Exhibits at Grand Central and Chapman University Explore the All-Too-Real and Surreally Phony
There's not much left of the abandoned house documented by artist Flora Kao in Grand Central Art Center's "Wind House, Abode That a Breath Effaced." Barely visible, as pancaked as the melted witch in The Wizard of Oz, the pile of sun-bleached wood shingles and broken glass is splattered about the grounds, the semi-intact roofing the only thing recognizable. A jackrabbit homestead left over from the Small Tract Act of 1938—a government plan allowing up to 5 acres of property in the otherwise-desolate Mojave Desert to anyone who filed a claim and built a dwelling—the less-than-stellar idea was doomed from the outset. Planners didn't provide any kind of initial infrastructure, assuming it would create itself once enough people moved into the area, with scarce necessities (water, electricity) and difficult weather (high winds, flash floods, thermometer-busting heat) hammering in the final nails. People cut their losses and bailed, the buildings left to be reclaimed by Mother Nature.
Curator Yevgeniya Mikhailik's impeccable eye for the poetry of symbols is as good as it gets, commissioning Kao to make rubbings of the house's architecture. Snapshots of the grimy ruins adorn 1,000 square feet of white silk panels that zigzag throughout the center's Don Cribb Project Room. Walking amid the banners, attached to the wall or held down by broken shards of board, it takes a few moments to situate yourself, but they soon suggest walls, solidity, impediment, memory . . . as well as the chaotic whirlwind of destruction.
A framed photo of the house hangs in a corner, with Kao's accompanying two books detailing the area around the home and recording the minutiae of bureaucratic paperwork originally required to secure the land. As with other frottage art—gravestones and fossils, for example—this is an archeological capture documenting the past in process of ruin, an inquest with all the forensics laid out for us. It's an affirmation of the eventual nonexistence of our best-laid plans, and it also brings to mind the evictions, bankruptcies and lost homes in the recent economic crash. Home may be where the heart is, but "Wind House" discovers that heart is broken.
Meanwhile, over at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery, no one's going to claim "Knock Off: Hand-Painted Movie Posters From Ghana" is great art.
Individually crafted advertising for exploitation cinema playing at West African video clubs and mobile cinemas in the '80s and early '90s, the gaudy oils were painted directly on recycled-canvas flour sacks. Some images are taken directly from the original source poster, but often the artists never saw the grade-Z film they were painting, resulting in an amateurishly weird, outsider art as imaginative as it is clunky.
There's the occasional solid piece of work on display, such as the Jean-Claude Van Damme Knock Off poster, featuring the action hero clutching a bloody shoulder and pointing a pistol in front of a yellow-and-red wall of fire (the folds and cracked paint in the poster accentuate that Van Damme is now in his 50s), and moments of iconic recognition—the curly waterfall of Stallone's Rambo mane, Schwarzenegger's flat grimace from Commando (called Commander here, with the leading man holding a girl who resembles Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing more than child star Alyssa Milano). But the dead-on moments are hidden amid tree-trunk-size forearms wielding machine guns, profiles that look as if Picasso kicked them in the face, a casually sexist focus on T&A, and odd body configurations that make Joseph Merrick look like Francisco Lachowski.
Curators Natalie Lawler and Marcus Herse are fully aware they've thrown you into this psychosexual world of freakishly out-of-proportion Bruce Lee wannabes and excessively phallic armaments, and they're perfectly happy to let you dog-paddle about in it. If you're not privy to the press release, however, you'll be at a loss as to how the surreal posters came about—there's nothing posted anywhere in the gallery that I noticed—and that's a rich bit of history the duo has left out. While easily remedied—it's nothing a few Google searches won't supply—a compare and contrast between the original art and the hand-painted posters, detailing embellishments, comments about Africa as a dumping ground for American crap culture or even a few blurbs on the often-unrecognizable movies would go a long way toward filling in those information gaps.
Despite the missed opportunities, as a simple celebration of sleaze and violence and all that is ninja, the work on display is good fun: weird, wonderful and bloody in all the best camp ways. If there were justice in this world, all Shaolin Master-out-for-revenge films would be called Hit Man In the Hand of Buddha.
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