Robert John Billings: Family Healing Center

at Oskar Friedl, through July 3

Whereas a lot of art today seems merely confused, accomplished art at war with itself allows the viewer to feel doubt vividly, to see clearly while standing at the edge of chaos. Combining several media in disruptive ways, Robert John Billings, Rik Ritchey, and Clifford Rainey all make works articulate in their contradictions.

The dozens of sometimes raw works in Billings’s show at Oskar Friedl manage to convey at once quietude and rage, success and failure, creation and destruction. The show’s centerpiece, TBIBWLMW, is a large, precisely constructed wooden bridge whose timbers are bright red at their ends, suggesting matches–or materials that might also destroy it. Several smaller bridges are constructed of actual matches. The title stands for a phrase Billings got from a friend, “The bridges I’ve burned will light my way,” suggesting that immolation might be a positive act.

The installation CA Family Healing Center, which can be seen from the street as well as the gallery, has been marked by fire. Through the gallery window, under a sign reading “Family Healing Center,” we see a cardboard box cut away like a dollhouse to reveal several different rooms containing miniature furniture, a pile of matches, or a tiny version of the bridge. One of these rooms has suffered fire damage: there are charred items on the floor, and part of the wall is burned through. From the street the title seems ironic: the house, symbol of the family, is here hardly a refuge. From the gallery, however, the box-house is set alongside a garden complete with a small stream stocked with fish; it drops to a pool with a few larger fish and plastic scuba divers. Plants are everywhere, almost hiding the half-burned bridge that crosses the stream.

Billings–who was born in East Chicago, Indiana, in 1963, grew up in Hoffman Estates, and now lives in Santa Monica–told me that his family “had a reputation on the block for being like the Addams family–most holidays were ruined by fights,” including fistfights. His older brother Tom, also an artist, “tormented me so much as a child I wanted to shoot him.” This show, he says, is about “trying to do all the right things this time.” His father, who worked in advertising, “used to paint people burning in hell. I saw one painting as a young kid and got freaked out because I didn’t think my father was such a person.”

The religious references in Billings’s work are due less to regular churchgoing than to two near drownings he experienced as a child. He fell through the ice at five or six (his father hauled him out), and at ten he got pulled underwater in a river and dragged downstream; climbing out, he found his dad and two brothers laughing. By high school he’d discovered the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and regarded “the normality, the blahness” of suburbia as “pretty much hell,” from which art school was an escape. Billings declares he now believes in “all religions” but also sees their contradictions. This accounts for his latex Buda, which can be inflated with an attached tube. The tube can be clamped shut, but the air gradually seeps out anyway, so a few hours later the Buddha will be deflated again. Our sacred icons, created solely by our faith, are temporary.

Youranus is a doorway ringed with gloves inflated like balloons, their fingers sticking out udderlike or hairlike to brush against the viewer as he passes. The doorway leads via a stairway to the gallery’s dank cellar, where there are three tiny sculptures made of wax and incorporating model-train figurines. Blue wax simulates water, on which the figures stand, float, or swim, sometimes in scuba gear. In Cast the First Stone a monk appears about to molest a young boy, while a cameraman seems to be filming two women in a sex act; the cameraman’s male assistant pats his ass. Behind each sculpture is a digital print of a photo of it that enlarges some of the tiny figures. But the prints are also covered with latex, torn away in places like peeled skin to reveal, for example, part of the monk’s head. Dimly lit by a single hanging bulb and displayed like an altarpiece, these six works are the strongest pieces in the show, suggestive at once of a magical otherworld and of hell.

Billings deals with his drowning phobia by scuba diving, a way of being underwater but remaining in control, and the cellar has its own underwater feeling: dark and dank and offering limited visibility. The kind of blurring of identity one can experience while diving–immersed, one feels akin to the plants and fish–is present most strongly here in the weird relationship between the sculptures and digital prints. The same blue dominates both and feels like the same substance–as if the sculptures had come to life through the prints or the prints were embalmed versions of the sculptures. But the embalming hasn’t worked: the latex “skin” is decaying. The sculptures don’t work either, in that the figures are too small to produce convincing illusions. Billings’s art often plays with the boundary between image making and its failure, and his pieces’ peeling skin, hints of immolation, and inflation and deflation evoke–among other things–a family about to self-destruct.

