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Letters on the Pages, Writing on the Wall

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The startlingly original exhibition " Letters from Los Angeles" closed at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts on January 19th, but in case you missed it, or even if you saw it, there's an expanded version installed as a special exhibition all week and weekend at the 2013 LA Art Show downtown at the Convention Center. Meanwhile, across town in the hills of Pasadena, another equally major, imperatively related, but fundamentally different show, "Pages" closes on Sunday the 27th at Art Center's Williamson Gallery. The temptation is strong to treat this accidental pairing with an old-fashioned book-report strategy of compare and contrast, but for more than simple reasons of thematic resonance and multiple artists making double appearances. In fact it's helpful to consider them together, because each is exactly what the other is not, and by juxtaposition they help clarify themselves and one another. "Pages" is not about visual art that uses text -- it's about books as symbols and as raw materials for visual art; and it's also about the overlaps between art, science, and history as it is recorded. Whereas "Letters from Los Angeles" is about the use of text as an element of messaging and cultural narrative as well as composition in painting, sculpture, and printmaking, and how that practice has manifested here with a certain only-in-L.A. character. Contrary to popular myth, there is fundamentally a lot of reading going on out here.

The conceptual framework for the "Pages" show did in fact evolve from an older idea to curate a show on the topic of the "artist book," a catchall phrase for a singular work of art existing in more or less literal book form. But as co-curators John O'Brien and Stephen Nowlin soon realized, that intriguing genre was a bit too broad, and also left out certain aspects of the idea that went beyond the admittedly magical handmade character of book-art, instead speaking to the salient role of sketchbooks, notebooks, edited manuscripts, notated scientific and religious tracts, and travelogues in the creative process itself. They took a unique approach that exhibits a diversity of contemporary art styles, but also an historical spread that draws on the poshest holdings of nearby archival library partners, blending past and future as well as facets of the present. They were also interested in the sculptural potential for the book to exist as a discrete object as well as a site of intellectual action.

Sometimes this all manifests as a total subversion of the function of reading, whether by existential physical transformation, deconstruction, or obscuring, and otherwise preventing access to contained text as with Cara Barer's large-scale photographs of flamboyantly splayed bound leaves, Suvan Geer's hirsute hardcover, Echiko Ohira's tea-stained pillars, and Michael C. McMillen's towering spine of vice-gripped spines. Sometimes there's a lovely Hegelian synthesis in which a merger of word and image makes a whole new dimension possible, creating aesthetic vessels that are truly more than their sums, which can still can be read, but whose images have their own meanings -- as with Robert Kushner's wild and heartbreaking wall of flower-paintings abloom across antique pages, or Susan Sironi's expertly altered books illustrating in pictures such narratives as might be analogous to the now-invisible stories that host them.

At other times the informational function is aided and augmented by a casual manner of presentation, especially when it comes to studies and sketches, which add yet another layer of understanding, as with Mark Twain's edited text for a later version of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," or Andrew Leicester's notebooks for the subsequently built Gold Line Bridge Extension, whose inclusion in proximity to a realized project offers a uniquely local and immediate chance to compare the expressive idea with the more pragmatic but still majestic outcome -- proving by example the reason for this thread in the show overall. There's also, coincidentally, a vast vitrine containing a wealth of materials on loan from Jack Rutberg, whose collection of sketchbooks by Hans Burkhardt (also in "Letters"), George Nama, and Claire Falkenstein are gorgeous little things -- but he kept Wallace Berman's Semina for his own shows back at HQ.

The idea for "Letters from Los Angeles" came to Jack Rutberg like, pardon the pun, a sign in the sky. The Hollywood sign is our city's most iconic landmark; but whereas everyone else has architecture -- the St. Louis Arch, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge -- and we have a real estate sign. Jack was instantly obsessed, pondering what might that have meant to the development of modern LA visual culture -- and what does it mean now? Ed Ruscha (who appears in "Pages" as well) occupies the cornerstone spot in the conceptual foundation, as his 2006 drawings of a disintegrating Hollywood Sign specifically sparked Rutberg's curatorial fire. But the several diverse directions both iterations of the show take from that common seed are truly deep and rich, and full of surprises. By addressing the present-day as well as the art-historical of the past six decades, Rutberg traces a cross-generational legacy of influence, as well as identifying common ancestry for a plurality of visual strategies. My favorite parts of his tremendous curatorial essay (which appears in full at the Special Exhibition Page) actually deal with this idea of how the younger artists are so responsive toward graffiti, tattoo, and billboard art, in no small part because of their sanctioned counterparts enjoying prevalence in the L.A. landscape. This shows in the inclusion of more optically exuberant surrealists like Bill Barminski, Mark Licari, Gajin Fujita, and Raul Guerrero.

One thing that might be more true of L.A. than of other cities, is that text-based art made here is also stridently message-based. Text is not simply a loaded visual trope deracinated from meaning as well as context, not in LA. In LA, paintings like these have something to say, big ideas to pitch. They want to be understood, they enunciate, they aren't subtle. Mark Steven Greenfield, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Shelton for example each reimagine how cultural power-structure tropes are activated by words. Highlights of the show are too numerous to name -- honestly there is not a sour note, redundancy, or conceptual stretch; the entire checklist is salient. But some of the livelier moments come courtesy of both the usual suspects and unexpected twists -- besides Ruscha, you have Wallace Berman's conceptual art in magazine form, the found-maxim collage work of his compatriot George Herms, and the most recognizable name in written-on art, Raymond Pettibon. Huguette Caland, Michael C. McMillen (another "Pages" repeat), and Stas Orlovski each take more classically art-historical approaches, using signage, printed matter, and the literal act of writing by hand as touchstones to explore what it means to impart a legacy with language. The expanded version commissioned for the Convention Center augments and lengthens the roster of artists and the scope of the punning only hinted at above, furthering the exploration of a bit of scholarship whose time has come.

A panel discussion takes place at the convention center on Saturday, January 26, at noon. The discussion and Q&A includes panelists Mark Steven Greenfield, Bruce Richards, and Alexis Smith. Jack Rutberg moderates.

PAGES -- Art Center Williamson Gallery through Sunday, January 27. Hours: Tues-Sun, 12-5pm, Fri 12-9pm. Free.

LETTERS FROM LOS ANGELES: Text in Southern California Art -- at the LA Art Show at the Convention Center. Hours: Thurs., Jan. 24-Sat., Jan. 26, 11am-7pm; Sun., Jan. 27, 11am-5pm; $20/day, $40/weekend.

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