As magazines, books, letters and other uses of pulp drift into the digital landscape, it's only fitting that curator David Michael Lee's “STOCK/california” at Coastline Art Gallery should honor that fade into oblivion, gathering eight artists, all of whom use paper in their work. Sadly, while the uneven work on display should have caused me to shed a Luddite tear, it instead made me mourn the loss of the trees that died to create it.
Lisa Dowling's lovingly handmade books, created from blocks of wood and ungainly chunks of trees, is the most original of the bunch. As a work of deconstruction, she captures the visual sensuality and tactile heft of “real” books, adorning them with metal locks and hinges. Not that she's trying to protect anything; the covers of her lumber tomes aren't locked, but rather open wide as though welcoming lovers, lined with engraved or printed fragments of the artist's original (superb) poetry on paper, metal or the wood itself. Even the titles offer an erotic frisson: Drifting, The Stages of Sleep, Salty Dog, This Is Eden, Given, Nap and This Is a Tulip. The work on all counts is so assured that if Dowling decides she wants to stop making books, she has a bright future publishing her poetry.
While there's redundancy in the themes and visuals of Elena Mary Siff's mixed-media collages, the sheer volume of her output—more than a dozen, including several sculptures—demands attention. Culling images from comics, magazines and the work of other artists, her most acerbic pieces present a fine tongue-in-cheek absurdism: In High Rise, acrobatic women balance on tenuous tinsel wires amid skyscrapers; a woman in a box office sells tickets to the rock star/movie actor/Jeff Koons freak show around her in Crazee; an Observatory should be intriguing by itself, but with angels in the air, nude dancers, astronauts and giant iguanas traipsing through the landscapes, it's the least interesting thing going on; Far Out would make a remarkable sci-fi pulp cover, its alien paraphernalia, angels and military planes all looking to go mano-a-mano with one another; the focus of the bleakly hopeful Power is a crystal ball containing the image of a man on his knees praying to air turbines, while the current landscape is oil derricks, filthy air and gas stations.
Up close, it'd be easy to snarkily label Chris Sullivan's torn cardboard sculpture Interstate 5 At the Grapevine—Late Summer as PoMo art junk . . . until you take a few steps back. That distance allows you to see the gradations as intended, with all of the canyon's cars, freeways and mountainous divides ingeniously represented. Pastel colors convey a bland elegance to the image of a woman wearing a crown, sitting in a chair atop what resembles Balboa waterfront property. While sympathy for the 1 percent isn't normally my forte, Sullivan succeeds in creating an air of bland sadness around her real-estate queen. The images in Shattered—a woman extending her hands in worship, a cut-up Earth exploding into fragments over her head, as a crowd of people, opaque with white paint, blend into a morass of goo below her—work thoughtfully on several levels, political, spiritual and philosophical.
Less impressive is Lee's decision to include the remaining five artists. Not because they don't each have at least one piece that's intriguing, but because Sullivan, Siff and Dowling set the content bar so high the others' work just falls flat. Steven Perlin's Untitled series consists of building a piece around a cut-out image (a car, a bike), painting, papering and drawing on the canvas to fill up the remaining space. The end result is mundane, sloppily painted and poorly drawn. With no elegance of presentation, it might be rescued by its storytelling, but there isn't any. Hiromi Takizawa's Mylar raindrops, folded up on themselves and hung from the ceiling with fishing wire, could have been Warhol interesting if they covered more territory in the gallery, but the handful presented is too paltry to make an impression. I applaud Julie Easton's White Waves and Pink as the most experimental—made with burnt rolling papers; while I admire her OCD formalism, I couldn't help but wish there was more life in their shimmering beauty. I wanted to like her work, but I simply can't give a thumbs-up to work that looks like it should be in a dentist's office.
Colleen Collett's blossomy lattice flower/snowflakes made from white paper and silver paint (bundled and lit so that the shadows reveal yet another design) is a clever exercise in chilly sterility that left me cold. Lastly, Diana Markessinis' mixed-media Fallen Tree Forest attempts a surreal re-creation of a nature scene using tubing, tape, glue, dowels and a shitload of brown paint. White string bursts from the stumps to attach to a gallery wall, making one think of phone lines or a phone “tree,” but the grade-school visuals aren't worth the paper they're painted/glued on.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.