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My favorite kind of group show has always been those that forgo a theme in favor of an inspired, easy internal logic—where it’s like walking into a party and realizing that all the people you love most already know each other. It makes perfect sense, but you’re still struggling to put words to why it works. Emblazoned World at Bel Ami is like this. Technically, it takes its title from a single 1969 work by Lee Mullican, a modestly-sized pastel and acrylic on paper, that looks from afar like a hyper-realistic depiction of countless round beads, and up close like a constellation of soft little fire balls. But no one work is really a focal point of the show. Curated by painter Lucy Bull—who did not include any of her own work (though her uncanny, lustrous abstractions would make sense at this party too)—the show has “no conceit,” as Bull puts it in the press release, although she identifies “an inherent intimacy.” I like these descriptions. Still, as a viewer, I project something slightly more didactic onto the show’s sensibility. To me, it presents an argument, however gently, for an idea of art historical influence and proclivities that are driven more by shared feelings than notions of progress.
Luchita Hurtado’s Untitled (c. 1975) oil painting, which hangs to the right of the gallery entrance, is characterized by a central white square, surrounded by a gorgeous orb of yellow that ripples out into a textured expanse of browns and blues. It is, like so much of Hurtado’s work, unpretentiously spiritual—it is from a series of paintings she made to see if she could attract moths to painted light, and its energy matches its simultaneously magical and everyday intention. Hurtado, who died in 2020 at age 99 was relatively little known until recently, resulting in a “discovery” narrative that often deemphasizes that she made her work in community. Here, her painting settles comfortably into its cross-generational milieu. Nearby hangs E’wao Kagoshima’s Distortion One (2015), featuring an ethereal, alien-like figure sitting on a cushion of orbs and holding a delicate protest sign; yet the broken pens and pencils glued to the frame ground the work, making it feel almost gritty. Elsewhere, Joseph Grigely’s funny lithographs, made in 2001, are similarly grounded through their resemblance to envelopes and notes on torn paper, even as they catalogue sensational, stream-of-consciousness observations (like, “Last night Nicolas went to Central Park at 3:00am to play,” or “sex kitten?”). Sensational in a far less linguistic way, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s exquisitely energetic oil painting, Untitled (No. 583, April 30, 1957), pictures swirls of vivid color that look like hairy tentacles in a storm.
Bull points out in the press release that Von Bruenchenhein used corrugated cardboard and his wife’s hair as paint brushes, and this detail helps me put words to the show’s overall sensitivity. It’s veering always toward the other-worldly, but is still grounded by a sense of lived experience that isn’t totally legible in the way the work looks. If no one tells you about the wife’s hair, or Hurtado’s desire to attract moths, you wouldn’t know by looking, but you would feel these works’ lived-in-ness. The constellation of artists in Emblazoned World, brought together from across eras, suggests that making art from life can still pull us into a space of risky, untethered imagination.
Emblazoned World at Bel Ami runs from Sept. 10–Oct. 30, 2021, at Bel Ami (709 Hill Street, Suite #105, Los Angeles, CA 90012)