Kevin Appel and Ruben Ochoa utilize distinctly divergent methods to confront and challenge the legacy of West Coast conceptual art and minimalism in a surprisingly harmonious two-person exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA). Both Los Angeles-based artists borrow physical elements from the diverse environment of Southern California in the service of subtle social and cultural critique. Contained within one gallery, Ochoa's imposing sculpture of metal poles and debris is suspended from the ceiling, while Appel's human-scale prints on canvas hang on the walls. Together the contrasting works create a tangible energy in the otherwise neutral space.
Ochoa's striking site-specific sculpture resembles a cross between a Gordon Matta-Clark building cut and a Louise Bourgeois spider. Seven steel poles bent at angles drop down from the ceiling, rooted in three mounds of crumbling concrete, suggesting resistance against a forceful upheaval from above. It contains both the rebellion against museum exhibition traditions of Matta-Clark and the suggestion of the unexpected power of Bourgeois. Ochoa combines Matta-Clark's use of the urban environment to create new perceptions with Bourgeois' ability to make social statements through sculpture.
A native of Southern California, Ochoa's work reflects on the socioeconomic boundaries demarcated by urban structures in the area. In an exhibition at Peter Blum Gallery, in New York, in 2009, Ochoa re-created a collapsed concrete freeway divider, physically splitting the gallery in half and suggesting the role of highways in the segregation of neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Similarly, his sculpture at SJMA, From the Ground Without Digging (2011), references chain-link fences, a signifier of the impulse to keep people out, as well as a material associated with construction workers more often than artists. By recontextualizing elements of city life in a gallery setting, Ochoa democratizes art viewing.
While Ochoa focuses exclusively on contemporary urban materials in the show at SJMA, Appel overlays geometric architectural elements on natural scenes in his two-dimensional works. A seven-foot-tall decorative screen inspired by modernist architecture stands in the back corner of the room. Six rows of black enamel triangles, interspersed with the occasional pale blue and white pentagons, rotate on steel beams. The works on the walls of the gallery mirror these black triangles: painted grids over illustrations from nature magazines reprinted and enlarged.
Screen (trial), Kevin Appel, 2011; Courtesy of the Artist.
In Screen (trial) (2011), Appel painted bold red, white, and blue pennants in a grid formation over two photographs of buffaloes engaged in a hostile encounter. A forceful modernist grid suppresses suggestions of the American flag and the Western frontier. In "Grids," her 1979 essay on the grid as a symbol of the twentieth century, Rosalind Krauss states, "Flattened, geometricized, ordered, [the grid] is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal." By overlaying a strictly controlled grid on romantic images of wildlife, Appel suggests the intrusion of man-made elements on the rugged beauty of the West. Continuing his ironic critique of contemporary life through modernist tropes -- a technique familiar from his meticulous paintings of architectural interiors from the 1990s -- Appel appropriates the grid for his own devices.
Ochoa and Appel employ different methods and materials to arrive at the same goal: a gentle interrogation of the supposed idealism of the western United States. Ochoa draws attention to socioeconomic inequalities in the Los Angeles area through his conceptual sculpture made from industrial materials associated with the working class. Appel, on the other hand, imposes modernist elements on images of utopian wildlife to create disquieting images that convey the struggle between man and nature. In Beta Space, the conjunction of the work of the two artists builds a palpable tension without resolution.
Beta Space: Kevin Appel and Ruben Ochoa is on view through August 14, 2011 at the San Jose Museum of Art. For more information visit sjmusart.org.