Inaugurated in 1993 to foster rapport between Los Angeles and the international art world, the L.A. International Biennial recently celebrated its sixth season. The exhibits profiled over 200 artists from North and South America, Australia, Asia, Africa, and Europe, and nearly a quarter showcased sculptures or installations. Several early 20th-century artists anchored the throng of contemporary works that appeared in over 75 galleries and museums around the L.A. basin.
Amedeo Modigliani and Lucio Fontana were profiled at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Patricia Faure gallery respectively. Their early study of world art fostered sculptural abstraction in the first half of the 20th century and opened European art to previously ignored cross-cultural horizons. In the age of globalization, dialogues have moved beyond their explorations, toward the more equitable discussions highlighted by the L.A. International.
Perhaps the peripatetic lives of Modigliani and Fontana partly account for their newfound popularity. Modigliani’s six sculpted heads, featured in the center of an exhibit devoted predominately to painting, proved psychologically powerful. Borrowing from ancient Aegean and pre-modern Ivory Coast art, Modigliani evolved a signature archetypal idiom that crosses cultural and temporal borders in the interpretation of modern individuality.
Like Modigliani’s work, Fontana’s is infused with a simplification of form that owes a debt to the groundbreaking works of Brancusi who was 23 years Fontana’s senior. Following Brancusi’s death, Fontana paraphrased with breathtaking directness Brancusi’s Newborn. Rendered in clay that looks as though it may not have been fired, rather than in marble, Fontana’s Concetto spaziale extends Brancusi’s inherent simplification and perfection of form while altering the meaning of Newborn. Marking the egg/head form with his signature slash, Fontana both names himself Brancusi’s heir and announces the end of an artistic era.
The Faure gallery also showed works by Piero Manzoni, Luigi Carboni, and Pier Paolo Calzolari. Using the simplest of materials, the Arte Povera artist Calzolari transformed the gallery’s back room into a peaceful, meditative chamber. Juxtaposing thin neon tubes with flaming off-white candles, his works transcended time and space, accentuating humanity’s fascination with and reverence for light. His sculptural odes to electric light also carried metaphors of art’s fragile relationship to life, where the artificial replaces the real in ways that can be wondrous and spellbinding.
The sculptural works of Guatemalan artist Lissie Habie at the nearby William Turner gallery were even more hypnotic. Presenting imagined worlds that narrate tales of hope, love, faith, bondage, and tyranny, Habie’s poignant works converse with Magic Realism. Disturbing yet rewarding, her sculptures unfold parables distinctive for their breadth of imagination, touched with the consciousness of life’s finite nature.
Riera i Arago’s seemingly insouciant works, shown across town at the Tasende Gallery, proved equally poetic. This Spanish artist plays the essence of real things against their quixotic possibilities. His sculpture of a boat perilously balanced atop a pyramid of water basins spoke of the struggle for survival—the vessel surfs an imagined wave whose power emerges from ever-expanding pools of energy. Envisioning boats, airplanes, and submarines, his sculptures explore travel in archetypal terms, encouraging viewers to journey beyond the here and now to the liberating realms of invention and fantasy.
Applying flights of the imagination to real space, the German artist Christine Rusche transformed the Robert Berman venue into an expansive space by means of an architectural-scaled installation drawing. Adding lines of perspectival illusion on the gallery walls, Rusche visually transformed the rooms’ dimensions, creating the illusion of a skylight lit space replete with a free-floating staircase leading to a second level, and an expanded spatial depth for the gallery’s back quarters.
Such inventive approaches to space were counter-balanced by the more sardonic inquiries of Rosamund Purcell and Jean Lowe. Purcell’s installations at the Santa Monica Museum of Art intertwined a late 1950s Beat aesthetic with contemporary neo-gothicism. Following her earlier body of photographic work that questioned the epistemological nature of art, Purcell toys with relationships between the real and the replicated. For this installation, she created a replica of a 17th-century curiosity cabinet known from an etching by the Danish physician Olaus Worm.
Exploring related conundrums, Jean Lowe’s works at the Rosamund Felsen gallery participated in the spirit of the biennial by focusing on American consumer fixations with 19th-century French Empire period furnishings. Fashioning faux imperial furniture and furnishings in papier-mâché, Lowe questions the continued relevance of the original, handmade art object in the post-industrial, mechanical age. She sculpts, for example, a suite of papier-mâché copies of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. Wryly playing with the Greek myth of Daphne’s miraculous transformation into a tree at the moment when Apollo attempts to ravage her, Lowe paints each papier-mâché sculpture a different faux wood grain, as though trying to guess which type of tree Daphne became. Through these processes she metaphorically suggests that the artistic era of material essences has been replaced by a world fascinated by resemblances and replicas.
But it was the unconventional roving sculptural work Charlie, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, that played the trump card in the biennial. Created by the provocative Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, this work featured a sculpted young boy riding a tricycle through the museum galleries under the watchful guidance of museum staff members. Literally interjecting child’s play into the museum context, Charlie served to remind viewers that art can appear when least expected, creating spontaneous, humorous, and even unexpected moments of insight and pleasure.