Grand flourishes of paint
An edgy restlessness runs through Sarah Cain’s captivating show at Honor Fraser.
As a painter, Sarah Cain is a major fangirl. Not the vapid or uninteresting kind but an incisive, seriously playful and intensely talented obsessive.
She is fixated on putting paint where it belongs, which could be just about anywhere. The 20 results in her second solo show at Honor Fraser Gallery range from splendid to magnificent.
Cain has lavished paint on walls, floor, ceiling, upholstered furniture, wood furniture, dollar bills suspended from monofilament and rectangles of canvas hanging loose or stretched on variously sized frames (conventionally known as paintings). She pairs paint with gold and silver leaf, stereo headphones, beads, a pot holder, necklaces, thread, crystals, dried roses, sea shells, a huge palm frond, a broom, a f lower vase, sand, string and glitter.
Loosely feminine connotations have been historically assigned to most of those other objects and materials. Cain cheerfully ups that socially determined ante with her specific choice of furniture: a thrift-shop vanity with a tall mirror, where a viewer is reflected amid various styles of elaborately painted surface, or a modern love seat and Chippendale bedroom dresser that each hosts its own enthusiastic painting.
Loosely masculine connotations, by contrast, have been historically assigned to painting in general and abstract painting in particular. The grittiness and spark in Cain’s work comes from the friction between the two, building on similarly aligned Pattern and Decoration predecessors such as Kim MacConnel and Jessica Stockholder.
Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the edgy restlessness comes from forcefully squeezing out es-
tablished conventions and simply occupying the artistic territory as she sees fit. After all, the biggest, most energetic abstract painting in the show — almost 9 feet of raw canvas flooded with scribbles, swirls and slathered patches of red, orange, yellow and blue acrylic and oil pastel — is titled “For Marc.” Tacked to a stretcher bar at the side is a tag that identifies Marc Maron, the politically wicked alternative comedian.
No wonder Cain titled her show “Bow Down,” with its regal command. Nodding to Beyoncé’s controversial pop-feminist anthem of that name greets another realm of fangirl enthusiasm.
“Bow Down” is also the title of the show’s architecturally scaled extravaganza, an improvisational painting made on site and stretching 47 feet — the entire length of one room. Like Cain’s showstealing, site-specific window mural in “Painting in Place,” a scruffy 2013 group exhibition, it assembles a host of painterly riffs, shimmies and shakes.
Sprayed, brushed, f lung, dribbled, puddled, taped, stained, poured, gestural, geometric, organic and more, with some of it on independent surfaces she attached to the wall, the painting is a virtual lexicon of modern abstraction. (A draped cluster of dried roses even offers a valediction.) Gaily crossing the main wall’s defining edges on all four sides, it pushes the mural tradition into three dimensions.
As a final f lourish, Cain painted an off-kilter grid of big, dark-gray polka dots over everything. Who knew that seeing spots before your eyes could be so pleasantly invigorating? Honor Fraser Gallery, 2622 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 837-0191, through July 11. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.honorfraser.com
Videos mesh chaos, mortality
Three short, single-channel videos, the longest just under three minutes in duration, anchor a show of nine large drawings by New Yorkbased artist Chloe Piene at Susanne Veilmetter Los Angeles Projects.
The drawings are all rendered in clipped, spindly, agitated lines that loosely describe fragmented, luxuriously reclining female nudes, all shattered in the amorphous space of large sheets of paper. Reminiscent of De Kooning’s choppy, seaside clam-diggers, they’re titled more aggressively, with variations on the word “Valkyrie.”
Those are the women in Norse mythology who decide which soldiers in a battle will live or die. Piene’s three short videos installed in an adjacent room are clipped from grim, often brutal found-footage shot with body cameras by American soldiers fighting in Iraq.
The first is a loop showing a machine gun jerkily being positioned in the dirt, ac- companied by scraping sounds. It’s like a metallic praying mantis, readying itself to pounce.
The second is a jumpy view of bleak, scrubby landscape. Soon it’s accompanied by the pop-pop-pop of gunfire. The screen goes blank as anxious shouts of “Medic!” repeat for what seems like an eternity, punctuated by desperate swearing.
Next come a few moments of a camera-view facing down, traveling across dusty ground. The screen goes blank again. Chaos erupts: troops hollering, incoherent orders barked. Communications are interrupted, just as they are in Piene’s video.
In a sense, like Piene’s “Valkyrie” the videos are drawings too, with the artist’s sharp edits taking the place of brisk delineations in charcoal on paper. What remains unseen — the empty space — is as important as the fragments of imagery that appear on the screen.
Despite their brevity, “Gun 01,” “Shrapnel” and “I’m Hit” are exhausting to watch. Partly that’s because the information that is withheld makes the brief images more intense. And partly it’s a result of being documentary: The torn f lesh is unseen but real, and a viewer’s own body clenches.
Turmoil meshes with mortality. You peer into video imagery that is rear-projected onto a rectangular, roughly laptop-size screen f lush with the surface of the gallery wall. Sound comes from four similarly arrayed speakers. A Minimalist composition, its power to disturb is anything but slight.
Also at Vielmetter, a dozen recent paintings by New York artist Elizabeth Neel show how process has been moving into the foreground of her work in recent years. It has been there in previous paintings, but its prominence here is a provocative turn for an artist whose abstractions have direct ties to visual experience outside the canvas.
In addition to using conventional tools like a brush or techniques like pouring, Neel frequently folds a portion of her canvas while thick patches of paint are still fresh. The result is a Rorschach-style blot. It can be biomorphic, but often it’s disconcertingly geometric.
The organic quality of a typical Rorschach inkblot is what allows fluid psychological interpretation to open up. Geometry blocks that. When the blot is a rectangle with crisp edges and a mottled skin, the brain tends toward self-conscious analysis rather than free association. The painting ricochets conceptually between chance and order, natural and contrived, mimetic and not.
A lovely painting such as “Black’s Pond (Eating Languages),” a horizontal canvas more than 6 feet high and nearly 12 feet wide, is exemplary. Without attempting depiction, it begins to feel like a landscape equivalent — a productive territory of composted material carefully gathered from worlds both natural and artistic.
Passages in Neel’s lively abstractions invoke strategies employed by artists as diverse as Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman, Ed Moses and Albert Oehlen. The work is not pushing against painting ’s boundaries, creating something startlingly new, but it is accomplished. Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 6006 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 837-2117, through July 3. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.vielmetter.com
A DETAIL of Sarah Cain’s “Bow Down” installation, which takes up the entire length of one room.
“GUN 01” is a short video that Chloe Piene clipped from body-camera footage by U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
ELIZABETH NEEL’S “Blacks Pond (Eating Languages)” takes on a Rorschach-like feel.