at Randolph Street Gallery, through December 11


at I Space, through November 13

Artists who depict violence, brutality, and oppression face a paradox that’s troubled Western art at least since medieval painters began creating spectacular images of hell. If a work of visual art is powerful and compelling (if not “beautiful”), the viewer tends to develop an empathy with the subject. Simply put, it’s hard to create a strong yet repellent image of something one hates.

The best art in these two shows–“When Push Comes to Shove” at Randolph Street Gallery and Llyn Foulkes at I Space–addresses issues of violence and power through both content and form. Foulkes’s assemblages meld contradictory elements that clash harshly with each other, while an interactive video piece at Randolph Street encourages the viewer to uncover additional stories in each image, and a fabric piece there features a hole in its center. Violence and oppression are presented in works whose parts are themselves at odds with one another or whose whole form is transgressed against.

The most successful work in “When Push Comes to Shove” is Susan Otto’s 1993 installation She Watches Too Much Television (Self-Portraits With Guns), covering three walls of a U-shaped alcove. On the left wall a gun hangs upside down surrounded by hanging notepads, some covered with handwritten shopping lists, some with handwritten descriptions of rapes, others with lists of survivor symptoms. In the corner sits a TV, replaying slowed-down images of President Clinton signing a bill. On the center wall, covered with floral wallpaper, are many color snapshots, each showing a detail of a domestic interior–parlor, kitchen, bathroom–containing a gun. We see a gun atop a toilet, a gun hanging in the shower, a gun lying on a pair of stuffed dogs. The gun always clashes sharply with the mundane, homely setting. On the third wall is a floor-to-ceiling grid of 35 actual Los Angeles Times front pages on which most of the stories and pictures have been blacked out; the few texts and pictures that remain refer to or depict women. Looking at this grid, one realizes how much men still dominate the news, and how often women make it onto the front page as victims.

Otto’s piece succeeds because its design, as well as its content, creates meaning. The thick black ink used to black out the “news about men” expresses rage, for instance. But the white borders between the blacked-out sections also produce a complex arrangement of larger and smaller rectangles, a few with pictures or text, most solid black. These designs and the overall grid arrangement seem to refer to the geometrical work of minimalist artists like Sol LeWitt. The geometrical patterns in She Watches Too Much Television are engaging, and one might find oneself seeking some system to the arrangement as one does with minimal art–until one realizes that this is not an aesthetic geometry designed to give pleasure. If original minimalist art was apolitical, idealist, transcendent, Otto seeks rather to convey meanings, facts, even opinions about the present world.

The careful arrangements on the other walls make similarly strong statements about violence. The pleasant wallpaper provides a discordantly tranquil setting for photos that obsessively insinuate guns into every aspect of a household. The more one looks at these snapshots, the more fascinating guns seem. Though the weapons in the photos are definitely out of place, intrusive, and creepy, when one sees guns in every setting (and most of the photos are themselves repeated several times on the wall), it’s hard not to feel a certain attraction to guns.

Also compelling is Darrel Morris’s Family Album (1987-’93), a large wall piece consisting of 16 works. Morris, a Chicagoan, describes himself as coming from an abusive and “very dysfunctional family situation” in rural Kentucky, and most of these 12 fabric assemblages and 4 line drawings tell stories in pictures, some with speech balloons, of children neglected and abused by adults and other children. The drawings are awkward, a bit childlike; and the fabric pieces, which have some of the rough-edged directness of folk art, are different kinds and colors of cloth stitched together to make images. It’s as if a person with access to little else but scraps of material has brought them together, however crudely, in a cry for help. Particularly effective is “Hole,” a square fragment of a mass-manufactured shirt imprinted with a photo of a ghetto street. Near the center of the work Morris has placed the fabric figure of a youth, its center ripped out. If some of his other images show one person doing violence to another, here the violence has been done to the artwork itself, as if Mor- ris’s subject–brutality–were strong enough to cross representational boundaries and inspire an attack on the art object.

Two other pieces make use of an interactive computer program called Hypercard, which allows images, text, and sound to be presented in ordered sequences. The creator of a Hypercard sequence, or “stack,” can designate certain areas of the screen that, when clicked on with a mouse, will cause the program to branch in a particular direction–the interactive feature.

In Territory of Blows (1993), Rodney Sappington’s subject is the violence and abuse in his own family. The images–mixtures of text and scanned-in photographs–contain tiny spiral-shaped icons that can be clicked on to produce additional boxes of text. The spiral of the icon suggests that abuse is continuous and cyclical, while the ability to call up additional texts suggests the “layering” effect common to stories of abuse: beneath every surface, behind every moment, lie darker secrets and deeper traumas. Territory of Blows makes fairly rudimentary use of interactivity, however; I found the more complete autobiographical text (available in the accompanying printed book) not only more moving but more densely layered.

