Waiting Room

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

China Adams, "Contract of Sale: Skull," 1994. X-Ray, Light Box, Ink on Paper.

When she gives artist’s lectures, sculptor China Adams often describes her work as a race against her own death. Her smooth plaster “chunks” of ensconced trash, her vampiric experiments with blood consumption and her glass Vitrines filled with mummified possessions all attempt to preserve what’s bound to decay. But, while her work has the same mortality obsession as Vanitas paintings by the likes of Pieter Claesz or Jacques de Gheyn, Adams steers away from iconic symbols—when skulls appear, it’s in the form of a clinical x-ray; when blood appears, it’s already been drained, drunk or cleaned up. Instead of representing it, Adams’ work acts out against death and this has always struck me as the smartest, most proactive strategy.

Cris Brodahl, "The Waiting Room," 2009. Oil on glued canvas, framed.

But Cris Brodahl’s current exhibition at Marc Foxx Gallery does not shy away from representing the race with death. In fact, it does so in a way that is both cliched and stunningly insidious. Called Waiting Room, the exhibition includes oil paintings, ceramic wall pieces, and mirrors, all of which depict or reflect fleshy skulls–though Brodahl’s approach to fleshiness has more in common with Ryan McGinley’s than Jenny Saville’s.

Waiting Room feels quietly controlled at first glance, though an Elizabeth Bishop poem of the same title speaks of “the sensation of falling off/the round, turning world.”  The color scheme is understated: sepias, grays, soft pinks. The canvases are framed with wood strips. The mirrors are perfectly clean and slightly tinted. The composition of each painting is sensible and unsurprising. The skull in Waiting Room, for instance, sits right at the center of the the sea of gray. The woman in The Clock, who wears a skull cloaked skirt, has the graceful, front-and-center gravitas of a Degas dancer.

"Wait," 2009. Oil on glued canvas, framed.

The predictability of  Brodahl’s images contradicts their eerie instability. Face, skin and skull have been pieced together in a way that makes bones seem like flesh and flesh seem like a pastiche of paper-smooth planes and curves. In Wait, a rosy image that features a hollow floating head, the skin of a peaceful face covers an empty cavity, not unlike the cavity inside an empty skull. In Next, a skull grows on the outside of an elegant woman’s face, obscuring her features with barnacle-like jaws and foreheads. Brodahl out-waits death by confusing flesh with bone and piecing together bodies that don’t quite make sense (the face in Wait has fingers for a forehead). If death doesn’t know what it looks like, than can it ever really appear?