"Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all." So proclaimed André Breton, the great theoretician of surrealism, in the closing words of the 1928 novel Nadja. But he could have just as easily tossed off the line last week in reference to any one of three new exhibitions at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.
If there is beauty to be found in the tangled works on display in "Cristina Lei Rodriguez: Forever," it is indeed convulsive as well as elusive. At least superficially, Rodriguez's mixed-media work comes across as almost willfully ugly. A typical Rodriguez piece consists of layers and layers of such disparate ingredients as artificial flowers, toy figurines, plastic drinking straws, costume jewelry, metal wire and chains, glitter, and a ball of yarn. A couple of sculptures incorporate tree branches and roots, but the emphasis is on artifice, on the inorganic posing as organic.
All this stuff is held together with epoxy and usually at least partially painted. But it's easy to get the sense that there's some weird internal gravity holding it all in place, as if extraordinary force is required to keep the many incongruous elements from flying apart in all directions. There seem to be vast reserves of potential energy lurking in these works.
Words like harsh and garish and, yes, ugly spring to mind, and yet the studied ugliness somehow gives rise to a haunted grace and grandeur. Rodriguez wrenches her subject matter from its usual context and slams it together in bold new ways to suggest fecundity and overabundance — the imagery is literally too much. At the same time, the sculptures can be seen as frozen moments in a process of decay or deterioration.
I don't know how Rodriguez pulls off this balancing act, but it's what gives her work dramatic tension. Without the simultaneous ripeness and rot, these pieces would wither under the spotlight. As it is, they really do have their own convulsive beauty.
"Forever" is a tough act to follow, but with "Yes, No, and Everything in Between," Louise Erhard gives it a go. Like Rodriguez, she traffics in both excess and the power of suggestion, as in the four photo collages that line one wall of the center's middle gallery. Erhard patterns these constructions after kaleidoscopes, compiling hundreds of shards of color photographs in such a way that you come away thinking you've seen something sexually suggestive when you really haven't. These works are clever but not much more than that.
And while the idea behind the color enlargements on the opposite wall is a solid one, the images don't really carry the weight of the concept. They're stills taken from old movies as shown on television, with the women's faces torn from their original contexts, à la Rodriguez, and left isolated on their own, "forcing viewers to create their own narratives," as the wall text puts it. The problem is that the shots Erhard has selected aren't very engaging even on their own terms.
In the half-dozen photomontages in the tiny gallery just beyond, however, Erhard hits her stride and then some. She appears to be taking off from the starting point of Richard Hamilton's seminal collage Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?, created for the 1956 London exhibition "This Is Tomorrow." Like Hamilton, Erhard starts with modern-looking interiors that she then populates with people and things that don't fully fit in. (A cartoon Mr. Magoo addresses a vase of gladioli in one.) The rooms also invariably feature views of the outer world as seen through their windows, luring us deeper into the images.
The artist's wall text characterizes these rich collages as "a visual diary of my emotions as affected by the internal and external conflicts I experience in my life. Each one is about how personal filters and misinterpretations create my reality. Often my reactions are simply the outrageousness of what my mind tells me is going on versus what is actually happening." As in Rodriguez's best work, these pieces bristle with a palpable tense energy. I'd love to see a whole show devoted to more of them.
Perhaps inevitably, there's a little drop-off in vitality as you enter the center's adjacent Project Room, where "Birds Are Nice: A Little Love" is installed. (Bird Are Nice is the artist's assumed name.) There's a handful of linked works featuring lots of little red hearts and lots of bird imagery, all of which come together in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it 45-second animated film, A Little Love (In Your Heart). Cute, maybe, but not nearly as provocative as what's in the other two shows.
"A Little Love" is redeemed, however, by the mixed-media installation at one end of the space. The Compliment Dome invites you to sit on one of two stools beneath a couple of makeshift speakers from which emanates a cooing voice telling you wonderful things about yourself. After the astringency of "Forever" and "Yes, No, and Everything in Between," it's a way to pamper and soothe yourself — however patently false the platitudes may be — before you head back out into the real world.