"The Astonishing Works of John Altoon"

An original member of L.A.'s avant-garde scene, Altoon created a particularly gonzo form of Surrealist art.

  • Installation view

Installation view

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

John Altoon was a member of the original stable at Los Angeles’s fabled Ferus Gallery. Born in California in 1925 to Armenian immigrants, he studied art thanks to the G.I. Bill. Altoon was a successful illustrator as well as an artist, and his prodigious talents as a draftsman are evident both in his paintings’ energetic line work and in the drawings that form the bulk of his oeuvre.

By the time he died of a heart attack at age 43, Altoon had formulated a distinctive gonzo Surrealist style. A reappraisal of his art has been under way since the late 1990s; now, a large and persuasive selection of drawings and paintings hangs in Nyehaus’s townhouse gallery, against whose pink and purple walls the works—amazingly—hold their own.

Gouaches from 1959--61 combine lush color, calligraphic scribblings, biomorphic elements and gestural painting. Canvases of the mid-1960s feature orange, turquoise and pink figures—part Mir, part Victor Moscoso—disporting across muddy green and moody violet fields. They hint at classical narratives: An amoeboid shape floating above a slightly more angular one suggests an Annunciation scene, while a clump of writhing forms, watched by an avian creature, reads as the temptation of St. Anthony.

Crowding the gallery’s stairwells and halls are bawdy ink drawings of zaftig ladies consorting with heroically endowed frogs, and ink-and-spray-paint depictions of morphologically challenged creatures resembling chickens, arthropods and pastries (sometimes simultaneously). Outlandish and lyrical at once, Altoon’s work has the illogical but convincing reality of an underground comic, the dark absurdity of a Terry Southern novel, and the obstreperous poetics of L.A.’s then-nascent avant-garde scene.

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Nyehaus, through June 19