Looking at “Big Idea: Abel Alejandre and Kiel Johnson”

Looking at “Big Idea: Abel Alejandre and Kiel Johnson”

This is a bit late, as reviews of exhibitions go, but maybe since the show runs through December 3rd, it’s no big. The show is not huge, but has grown since it opened, due to Kiel Johnson installing another piece in collaboration with Orange Coast College students.

I’m already well familiar with Johnson’s work, and most of the pieces in this show aren’t totally new. Alejandre’s, though, I’d not encountered before. His half is mainly figurative, mostly close portraits done as if etched, on muslin or canvas. One section of small works is on an inner wall, but the majority, in black & white, stretch wide, tall, and imposing. They feel suffused with symbols of family and Latin culture. I felt a sense of awe, maybe even reverence, while I walked the perimeter. Most of the portraits also seemed straight out of the heart of Americana, perhaps like stills from a documentary. I thought of Mark Twain. I thought of Ken Burns. At the same time, the drawings seem endemic to the Southwest, rather than the so-called “heartland,” and to Los Angeles, specifically. These are familiar feelings, if not familiar imagery.

“Put ’em Up” is one of several portraits of male figures that meld heroic scale with a contemporary subject.

portrait of a small boy aiming a finger gun at viewers
Put ’em Up

Is the boy a relative? A friend’s kid? He’s confident, assured. Cute, even. But is this a comment on our culture of violence? The obsession with guns in America, absorbed from childhood? Does this carefully rendered portrait talk about masculinity and its fragility in men, or perhaps the loss of innocence at a young age, something we as humans still struggle to quantify and evaluate? Maybe. There’s a lot to understand and consider in much of Alejandre’s work, and it directly aligns with contemporary Angeleno culture. Apologies for such a stale idiom. This is, though, what excites me when I encounter new art: the questions.

woodcut with skull-headed figure holding two roosters
A Tale of Two Birds

Alejandre included a masterful woodcut, already inked, with the drawings and prints. “A Tale of Two Birds” extends the theme of restrained or intimated violence, its central figure seated among or on a multitude of upthrusting rifle barrels of various calibers. The open-jawed and empty skull is a literal death’s head upon a shirted, but pantless, sinewy body, recalling the long tradition of conflating guns and sexual symbolism. And, again, if we’re just talking raw surface imagery, Death holds two cocks, if twelve-year-old me hadn’t driven the provocative interpretation all the way home. On the other hand, I realize now, it’s also evocative of a multitude of belligerent, drunken arrestees on the news and the show Cops who somehow managed to keep only their shirts on. But there’s so much more to wonder about in this piece. The futility of violence. Humanity’s brutal manipulation by unseen or unthinking forces to keep battering itself. The half-remembered symbols of the fighting cock, the partial nude, of death itself. All this under the ominous crosses of telephone poles and their entangling wires, simultaneously symbols of the holy future of technology and the stark oppression of the city.

close up of woodcut showing deep cuts and the precision on telephone poles
A Tale of Two Birds (detail)

I’m intentionally avoiding researching the pieces and others’ interpretations so I can start to build up some thought capital of my own. Because, really, who cares about my review (or, maybe, exposition) of a show if I just repackage someone else’s?

So, Kiel Johnson. No points for guessing that he’s one of my favorite artists.

large drawing of dozens of trophies beside a cardboard banjo on a wall
Trophy Case and Banjo

I’ll try really hard not to use the term “whimsical,” because it’s trite and tired, but there’s an element of fun in Johnson’s work that’s sometimes difficult to pin down. The drawings are not careless, exactly, or even carefree, but they maintain a confident looseness that is more akin to sketch than the typical museum piece. They’re fun. And yet, Johnson is evidently and tirelessly industrious and thorough in his work. He is meticulous in his depictions, his deft linework describing curves and volume and weight and accuracy. I don’t have to study them, I’m instantly familiar with every drawing. I recognize the forms and the language he chooses. “Trophy Case” and “Cactus Patch” are part of an ongoing tradition of “everything drawings,” depictions of as many iterations of a concept as can be squeezed onto a page.

detail of cactuses, graphite & watercolor
Cactus Patch (detail)

And it’s always fascinating to see his sculptures exhibited with his drawings, because the former can emanate a darkness usually absent from his drawings. More so for the pieces included in this show—other works trade places, with hints of menace in drawing and goofball fun in sculpture. I can’t tell if it’s the physicality of three dimensions that gives me this sense, or the more carefully finished forms, but I get a similar feeling from looking at World War I relics or old, abandoned houses. This is a good thing, mind, a sense of presence from these cardboard objects is always unexpected before I see them in person.

cardboard banjo replica on a wall
Banjo

Something that struck me while I was at the show was that these sculptures of everyday/real world objects recall the aesthetics of a cargo cult. They reverently copy the details of useful things, but without a sense of what makes them work. These are things plucked from reality, but made special by their recreation. They aren’t copies, they’re homages, made from whatever is to hand, and that tends to imbue them with spirit and meaning.

detail of neck and headstock of Banjo
Banjo (detail)

Johnson’s work fascinates and delights me, in part because of its casual precision, but also because of its never-ending prolificity. His art exemplifies his relentless work ethic, and there seems to always be something big in the making, as if he can hardly contain the flood of bubbling concepts long enough to synthesize them into existence before the next project takes over. Nothing is cavalier, of course. It’s all done with loving care, but not too much: time is ever ticking on. I suppose that could be a value judgment, but I really don’t want to deify that approach. It’s just an aspect I enjoy and admire.

More people should see this. Since I was there opening day, Johnson has installed a new piece, a full-size “crashed” airplane, smack in the middle of the space. He collaborated with OCC students on the plane, everyone working together to create all the various parts and artifacts.

Big Idea: Abel Alejandre and Kiel Johnson runs through Dec. 3rd, 2016 at the Main Gallery of the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion at Orange Coast College.

One thought on “Looking at “Big Idea: Abel Alejandre and Kiel Johnson”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write about this work. There will be a reception for Kiel Johnson’s Solo Squadron plane piece (the new addition in the show) on Thursday, October 27, 5-7:30pm. There will also be a documentary film about the project premiering in the gallery at that time.
    Best,
    Kim Garrison
    Curator, Doyle Arts Pavilion
    Orange Coast College

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