(Ain’t) Natural History (1992-’93), an installation by Leslie Ernst, Cathy Greenblatt, and Susan McWhinney, also makes use of Hypercard but with even less success. On a table are several elegantly printed books whose subject is female murder suspects in the United States. A foldout time line listing women murderers and other historical factoids begins with an introduction suggesting that some women murder as a response to female disenfranchisement–for example, to gain the money denied them because of job discrimination and lack of education. There may be some truth to this, particularly in earlier centuries, but the actual “suspects” (almost all were convicted) are described in only a few sentences, in prose worthy of the tabloid press. Surely more details are needed to convince the viewer that the women who murdered several husbands to collect on insurance policies were reacting to oppression. The program is little better. One area provides moving type with each woman’s aliases–“The Viking Ice Matron of Queens Village,” for example. The work as a whole is gimmicky, even lurid, rather than illuminating. Not only do these three artists concentrate on content rather than form, the content itself is minimal.

The diverse elements of Llyn Foulkes’s striking, sometimes stunning paintings–really more like assemblages, with their combinations of paint and three-dimensional objects–clash in a way that seems destructive to the works’ very autonomy and unity. Double Trouble (1991) is a semiprofile portrait of a man whose face, smeared with blood, is broken by a masklike band of blue paint covering his eye and nose. His upper teeth are not painted but are three-dimensional and embedded in the work’s surface; within the indented mouth sits a fetus, also three-dimensional. Most striking, the man’s left arm extends well below the picture frame and holds a painted gun, pointed horizontally as if aimed at someone.

Foulkes’s double point, that adults’ violence hurts both adults and children–or perhaps the unborn (is he antiabortion?)–is conveyed in both the subject matter and the form. The arm extending beyond the frame suggests the way violence violates boundaries, the way a bullet rips through a body. More generally, Foulkes’s combination of three-dimensional objects with illusionistic paint immediately shocks the viewer out of complacent acceptance of painting as mere picture. The three-dimensional teeth and fetus and the arm extending out remind us that violence puts real bodies, all of our bodies, at risk.

Foulkes, an LA-area artist who’s exhibited widely for over 30 years and painted primarily in a pop style in the 1960s, has through much of his career explored mixed-media painting, working (in the words of one critic) “in the cracks between assemblage and hard-core Pop.” In Day Dreams (1991) a sleeper, sculpted in relief, is covered by an actual blanket and has his head on an actual pillow. He’s dreaming of a 3-D gun placed in a cartoon thought-balloon made of actual cotton; to his right is a black-and-white comic-book superherolike figure; out a window is a richly painted landscape. The viewer is drawn in by the illusion of paint only to meet with actual objects.

Lucky Adam (1985) is a self-portrait of Foulkes as an Army private (he did serve in the Army in the 50s). The top of his head and his face are covered with blood, and there are splotches of the same color paint on the unfinished wood frame–a small analogue to the gun emerging in Double Trouble. Foulkes wears a painted blue uniform with an actual blue tie; strapped to his head with a real rope is an actual letter (from his home state) sent to him in the Army, postmarked 1955. If the painted “blood” shows Foulkes’s revulsion at his identity as a trained killer, the real-life envelope suggests he finds his civilian identity more authentic.

As befits an artist on the fringe of “hard-core Pop,” Foulkes is not above using humor. Where Did I Go Wrong? (1991) shows Clark Kent/Superman seated on a rock in a desert landscape, unhappily reading a newspaper with the huge headline “WAR”; the subhead announces the outbreak of the gulf war. He’s wondering, in a thought-balloon, “Where did I go wrong?” The implication is that Superman could somehow have prevented this murderous episode, the result of the actions of many nations.

But there’s an additional irony to this painting. The colors are bright, solid, certain, evoking both comic books and pop art. The rock formations in the arid landscape recall the “heroic” Hollywood western. Comics, pop, and the western all share a characteristic American optimism and sureness of purpose: by simply following one’s innate rhythms, they suggest, without an ounce of self-doubt, one fulfills one’s righteous destiny. The gulf war was fought in that “let’s do our job and get it over with” tradition. By placing doubt in the mind of Superman himself, Foulkes creates a powerful irony, suggesting that this self-righteous tradition should be questioned by those in power.

