Local shows offer a new take on modern art

Supporters say video artwork challenges sculpture and painting; detractors yawn, describing “video art” as a synonym for self indulgence. Which side do you fall on? Two current shows can help you decide.

Tony Oursler is viewed as a third-generation video artist who helped the medium break free from the monitor. His signature is the projection of real-life facial features onto dolls and figurines; in “Keep Going” (1995), it’s the effigy of an indulgent helmer who barks impossible, constantly changing demands. “We have to get some energy going!” he shouts. “There’s nothing happening here!”

Tomorrow is the last chance to see his newest show, “Spaced” (2006), at the Margo Leavin Gallery. The six sculptures represent individual characters with whimsical, pop-culture personas inspired by outer space. “Gel,” for instance, depicts a blob-like form that seems to be consuming four smaller characters.

However, if you listen to the characters’ haiku-like ramblings, it becomes apparent that they’re all intended to be elements of the same anxious persona. Thus, “outer space” takes on double meaning as both a physical place and a transcendent state of being. “The inspiration for this piece came from what seems to be a widespread desire for escape,” says Oursler, a longtime sci-fi fan.

Dutch artist Aernout Mik prefers a more painterly approach, shooting dozens of actors in tightly controlled and epic scenarios. The stagings portray devastating catastrophes — a stock market crash, riots, looting — with Mik placing viewers in the center of the action without explanation.

“Refraction” (2005), on view at the Hammer Museum, focuses on the aftermath of a bus accident along a Romanian country road as rescue workers, policemen and local farmers wander in a purposeful yet trance-like state.

For Mik, the surreal nightmare is less about our obsession with catastrophes, but in finding that endlessly compelling image that can exist on a single plane, much like a painting, and where suggestion is more powerful than explication.

Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., W. Hollywood. 310-273-0603
Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. 310-443-7000

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