Even the simplest snapshot is a complex testament to how the past persists into the present. Then becomes now, remains now. Guillaume Zuili's photographs at Couturier complicate the matter exquisitely. Each is a double exposure, two thens fused into a now, or perhaps two nows impossibly twinned.
An accidental double exposure made in New York in 1995 launched the series of lyrical and contemplative double takes on Moscow, Lisbon, Paris, Berlin and Prague. In that first small picture, remarkable visual rhymes composed themselves spontaneously inside the camera. The diagonal ladder of a nearby apartment fire escape echoed in the zigzag lines of another, more distant. The city became a weave, a layering of patterns, a layering of temporal planes.
Fortuitous accidents still play their part in creating Zuili's in-camera double exposures, but working now with intention to layer, he appears to approach his paired shots with contrast in mind. He joins an image taken close to a subject with one taken farther, from a separate view, or he matches differing perspectives, a shot taken looking down with one taken looking across. Spatial contradictions abound, reconciling themselves on the surface of the print while conjuring great textural richness.
In an untitled image made in Moscow in 2000, a city street and a stairway merge like interlocking pieces of a vast urban puzzle. There are overlays in the picture, shadows, and perhaps reflections too. It's difficult to parse, but what matters is that the image sets the eye on a rambling adventure through improbable space. The logic of matter and perspective are abandoned, and an intriguing, conditional pictorial logic takes over. The vertical lines of a tall, distant building seem to carry through into the panels of a wall bordering the stairway shot from close by. Translucent, ghost-like cars are parked or stuck in traffic near a sign that frames an impossibly crisp view of the skyline.
Zuili, born in Paris and living in L.A., gravitates toward urban structures with pronounced patterns: staircases, especially, but also the exterior ornamentation of buildings and the speedy arcs of railway lines. The layered compositions amplify the inherent dynamism of these shapes.
In a view from Prague, the scalloped design of a cobblestone street overlaps a broad stairway, so that the figures walking up-frame occupy a strange nether zone of confused gravity. In another image from Prague, pairing a silhouetted building with a tree, the dense foliage serves as shadowy shelter in the upper part of the picture and dissolves into more angular confetti below.
In a photograph from Berlin, silvery U-Bahn tracks slide away into the distance, liberated from a plane of bricks. Zuili uses Polaroid negative film and leaves a raw edge around each print, the layers of viscous emulsion further framing the images with contingency. The liquid deckle reminds us that every image is born of temporal if not material fluidity: Now and then intermingle, as in history, as in memory, as in dreams, like differing densities of truth.
Couturier Gallery, 166 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 933-5557, through Aug. 16. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.couturiergallery.com
Sarabia's work subverts prettily
The history of the world, according to Eduardo Sarabia's dastardly decorative work, is a tale of sex, drugs and violence, told in the language of commerce. Tough stuff, but Sarabia soft-sells it, making it pretty and palatable. His mild-mannered subversion goes down easily.
The centerpiece of Sarabia's show at L.A. Louver reads a bit like a showroom. More than 600 unique, hand-painted ceramic plates are mounted floor to ceiling, wall to wall, an attractive and impressive display of merchandise. The installation (titled, like the show, "History of the World") renders ornamental the currency of the black market -- guns, marijuana and other drugs -- and other commodified, animate beings, such as parrots, roosters, goats and especially nearly nude women in alluring poses. Each subject is framed by foliate or geometric patterns painted in blue enamel. Mexican artisan pottery comes to mind, as does Dutch Delftware.
Sarabia, who divides his time among Guadalajara, Berlin and his native L.A., champions hybridity. A few oils on canvas in the show force together snapshot-derived realism and sloppy abstraction, yielding odes to irretrievable memories. Another installation stacks more painted pottery (bowls, pots, vases) on a shelving unit, as if it's inventory ready for sale or shipping.
The work is too well behaved to generate any serious friction, but its fusion of the knowing and the naive, the playful and the critical, does boost the cause of the aesthetic mixed marriage. What is most interesting about Sarabia's work is its unlikeliness -- as if he's smuggling in plain sight.
L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through Aug. 23. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.lalouver.com
A show's artists in a state of unrest
"Against the Grain," part of LACE's 30th-anniversary celebration, reflects back on another LACE show organized during the art center's 10th year. In the 1988 exhibition "Against Nature: A Group Show of Work by Homosexual Men," 30 artists negotiated the intersecting forces of illness, loss, decadence, artificiality, AIDS, gay male sexuality and the production of art.
The earlier show's mix of irreverence and anxiety (to borrow the curators' terms) informs the current show, as well, for which artist Christopher Russell selected 14 L.A. artists (male and female), who adopt, in one way or another, a socially critical stance. Russell suggests the contemporary Gothic as a curatorial frame, for its thematic stew of "destruction, violence, anger, macabre."
Some of the work comes across as gentler than that: Anna Sew Hoy's hanging web of tie-dyed T-shirts is a benignly charming exercise in resourcefulness; Kelly Sears' short video docu-collage is more wry than radical. But unrest does prevail, with or without a declared object.
Brian Bress' "Disaster Family" is a work of breathtaking sobriety. A group of four figures fashioned from the thick felt of disaster blankets, the family doubles as angels of death and their victims. John Knuth's desiccated, affecting take on a city going down is countered by the pseudo-levity of Amy Sarkisian's Ensor-like laughing/grimacing heads and the exuberant strangeness of Wendell Gladstone's slickly painted visions. Ami Tallman's watercolors and drawings of animal corpses range from slight to disarmingly gorgeous. Robert Fontenot spells out the basics of the eternal power struggle in a comic storyboard of bread-dough figures: Big folk oppress the little folk; little folk rise up and take the big folk down.
Works by all of the artists in the show (the others are Tom Allen, Matt Greene, Julian Hoeber, Brian Kennon, Ryan Taber and Cheyenne Weaver) incorporate decay or its stagier twin, decadence, but many lack the self-sufficiency to thrive in such a heady context. In the end, the show wears its premise like an oversized flak jacket, heavier and denser than what it encloses.
Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 957-1777, through Sept. 21. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.welcometolace.org
Horn's inquiry into fluidity
Roni Horn is an artist of substance whose work nevertheless can lapse into the slight and gratuitous. She can tease out profundity with the sparest of means, but she can also simply tease and not deliver much at all.
In her show at Gagosian, Horn offers three types of work: photographs, cast glass sculpture and sculptural word pieces. What unites them is the artist's persistent inquiry into the condition of fluidity as an inevitability and also a kind of wondrous gift. The cast glass sculptures visualize well their material's seemingly dual state as liquid and solid. Each looks like a large cylindrical tub, frosted on the exterior and polished smooth on top. The clear glass version is transparent as water, and the other, black and opaque as obsidian. They make an elegant pair, a rhyme with both heft and fragility.
The fluidity of personal identity has been explored exhaustively by photographers of the past generation or two, and Horn does the theme no favors in her extended portrait of actress Isabelle Huppert. The images, tight close-ups with a narrow range of expression, get tedious rapidly. The subject's celebrity is their only redeeming feature, and it's not nearly enough.
The most provocative works in the show give physical fixity to fragments of poetry by Emily Dickinson. The lines are written out in white plastic block letters embedded in square aluminum planks, 2 inches per side and up to 12 feet tall. They lean against the wall like delicate buttresses. The impersonality of their manufacture jars against the tone of the poet's singular mind and its intimate probing. "Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?" one piece reads. In this case, absorption.
Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Aug. 29. Closed Saturdays and Sundays (summer hours). www.gagosian.com