'Unidentified' Review

Where confusion is the goal: Tony Oursler's first solo L.A. show in 10 years

By David Pagel

Published at LA Times, March 29, 2017


Tony Oursler’s first solo show in Los Angeles in 10 years leaves a lot to be desired — and that’s precisely the point of “Unidentified.” At Redling Fine Art, the New York artist has installed disparate multimedia works that do not form a coherent whole so much as they make incoherence palpable. Groping and grappling come to the forefront as sound bites and take-aways go nowhere.

At a time when just about anyone can find out just about anything with a few quick keystrokes (or verbal commands), it’s disorienting to enter a darkened gallery filled with works engineered to frustrate your desire to know what’s going on, to understand your place in it and, most important, to be able to respond effectively — as a conscious adult with the capacity to act rationally.

All that goes out the window in Oursler’s installation. Made up of six pieces from three bodies of work, “Unidentified” makes you wonder where one work ends and another begins. 

Most, but not all, of the 59-year-old artist’s pieces are compact installations made up of objects, painted pictures, flat-screen monitors, projected images and sound. Sometimes the objects function as screens. Sometimes the videos on the LED monitors freeze. Occasionally silence prevails.

But most of the time too much takes place to be taken in quickly. You find yourself leaning in to listen attentively. Disentangling a disembodied mouth’s utterances from the surrounding hum requires focused concentration, not to mention repeated attempts.

Tony Oursler's “Gold [Hypnotics],” 2017, color pencil, wood, resin, acrylic, media players, LED flat screens. (Redling Fine Art)

Tony Oursler's “Gold [Hypnotics],” 2017, color pencil, wood, resin, acrylic, media players, LED flat screens. (Redling Fine Art)

Sometimes a character in one of Oursler’s works seems to be communicating with a character in another work. But that might just be your imagination playing tricks on you, or your interpretation of the ambiguous situation. In any case, the exhibition makes you feel as if you are an eavesdropper, an interloper, an outsider.

The more deeply you get into “Unidentified,” the more distant you feel from it. The experience is alienating. And that is intentional. All of the stories that unfold in Oursler’s individual works are about aliens. Some are based on UFO enthusiasts from the 1940s. Others refer to the accounts, recorded under hypnosis, of abductees from the ’80s and ’90s.

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to entertain the idea that the narrative arc of “Unidentified” reaches out to include all of us: lost souls making our way through time and space in search of any sign of intelligent life.

Redling Fine Art, 6757 Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles. Ends Saturday. (323) 460-2046, www.redlingfineart.com