With European gallerists continually recognizing Los Angeles as an international and lucrative destination for contemporary art, it makes sense that the Sprüth Magers gallery, originally hailing from the German Rhineland and with a main base in Berlin, had made the decision to open their own new West-Coast outpost in a late 1960’s William L. Pereira-designed complex, directly across the street from LACMA on Wilshire Boulevard last year.
The gallery has already organized six exhibitions since its opening a year ago, ranging from John Baldessari to Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. Sprüth Magers is positioning itself as an invaluable asset to its new American home. Now with two recent exhibitions running concurrently, Llyn Foulkes on the first floor and Jon Rafman and Stan VanDerBeek on the second, the gallery is launching into the New Year with a strong program.
Curated by Johannes Fricke Waldthausen of GOODROOM, a self-described art production “label”, the Jon Rafman and Stan VanDerBeek show reflects GOODROOM’s values of highlighting and celebrating content within “a shared artistic vision”. This is evident in both Rafman and VanDerBeek’s roles as purveyors of multimedia installations that challenge and augment the viewer’s reality as a way to comment on the omnipresence of technology in our lives. Although working during different eras—Rafman in the 21st century and VanDerBeek in the mid-to-late 20th century—these artists incorporate virtual reality, high-definition imagery and collage, and film animation, respectively, to present a distorted, yet wildly organic milieu that perforates the uncanny valley.
After visiting the Llyn Foulkes show, which is brightly lit, showered in natural and artificial light, the Rafman and VanDerBeek show invites the visitor into a portal of obscured territory. Slowly rising up the staircase, echoes of spectral noises and voices grow louder. In the space, the visitor is confronted with the large installation of Rafman’s ‘Poor Magic’ (2017), which consists of a single-channel HD video projected onto a wall, depicting vivid computer-generated scenes, such as hordes of benumbed individuals falling off cliffs onto each other in a surreal, human tissue-like landscape. Other visuals document a series of blue avatars that occasionally say “hello” in such a nonchalant fashion, so much so that one could convince oneself that someone in the space actually said it. Facing the projection is a lonesome collection of stadium chairs and chaise lounges covered in foam and paint that appears to be melting lard, wax and other organic matter. This abject environment, mimicking a family TV room, degenerates the living room as a warm and welcoming place into that a toxic dump.
In another corner of the gallery, standing behind a melting ottoman like in the previous installation, is an individual dressed in a white jumpsuit, ready to administer the virtual reality piece, ‘Transdimensional Serpent’ (2016). The piece, which utilizes Oculus Rift, takes the viewer on a journey through four distinct worlds (a computer world, a snow-covered forest, a dark city alley, and a desert), which are populated with humanoid and bestial creatures. While seated and transported to this virtual world, a loss of control and capitulation to the technology is vital to the success of the piece. While the viewer undergoes a few minutes of suspended reality, the question still depends on how much the participant is willing to succumb to the alternate world; if the viewer doesn’t explore or accept the new “reality”, it may appear strange or silly; but if willing to navigate the piece through engagement and rejection of their known world, one is rewarded with sensations of free-falling, ecstasy and fear.
Adjacent to this piece, Stan VanDerBeek’s portion of the gallery space begins. Lined on the white walls are works that incorporate collage, billboard paper, pastel and watercolor. Of the fourteen-framed pieces on the wall, four are host to a disturbing demonic figure, altered slightly on each panel, but still radiating the same disturbing and phantasmal aura. These four panels, along with many others, are collages or drawings upon billboard paper. This brings forth a potential commentary regarding the nature of some of these disconcerting images, and the material on which they are emblazoned. Billboard paper is a material meant to be distributed widely and consumed by many for commercial advertisement. The idea that VanDerBeek had created these lurid and even satirical images on this massively commodified material suggests his desire to challenge the public’s perception of their consumerist reality and introduce new forms of consumption.
Lastly, projected on a large wall, are three VanDerBeek 16mm films transferred to video. The films, ‘Oh, Astral Man’, and ‘Fluids’ are compressed together so that there is no blank space between them. In other words, they could be seen as one collective moving collage, each film distinct, with splashing colors and scenes, but interacting together on a shared surface as one large piece. ‘Oh, Astral Man’ presents a multitude of black and white, and color drawings and images. Anthropomorphic beings dominate much of the narrative, but are commonly erased or saturated with paints and pigments so that they are never constant. In another film, ‘Fluids’, VanDerBeek experiments with various psychotropic chemicals and fluids, filming them at close-range. This zeroing in on the texture of the liquid isn’t unlike someone peering into a microscope and scrutinizing an organism or bodily fluid.
The shaky stop-motion animation and black film splotches on VanDerBeek’s films contrast to the high-definition computer-generated images of Rafman’s films. But their messages and practices are nonetheless consistent with each other. This idea is evident in the way the exhibition was assembled. Although an L-shaped wall tenuously separates the two artists’ installations, the haunting bangs and screams of VanDerBeek’s ‘Oh, Astral Man’ permeate Rafman’s ‘Poor Magic’, just as Rafman’s ‘Poor Magic’ permeates the corner of VanDerBeek’s ‘Untitled’ panel series, with statements like “Hello” and ambient rambling making the viewer question their own sanity and sense of reality. This bleeding of each installation into the other facilitates the creation of an ultimately surreal landscape.