation of a single thought, one of several slender pathways into a sophisticated knot of ideas, observations and concerns.
The show is composed of four principal elements: a slide show involving dispassionate photographs of deserted shopping centers, accompanied (drolly) by the soundtrack to "Dawn of the Dead"; a series of large, abstract prints created by passing unexposed film through airport X-ray machines; a flooring of supposedly shatterproof glass that is nonetheless splintering gradually beneath visitors' feet; and a billboard outside the gallery, featuring a black-and-white image titled "Dust" -- presumably much magnified -- that resembles a shot of the Milky Way. There are several notable through-lines. Each element reflects a transitory or intermediary space. Each involves an object that somehow registers the effects of its own use.
In each case, these effects are fundamentally destructive but also produce a certain beauty. (The X-ray prints, with their soft shades of turquoise, lavender, lemon yellow, rose and gray, are especially lovely.) Each could also be said to mimic in some way the fundamental process of photography: namely, the imprint of light or some other form of energy upon a sensitive surface (X-rays in the case of the prints, weight in the case of the glass, light in the case of the slides and time in the case of the crumbling buildings they depict).
Beshty is interested in images, as all photographers must be, but also in the state of materiality -- in the world that images reflect (the department stores, shopping centers, airports, embassies) as well as the physical form they take themselves (on film, on paper, in mirrors, in slides). All his various conceptual meanderings speak, in some way, to an ever more nuanced investigation of the intersection of the two.
LAXART, 2640 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 559-0166, through May 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.laxart.org
Drawn to acts of resistance
Given the frequency with which one tends to see Robby Herbst's name around town -- in conjunction with the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, which he co-founded, as well as in group shows, performances, discussions and presentations -- it is a little surprising that his current exhibition at David Patton Gallery is his first solo show.
He doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the idea, judging from the show's title -- "Blockades (with collaborators)" -- and the prominence with which those "collaborators" (presumably the subjects in his drawings) are listed in the show's news release.