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Play on Words: “Stopping the Sun in its Course” Review

François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles, July 18 to August 22, 2015

Poetry is on the minds of LA curators these days. At Various Small Fires, a group exhibition brought together installation, painting, sound art and moving sculpture by Andrea Fraser, Mary Kelly, Jacob Kassay, Antoine Catala, and many others, that meditated on issues as diverse as mass-produced furniture, Internet security, redacted legal documents, the legacies of Minimalism, graffiti and human hair, all under the suggestive title “The Slick & the Sticky.” Though impeccably installed, it was hard to make sense of just what curators Esther Kim Varet and Vanessa Place thought made the works “stick,” even with their amply footnoted and evocative text in hand. China Art Objects Galleries, meanwhile, has been building an exhibition about the intersections of dance and language one sentence at a time, showing a rotating roster of landmark works by artists such as Merce Cunningham and Charles Atlas, alongside newer works, performances and readings by Ryan Gander, Rashaad Newsome and Canadian Tamara Henderson: the show, titled “The Sentence,” builds over the summer as a new set of artists is introduced each week.

It is hard not to see “Stopping the Sun in its Course,” an exhibition curated by Jesse McKee of mostly Canadian artists’ works, as an extension of this West Coast interest in wordplay. Occupying the expansive converted factory of François Ghebaly Gallery, the exhibition is framed by a curator’s text that introduces us to each artist’s work as though they are scenes in a one-act play: entering stage left, Alex Morrison offers us “a drawing and sculpture about the vanity of small differences between your own taste and [that of] others,” while to our right, Barry Doupé presents “excerpts from an animation that undoes the relationship between a boss and employee, so that we can speak about art, language and expression.” Fun though it is as a premise—especially for a show whose title recalls the Old Testament—it is an exhibition that does not always cohere, in spite of its poetic and choreographic gestures.

When it does stick, so to speak, it is through its ability to revel in the more abject qualities of the lewd, the strange and the grotesque, as Doupé’s animation surefootedly does. Using his trademark style of clumsily painted computer animation, reminiscent of the early 1980s Mac Paint program, and his signature brand of humour, two short excerpts from The Colors that Combine to Make White Are Important (2012)—a feature-length film about a Japanese factory worker and an art heist—include a long scene of a woman masturbating, the camera cutting from close-up views of her face to her crotch, while English subtitles translate her monologue, which is equal parts lamentation for a lost love and existential queries about the nature of time and colour: “What is the name of that colour? The trees are black,” she intones at one point. “I am bigger than myself. I am my own dream.” “Is cheerleading a sport?” Around the corner, Lucy Stein’s looping cursive writing, wrought in peach-coloured paint across two raw canvases, seems to form an apt rebuttal. “Limpid cunt lips inviting masculine labour” is both the painting’s message and its title, scrawled around three clusters of limpet shells adhered to the canvas. Evoking Helen Frankenthaler in their pastel colours and Kathy Acker in their language, Stein’s paintings are both beautiful and deranged.

Across the way, two new panels about Walter Scott’s Wendy—a girl trying to make it in the contemporary-art world who is continuously distracted by the vagaries of contemporary life as a millennial in his comic-book series of the same name—muse on the symbolic meaning of palm trees, found everywhere outside the gallery’s doors. “Palm Trees. Symbols of paradise,” one reads. “And Yet. The aspirational green foliage BETRAYED… the decimated HUSKS of a private death made public. Just like my LIFE.” Printed at large scale on vinyl hung over wonderfully elongated black stands that personify Wendy’s high-heeled legs and one of her arms (a burning cigarette dangling from her fingers), the gallery version builds on the surreal treatment of the body initiated by Doupé’s and Stein’s works, and also reveals that Scott is as talented an installation artist as he is an illustrator. On the adjacent wall, a new suite of 10 paintings on aluminum by Tiziana La Melia provides a delicate counterbalance to Wendy’s malaise. Clustered across a brick wall and resembling birds, artist palettes and letters from commercial signage, the metal paintings are scraped and perforated, sometimes backlit by LED lights. But their mutilation only serves to make them more intricate, vulnerable and beautiful. Bruised r continuously sensitive (2015) is a version of the letter “r” that has seen better days, while Baby room idea (2015) toys with figuration, its human beings etched into the metal and then coated in swirling strokes of nursery-issued pale yellow, pink, blue and purple.

Other works fall flat in the face of these more audacious, bodily forms. Sung-Chih Chen’s installation, Another Place Series—Sailing (2015), is granted centre stage in the main gallery, filling the space with squares of fabric and ballet slipper–style socks that are stuffed with magazine pages to perch them as steps across the room. Though McKee sees in them “a script for your own balance,” they feel inert in comparison to Stein’s florid brushstrokes and La Melia’s undulating forms: footprints meant to teach the viewer a simple two-step across the floor. Similarly, Morrison’s hanging sign that greets viewers in the foyer of the gallery—a rack of beer bottles, painted a flat grey and hung upside down like decorations on a pub’s corner lamppost—and the accompanying digital rendering of a fireplace mantel overrun with bottles, wrapped with a dizzyingly repetitive graphic design, feel out of place here, like interior props too pristine to set the stage for the exhibition’s raucous subsequent acts.

Unlike many of its counterparts, McKee’s exhibition avoids using language as mere (and frustratingly superficial) academic gesture and instead invokes its rhythmic, ugly, incantatory possibilities. It’s not always clear, however, how the viewer fits into its poetics: whether we are reading alongside the curator, or merely being read to.

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