“A bloody and bony parcel bearing the imprint of trouble” was how Rico Lebrun referred, in a 1963 interview, to the human figure shaped by circumstances of his day. Lebrun’s painting Buchenwald Cart (1956), loaded with ashen limbs, his 1960 ink homage Untitled (De Sade) and his sunken-eyed bronze Head (1961) launch the intensely visceral ride that is “L.A. RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945–1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy.” Like many of the “Pacific Standard Time” projects, the show, including over 120 works by 41 artists, serves as a historical corrective, in this case restoring visibility to a strain of figurative art long overshadowed by postwar abstract movements. Curated by Michael Duncan (an A.i.A. contributing editor), “L.A. RAW” presents a continuum of body-centered art driven by both collective trauma and personal, psychosexual reckoning.
The catalogue’s afterword is by art historian Peter Selz, who organized the 1959 exhibition “New Images of Man” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, to which this show is a worthy sequel. The earlier show presented Giaco-metti, Bacon, Dubuffet, de Kooning and other artists as striving to represent the human condition more honestly than could either naturalism or idealism. The artists here pursue similar primal truths, using bodily fragments, distortions and surrogates to confront grief, dehumanization and existential tenuousness. Psychologically dense and raw indeed, the work is in heated counterpoint to L.A.’s 1950s and ’60s “cool school.” Some of it feels overwrought or teeters into kitsch. Instances of levity (as in Nancy Buchanan’s 1977 photo-text piece Wolfwoman) and vibrant beauty (William Brice’s Matissean canvas Untitled [Malibu Figure], 1968) occur but rarely. The show as a whole is an affecting and eye-opening testament to the uninterrupted vitality of L.A.’s figurative tradition.
Familiar names (John Altoon, Wallace Berman, Llyn Foulkes, David Hammons, Edward Kienholz and Betye Saar) mix with those that have faded from prominence, among them Jirayr Zorthian (1911-2004), author of the oddly gripping, hallucinatory ink drawing Induction Fever (1952). An embracing couple dominates the page, their heads comprised, Arcimboldo-style, of multiple small faces, their legs metamorphosing into burrowing roots. Vignettes—a sign pointing to a stalactite cave, a church spire collapsing, a painter’s palette rising from clouds—merge to fill the rest of the surreal, fluid space.
Hanging near Zorthian’s anxious dreamscape is a large charcoal drawing (1966) by Charles White, a work of potent, profound simplicity. The image of a seated black woman shrouded in a thick, heavy garment, her hands lightly clasped in her lap, echoes Kollwitz in its solemnity. The title, J’Accuse #1, forges a link between historical and contemporary struggles for justice: the Dreyfus case and the civil rights movement. White’s sturdy, blind figure invokes lady justice herself, assuming the pyramidal shape of her fateful scales, and also personifies her eternal petitioners with utter dignity.
The flesh-and-blood aspect of “L.A. RAW” becomes literal in later works—such as performances by Chris Burden and Barbara T. Smith—which enact rather than depict physical and internal duress. This show demonstrates that McCarthy’s absurd, unnerving 1974 video of his intimate encounter with the contents of a ketchup bottle turns out to have a relatively traditional lineage, and it bookends powerfully with what Duncan calls the “dark visions” of Lebrun that impressed McCarthy as a young student.
Photo: Jirayr Zorthian: Induction Fever, 1952, ink on paper, 17 by 24 inches; in “L.A. Raw” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.