Rik Ritchey

at Klein Art Works, through July 3

Billings’s almost sloppy show is appropriate for an exhibit rooted in emotional chaos. By contrast Ritchey’s 15 abstract paintings and prints at Klein are clean, clear, and elegant, their colors lush and appealing. One might almost call the paintings decorative, except for this: Ritchey has either stitched their polyurethane foam surfaces or torn them, usually revealing beeswax with blackened wicks, the paintings’ lovely patterns interrupted by candles that once burned.

Phlebotomist shows black reedlike stalks rising against a red-and-yellow background from a mostly black bottom, suggesting a swamp at sunset. But right in the middle is a spiral of long and short stitches, interrupting the view, standing for the dots and dashes of Morse code and representing words borrowed from employment ads: “phlebotomist, laboratory assistant.” The abstract surface of Means of Last Resort, Paranoia is interrupted by horizontal tears filled with beeswax, on which pointy burnt wicks representing dots and wide ones representing dashes repeat the words of the title. What do these phrases have to do with the painted design? Here meaning is experienced as a kind of wound, a rip in vision.

What ties the two disparate elements of Ritchey’s paintings together is that both are arbitrary. Once he’s decided on a text, the Morse code for it is out of his control, as are his abstract surfaces–at least partly. He applies paint mostly to the porous foam’s edges, guiding it toward the center but not completely determining its diffusion. Born in Idaho in 1953 and raised on air force bases around the United States, Ritchey (who’s also a sculptor) attended art schools in Washington and California, where he came to doubt the stories other artists claimed to be telling through painterly gesture; his work is very much in the spirit of today’s questioning of artistic originality. In Synapse black streaks seem to rise from the bottom like growing plants; where each streak ends Ritchey has torn away the foam to reveal a candle. In this case he allowed the paint’s movement to determine the pattern. But the candles have been burned, so that the end of each painted streak is tied to the consumption of the wax, linking creation and destruction.

The tiny glass beads attached to the lushly colored surface of Hysteria look arbitrarily placed at first but actually form rows and columns: Ritchey copied their placement from the numbers on computer-generated lottery tickets. This knowledge combined with the title suggests a wry social comment–many people place their faith in patterns that are in fact random, perhaps the point of all Ritchey’s work here.

Clifford Rainey

at Habatat, through July 11

While Ritchey’s and Billings’s pieces look very different, both name installation artist Ed Keinholz as a major influence and both disrupt their media as a way of evoking loss of faith. That theme is present even more explicitly in Rainey’s 14 sculptures at Habatat, including broken and fallen heads recalling Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” Born in Northern Ireland in 1948, Rainey now teaches glassmaking in Oakland, and his audacious use of glass is among the strongest aspects of his work.

Clout, Twelve Punched Heads is a large wall piece of 12 heads in a three-by-four grid, 11 of them cast in lead while the last, at the lower right, is cast in glass from the same mold. Most of the lead heads have been bashed in at various places while the glass head is intact, but traces of paint imitate the look of ancient sculptures that have lost their paint over time (Rainey mentions a visit to Greece as a major influence). The power of this large, weighty work comes in part from these signs of decay.

Even more poetic is Rainey’s use of light. The lead heads seem to absorb light, giving them an almost dead feeling, while the glass head glows brightly, an effect heightened by a separate spotlight: the head’s light seems to come partly from within. The ability of glass to seem a light source gives it an ethereal quality, suggesting a spirituality that transcends physical decay.

Rainey’s male heads in this show are copied from his own, but Prism is a glass female figure, of which we see only the upper half. Below it is empty space, then a pair of feet. A part of her belly has also been removed and is held out in front on a metal rod: Rainey says this prism-shaped glass stands for her soul. The woman is painted to look like a store mannequin, but unpainted portions reveal the glass beneath. She holds her head up proudly, but the metal plates below and behind her are rusted; the effect is of an electric chair. We see this woman with a soul of light at the point of death.

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is a triptych of glass heads, each mounted on a metal table attached to a pair of wooden wall panels covered with dark rubber, suggestive of paintings. Like much of Rainey’s work, they seem a commentary on painting, depicted here as mute, at the end of its history. The heads almost seem to have tumbled out of the panels, human presences long excluded from abstract art. The left head is brightly painted, Egyptian; the middle one is barely headlike, a casting of the mold used to make the other two heads held together by heavy clamps. The last head, whose paint has been rubbed away, is most like Rainey’s other work; but it seems to have fallen off its platform, sitting on the floor nearby. Light and dark, representation and abstraction, wholeness and fragmentation come together here, in Ritchey’s peculiarly altarlike image of failure.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Cast the First Stone” by Robert John Billings; “Phlebotomist” by Rik Ritchey; “Prism” by Clifford Rainey.