Ignition @ Madison Gallery
Ignition, the current show at Madison Gallery in La Jolla (1020 Prospect St., Suite 130), is a bit of a misnomer. The title suggests a catalytic element that simply doesn't exist. Featuring the work of two mid-career painters, Richard Roblin and Michael Kessler, the show, which runs through November, is more a quiet, composed study of the interplay between method and aesthetic. Roblin works primarily in oil on canvas, describing simple geometric form over flat, Mondrian-esque color blocking. Kessler layers acrylic, gesso and varnish on wood panel for an effect that's almost liquid in its luster. Roblin seems to be exploring the metaphysics of reality's underlying form while Kessler is concerned with the abstraction of natural objects. It's an interesting juxtaposition—two artists working in very different styles approaching the question of being from very different angles. The one curatorial misstep is the unfortunate inclusion of “Infinity Dancing,” a brightly colored Roblin canvas that seems tailor-made for the inward-looking La Jollan seeking a material expression of the spiritual to hang above the couch. The work introduces an element of the banal into the show and confuses the otherwise thoughtful dialogue between the artists' work.
United & Severed @ Art Produce Gallery
United & Severed, at Art Produce Gallery in North Park, is a collaborative, multimedia installation focusing on the situation of three women who have suffered traumatic injuries. Our imagination usually takes physical integrity for granted, using that integrity as a source for metaphors about the drama of society and human consciousness. But in this case, the artists have created an effective symbol for the breaking of the body itself, centering the exhibit on the ritual dismemberment and reassembly of a tree burnt by the San Diego wildfires. The dismemberment is captured on video, interwoven with footage of the injured women and accompanied by their personal stories, all the more moving for its focus not on suffering but on the bizarre disruptions of the mind-body relationship. The imperfect reassembly is represented by sparse fragments of trunk and branch, half-transubstantiated into human tissue and partially reconstructed across the gallery space. The exhibit is not uniformly successful. It would have been strengthened by more footage of the women and less self-conscious artiness, which often distracts from their simple eloquence. And much of the commentary accompanying the art is unnecessary, unenlightening and poisoned by jargon.
Three @ Subtext
From time to time, we could all use a little reality check—a litmus test to see if we've begun to take ourselves a bit too seriously. Three, the group show currently running at Subtext (2479 Kettner Blvd. in Little Italy) through Dec. 3, was mine. I failed. Fucking cartoon characters, I thought walking in, wearing a black beret and clutching a copy of Camus (I had neither the beret nor the book, but I may as well have). I want to write about Art, not Dora the goddamned Explorer. But at the first sight of the autumnal whimsy of Matte Stephens' paintings—stylized lollipop trees in Central Park, a family of anthropomorphic cats posing for a dignified group portrait—my studied cynicism instantly melted away. The small room is alive, populated by the Technicolor characters of Sandra Equihua (who won an Emmy in 2008 for her work on Nickelodeon's Le Tigre) and filled with an epic sense of the heroic, thanks to the scenes of Israel Sanchez. Yes, this is a show of illustrators—one that will quickly disabuse you of the very adult notion that capital-A art has to be dark and serious and make you feel like shit.
Automatic Cities @ MCASD
The exhibit Automatic Cities, at the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (700 Prospect St.), is subtitled “The Architectural Imaginary in Contemporary Art” but might just as well be glossed as “The Impossibility of City Planning,” since so many of the contributors, which include 13 artists and an artists' collective, emphasize the absurdities behind our visions of urban perfection. There's great variety in these artistic exposures. Jakob Kolding, for instance, creates large, politically oriented posters that directly confront the paradoxical balance between urban life and urban order. Julie Mehretu builds expansive canvases tracing the chaotic geometric interaction of the forms of buildings themselves. And Michaël Borremans paints moody private visions, which often highlight the disjunction between imaginative ambition and the malformed models that spring from it. It's a curious fact that most of these visions of the city emphasize not citizens but buildings and empty space. But it's also true that these dystopian intimations are usually balanced by humor. The show, which runs until the end of January, as a whole, wittily celebrates both a critical and a joyful urbanity; some of us may wish to return to the simplicity of Eden, but most of us still dream of building the City of Jerusalem.
American Artists of the Russian Empire @ SDMA
It doesn't happen often, but sometimes quantity trumps quality. That's not to imply that the San Diego Museum of Art's (1450 El Prado in Balboa Park) new show, American Artists of the Russian Empire, isn't a meticulous assemblage of works from 20th-century Russian-American artists, but since opening in late October (the show runs through Jan. 17), it's already been criticized for displaying some of the less popular works by masters like Mark Rothko and Max Weber. And, yes, while it certainly can be life-altering to see a Weber masterpiece like “New York at Night,” it would be a major disservice to put it next to a lesser-known artist like fellow Cubist Louis Lozowick or, heaven forbid, Sergei Sudekin's playful, almost-cartoonish scene of a St. Petersburg soirée in “Pre-Lenten Festival.” That's like putting the bobcat display next to the baby pandas. It's just not fair to the bobcat. No, every artist here gets a fair shake. The exhibit can be disorienting to anyone without at least a passing familiarity with the artists, and the show can have an almost pendulum-like flow to it both in theme, subject and style. But look at it this way: It's not often you get to jump from cubism to expressionism to surrealism and back again. Seek out artists like Louis Ribak and the vastly underrated Ben Shahn, both of whom make grand statements on the Great Depression and war. Take your time with them. All of them. They might not be as cute or as popular, but the bobcats of the world are just as mighty.