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Message in the Mess 

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Jerome Gastaldi: Bridges to Freedom

at James Tigerman, through May 16

When I visited Valerie Hegarty's installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art with a friend from Paris, he immediately dismissed it as "trash art." But I thought that her crumbling bathroom, with its gentle colors and elegant "tiles" of painted paper, was rather beautiful--and can't imagine what my friend would think of Jerome Gastaldi's assemblages, on view along with his paintings, sculptures, and drawings at James Tigerman. Their messy, almost ugly surfaces incorporate kitschy found objects and mix broad gestural lines with swaths of muddy colors. But their unhinged quality has its own power, the power to provoke--often appropriate to Gastaldi's subjects. Some of his strongest works are haunted by 9/11.

A Californian born there in 1945, Gastaldi began the mixed-media Resurrection of Fear just after the second plane hit the World Trade Center; two thick black lines in his maze of colors and shapes suggest the planes' trajectories, crossing large areas of the canvas before abruptly changing direction at points marked by red. While several figures seem imprisoned in the mess and thus stable, much of the rest of the composition plays at the boundary of chaos. Gastaldi borrowed one of these figures from Guernica, Picasso's protest of an attack on civilians. A model biplane mounted on a faux Greek column in front of the painting mocks the supposed heroism of the 9/11 terrorist "martyrs" by pointing downward.

Another of Gastaldi's subjects is the geographical and cultural border between the United States and Mexico. Working on his grandparents' ranch as a child, Gastaldi often came into contact with migrant workers--one of his jobs was to bring them water--and today he sometimes encounters the border patrol on the way to his studio. La Linea/Migration North seems to revolve around movement of various kinds: a wheel protrudes from the canvas at the bottom, and in the upper left is a carved figure--a santo Gastaldi purchased in a junk shop--with a boat on its head. An American flag mounted above the canvas on a stretcher bar waves rather than droops, adding to the suggestion of movement; the first part of the title, "line" in Spanish, is the name Mexicans give to the border. The work as a whole suggests confusion, however, with its flimsy wheel and artificially supported flag, implicitly undercutting immigrants' single-minded optimism. A video loop shot at the border, displayed on a nearby monitor, shows several people apparently living marginal lives: one woman with a child is begging.

Gastaldi names Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg as early influences, but their work in comparison with his seems well-behaved, even overly aestheticized. Gastaldi's attempts to provoke recall more strongly another influence, sometime Californian Edward Kienholz, whose found-object installations ignore conventional unities, engaging the viewer through "ugly," improbable combinations. Gastaldi's sculpture Goat to America suggests our chaotic cultural mix: an Asian-looking parasol is mounted above the goat, and a figure wearing sunglasses behind it looks like an American Indian (Gastaldi sees him as native Hawaiian). The goat's proudly raised head, which makes the piece resemble a triumphant equestrian statue, mocks heroic themes, as does the bicycle wheel extending in front of the goat, forming a homey contrast to the model of a tall ship at its side.

Gastaldi collects all manner of junk, and Memories--which also includes things he's made--commemorates his collection and gives insight into his aesthetic. An object the size and shape of a steamer trunk but with glass sides holds a vast variety of things, including model boats, a globe, and kitsch artifacts of various religions. Each trunk face offers a different clotted image of items jammed together, reminiscent of the surfaces of some of the paintings and of the dense, graffitilike marks on Goat to America. Disorder, it seems, reflects our current culture.

In the show's largest piece, This Is What's Happening Now, five video monitors sit on the floor in front of the five panels of a painting. One monitor shows a video Gastaldi commissioned from a nephew who was a film student, shot at the U.S.-Mexico border the day after September 11. Two other videos mix 9/11 footage with texts about chaos theory, which holds that in our unstable universe a very small action can have a major impact. The monitor on the far right shows people sifting through a Los Angeles Dumpster; one couple engages in a quick sex act. And the center monitor displays a live image of the street just outside the gallery.

Combining art objects with video typically doesn't work well, perhaps because the flicker of video tends to clash with the more stable lighting of the rest of the piece. But the muddy colors and messy compositions of Gastaldi's mostly abstract paintings bring his imagery closer to video's soupy visuals. A forest of disconnected painted rectangles at the left center of This Is What's Happening Now evokes the collapse of the twin towers, suggesting one inspiration for Gastaldi's painted chaos. Certainly the videos combined with the title--printed in large letters across the painting's top--reconnect art with daily life, a connection made stronger by the live feed. Art grows out of the events and images around us, Gastaldi seems to be saying, and a chaotic world calls for chaotic art.

That chaos made me think of Luis Trenker's wonderful 1936 German film about the Gold Rush, The Emperor of California. It opens with a man persecuted for distributing pamphlets on religion in a claustrophobically cluttered Swiss city. Just when it seems there's no escape, an angel appears and describes the wide-open spaces of the American west. The film suddenly opens up visually, showing the European dream of America as a vast, almost limitless land. Decades later Gastaldi pronounces an end to that dream: we've finally filled the continent with our presence.

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