Brian Kokoska’s Trauma Sauna @ ASHES/ASHES reviewed

, 28 October 2016

Upon entering the multi-disciplinary and exceedingly enjoyable Trauma Sauna exhibition running at ASHES/ASHES from September 10 to October 22, viewers are invited to traverse a light-hearted world of heavy concepts. Brian Kokoska’s new series of tableau and portrait paintings are complemented and accompanied by sculptural works from artists Chelsea Culprit, Erik Frydenborg, and Ben Stone. The show’s content and curation challenges expectations, simultaneously allowing for and fostering an uninhibited gallery experience.

No stranger to art that commandeers its space, Kokoska is known for his monochromatic room installations that transport gallery-goers into surreal surroundings. There’s a subtle gesture to this legacy by part of the ASHES/ASHES wall space being painted in pastel color blocks, a light pink and periwinkle wall with contrasting edges. This protruding partition, along with the strategically spaced pieces in the show, gives the act of viewing art a refreshing energy.

Brian Kokoska, TRAUMA SAUNA (2016). Installation view. Courtesy ASHES/ASHES, Los Angeles.
Brian Kokoska, TRAUMA SAUNA (2016). Installation view. Courtesy ASHES/ASHES, Los Angeles.

The title Trauma Sauna illustrates the arguable core of the show; a playful exploration of the uncomfortable or the unknown. Populating Kokoska’s paintings are cartoonish phallic bones, devils, suns and moons, pointy nipples galore, exaggerated smiling animal-humanoids and gestural blocks of carefully chosen colors (with a sharp focus on pastels). The titles of the paintings featured enhance their meanings and are important to take note of, adding a layer of almost poetic context to the pieces with names like ‘Lavender Deathwish (Touch Me on a Cold Dark Night)’ and ‘Rollerblade into My Liver (Transplant)’. When artists provide the viewer with so much information, works can run the risk of becoming one-dimensional one-offs, Kokoska’s pieces, however, stay extremely approachable and (to their benefit) avoid the limitations of having a finite ‘meaning’.

Narrative in this exhibition is ambiguous and is accomplished not necessarily by the content of the paintings or the accompanying sculptures, but by the physical organization of the pieces involved. Trauma Sauna moves at a successful pace, each element having its own space to breathe and exist, while also feeding on the essences of the others from virtually any angle. The layout is almost geometric; triptychs and diptychs are revealed and disappear as your vantage point shifts while moving about the space — there’s no true linear way to experience it, lending to its raucous and wanderlust essence.

Ben Stone’s ‘Neighbor’ (2010), meanwhile, is a menacing but endearingly port cloaked figure leering from the far corner of the gallery space. The sharp edges and black finish of the piece are reminiscent of the old Spy vs. Spy cartoons or the instantly recognizable high-collared and hat-wearing ‘Neighborhood Watch’ creep logo.

Brian Kokoska, TRAUMA SAUNA (2016). Installation view. Courtesy ASHES/ASHES, Los Angeles.
Brian Kokoska, TRAUMA SAUNA (2016). Installation view. Courtesy ASHES/ASHES, Los Angeles.

Two pieces by Erik Frydenborg serve as altar-esque compositions in the center of the gallery. ‘Stereo Liquidation’ and ‘Stereo Liquidation (Grayscale)’ (both 2010) are a respectively colorful and achromatic series of entirely identical sculptures. The pieces bring together several objects, including a tombstone, a mask-like face draped across it, and several abstract forms that almost serve as offerings, are arranged on the horizontal plinth supporting the scene. The repetition, down to the most precise details between the two pieces is both funny and surreal, adding to the enjoyable anxieties being explored.  

Chelsea Culprit’s ‘nightshift’ (2016) is an ethereal hanging installation located in the outside patio area of the ground floor gallery space, separated from the bustling Wilshire Boulevard and surrounded on three sides by verdant plant life. Suspended in fishnet stockings, various shoes appear like alien fruits, spotlit from above by lights. In the same footwear-centric vein, Culprit’s ‘Cement Shoe’ (2014) is exactly what its title suggests, and occupies a space on the floor, pointed as if heading out the door.

Working like a well-oiled machine, Trauma Sauna features a myriad of symbols and themes that blend together into a vibrantly cacophonous experience that is a true rebuttal to anyone who claims contemporary art isn’t accessible. With references to death and beyond, nature, mortality and uncertainty, the concept-heavy pieces create an aesthetically pleasing and successful equilibrium between ‘the unknown’ and ‘blissful ignorance’.**

Brian Kokoska’s Trauma Sauna exhibition was on at Los Angeles’ ASHES/ASHES, running September 10 to October 22, 2016.

Header image: Brian Kokoska, TRAUMA SAUNA (2016). Installation view. Courtesy ASHES/ASHES, Los Angeles.