During this holiday season, as we enumerate the things we are thankful for, let us include Laguna Art Museum's “ex•pose.” British artist Richard Kraft, based in Los Angeles, is the fifth to be represented in this intriguing series curated by Grace Kook-Anderson, and while his comic collage is forgettable, his ambitious installation “Which Is to Say”—10 films shot in Los Angeles, New York and India, projected simultaneously from 10 projectors—is perfection.
The five panels of the collage Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera use a Polish Cold War-era comic book about a Soviet spy posing as a Nazi as source material, with Kraft adding birds, weight lifters, demon babies, obscure symbols and other random clip art to the pages and altering the dialogue with obscenities and non sequiturs, turning it all into a nonsensical mess. I expect his intent is to show up the inherent ridiculousness of propaganda—a manipulation of the manipulators, if you will—but without Kook-Anderson's curator notes, it's not even clear that propaganda is being pilloried. Kraft's collages operate from the punk aesthetic inherent in the medium—separate pictures from their source, mash them together, and the Burroughsian end result can't help but change meaning, comment on itself or create something new—but Here Comes Kitty feels like a bark without any bite, demanding we look, but then not bothering to provide anything visually interesting enough to work as art or snarky-smart enough to get us thinking about the political horrors behind it. Aside from one or two slaps at fascism and conformity, the slapdash feel of the work tells us there's nothing happening here, folks—just keep walking.
That seeming nonchalance about content is nowhere to be seen on the 10 screens in the larger gallery. Expertly framed and photographed, shifting every 10 minutes or so, Kraft's demanding installation does not give up its secrets easily, requiring you take enough time to watch the bulk of the films at least as long as you're able. Expecting anyone to watch something longer than a YouTube video these days can be tough-going, but the payoff is worth it: Under the loving eye of his camera, Kraft's appreciation of beauty tinges even the most poverty-stricken, dilapidated vistas with gold, something that only a long, patient gaze (in relative silence) provides.
As he gently collides images, revealing the links between things you would never consider connected, what looks to be so many slips of paper twisting in the air like 9/11 detritus expose themselves to be a flurry of kites flitting through the sky. Opposite, a flock of birds seemingly apes the kites' movements, while on another screen, a kite resembling a bird flips and flies and flutters. Plains of grass ripple with the breeze before transforming into water rushing so fast it becomes television static. A bison huddles in the snow as children ice skate, while birds shudder in frozen trees and half-naked people in swimsuits stroll about a seascape. On another screen, the streets of India's holy city of death, Varanasi, sit deserted, as though a scene straight out of 28 Days Later. The deliberately spare soundtrack—just the occasional sound effect, a brief moment of music, animal or human sound among the quiet—evocatively adds to what becomes a wholly meditative experience.
As much as I admire the “ex•pose” series, I'm equally grateful for the work in the Young Artists Society Gallery, a side room about the size of a walk-in closet. The current exhibit is “The World As a Knot: Thurston Middle School Students Inspired by Richard Kraft,” collage work done under the guidance of art teacher Linda Erickson. While most of the pieces are still in their artistic infancy, a handful of insightful young artists have taken their work a step further than one might expect: Tristan Gonzalez's Untitled, with its saxophone player wearing a “I'm here to save the planet” button on his lapel, wittily contrasts the musician with an overweight family asleep in front of a television, the youngest staring at the glowing screen in wide-eyed rapture. Escape is the ironic title of Kai Cameron's collage of manatees, Assassin's Creed imagery, television-poll stats and dinosaurs. It's easy to identify with the image of a man with a tiger's head surrounded by a noisy background mess of cut-up dialogue in Cosette Chesley's Roar. Lastly, there's a powerful awareness in Oliver Murray's Ruins, an ecologically driven piece, the words “you have to let go” cut out above images of bees and serene snowscapes. As connected as these young people are to the headlining artist's collages, I wonder about the caliber of work that would come if someone gave them movie cameras and urged them to follow Kraft's lead. The results could be magical.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.