Foulkes’s antiwar stance is expressed with quiet but brutal pessimism in After the Storm (1991), a desolate battlefield scene created less out of paint than disfigured unfinished wood. An irregularly chipped away wood surface forms the ground, another piece of irregularly colored and punctured wood the brown sky. Real twigs form a camp fire; cotton makes the smoke. A lone soldier in a painted green uniform has fragments of a fuzzy black-and-white photo for his head and hands: thus the only visible “flesh” is made out of the least “real,” most processed materials. Two trees are formed of wood and wire; an American flag is rolled up at the bottom. Under the picture an inscription reads, “Honor the men who fought the war and killed all of the children.”

By using damaged wood to represent a wasted battlefield, Foulkes again gives his image a base in reality that would be hard to achieve with paint alone, while the mixture of representational modes creates shifts in the viewer that call into question the stability of the self: if paint, or a photograph, can stand for a real thing, while real things can be represented by objects (cotton) that look like them as well as by the things themselves (camp-fire wood), how do we know how to interpret what we look at, whether or not it’s “real”? The interpretive shifts caused me to feel a certain physical dislocation–how do I know I’m real?–suggestive of the dissociation trauma victims are said to experience. I recalled a great scene in a 1951 Samuel Fuller war movie, Fixed Bayonets, in which a battle-hardened sergeant urges his men to remove their boots and, placing their feet in a circle, rub one another’s feet to prevent frostbite. The sergeant finds a pair that are really numb and with angry concern informs the man he thinks they belong to; the men withdraw their feet to reveal that the sergeant is rubbing his own.

In an interview, Foulkes expressed pleasure at one critic’s initial reaction to his work: “She was both repulsed and attracted at the same time, and she wanted to get away but she was drawn in to the work and couldn’t leave it. . . . That is what I want to see when I go into a gallery.” In one of the largest pictures in this show, Rape of the Angels, the highly eclectic mixture of representational modes at times invites entry, at times seems to repel, creating a kind of perceptual violence in the viewer.

Rape of the Angels (1991) is a sort of diptych. On the left is an office interior with an official sitting at a “City Planning Dept.” desk, but the sign on the window reads “LALA LAND CO,” suggesting an alliance between city planners and developers. The official is faceless, his head covered by a photo of fingers handling stacks of $100 bills. On his desk are an actual freeway map of LA and a 3-D cactus plant; out the window a painted forest of skyscrapers fills the space. On the right, against a roughly textured black background, a sad figure in a T-shirt with a face sculpted in relief and actual hair thinks, in a thought-balloon atop the official, “THE . . . BAS- TARDS!”

If one ignores the enigmatic cartoon mouse on the official’s shoulder, there’s a fairly simple narrative here. The official who plans freeway developments and office towers, an amalgam of corrupt politicians and developers, has chopped down the desert plants–though there’s a lone survivor potted on his desk–to build office towers. The everyman at right, which one source identifies as the artist himself, is excluded. Formally the composition is a study in vertical lines–the cactus, the towers, a lone man on the roof of one tower, the official’s necktie–all echoing each other almost phallically: a study in male power. But it is through his mixed media that Foulkes achieves the strongest effects. While the cactus has some of the presence of an actual cactus, the window view covered with a thick sheet of plastic is more ambiguous. The plastic makes the office towers more distant but also more picturesque, recalling picture-window views of the grounds from a manor house or of the factory from the head office. The buildings behind glass contrast with the sculpted artist-loner at right; there’s no place for a real body in this constructed desert. The “Bastards” thought-balloon has the certainty of a comic-book exclamation, while the money is privileged, placed near the composition’s center and the only thing represented by a photo.

Rape of the Angels is a kind of allegory of capitalist exchange: in this desert turned into city, all objects of value translate readily into other objects. The potted cactus recalls the desert, whose replacement by the city has been facilitated by freeways, and ultimately everything is convertible into cash. But as the viewer shifts between these different representational modes, he understands these shifts as the artist’s cry of protest against such conversions. The loner and the cactus are given a real physicality; the window view’s “depth” is ultimately belied by the plastic; the “privileged” photo of money is the flattest part of the picture.

While the painting’s scenario is true to the facts of our capitalist culture, the form–intentionally at war with the content–offers the artist’s critique of that culture. As the viewer’s eyes pass from sculpted forms, which stop the eye at their surface and assert their solidity as objects, to illusionistic paint, which invites the viewer to imaginatively enter the image, to paint-under-plastic, which contains and pictorializes the window view, each part of the picture seems irreducibly different from the other parts. The combination of photo, speech balloon, 3-D surfaces, and plastic sheet suggests that there are important differences in the world, that all things are not measurable in dollars, that there are more and less authentic modes of existence. As the viewer moves from the contained window view to the flat and unattractive money photo to the more emotionally compelling 3-D loner, she’s encouraged to make different evaluations of different entities. Foulkes has found a solution to the problem of depicting things one hates as well as things one loves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy of AsherFaure, LA.