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“John Copeland/Nicola López”

In some ways, putting the work of John Copeland and Nicola López together was a mistake. Not that the impulse can’t be understood: The two artists live in the same place, Brooklyn, an urban environment that they both take as their subject. Each transmutes networks of wires, pipes, and utilitarian structures into unfamiliar, organic compositions. And both artists were born and raised in the West—Copeland is originally from California, López from New Mexico—and this might explain their mutual fascination with a decidedly East Coast brand of industrial rot.

At least as represented by their current show at Irvine Contemporary Art, both also favor works on paper. Both have graphic-art sensibilities, too, preferring fine contour lines and decoratively rendered textures. And both use color episodically, dotting their compositions with it here and there but otherwise leaving great expanses of pure white paper exposed.

But there’s a tension at the heart of Copeland’s work that apparently doesn’t trouble López—and that makes all the difference. Take, for example, O.K. (2005), a rickety construction done with scratchy, thin-leaded mechanical pencils and half-dried-out ballpoint and felt-tipped pens that shows off Copeland’s anxious, self-doubting use of text. A crumbling apartment building founders in the lower half of the composition. Its shuttered windows are painted in thin washes of dingy yellow and gray; its bricks are drawn individually and childishly, each a slightly irregular rectangle. Faded, crosshatched red clouds fill the sky, and in their midst, a flock of birds spells out “ok”—a cheeky projection of the artist’s noncommittal emotional state onto this strange environment.

The birds are reductively indicated, just gray-black blotches stabbed onto the page here and there. In fact, were it not for the word “flock” carelessly scribbled among them in graphite, it’d be easy enough to mistake them for a swarm of flies. Similarly, in Umbrella (2005), the crude outline of a bottle cap is helpfully inscribed with the text “b. cap.” In both pieces, it’s as if Copeland doesn’t trust the viewer to decode the image—or as if he simply feels powerless to make his intentions clear through drawing alone. Indeed, Copeland backs away from simply showing us things at every turn, choosing to supplement them with all sorts of incongruous elements.

The result is the visual equivalent of a run-on sentence. Disparate ideas jostle for space in these pictures, often bouncing off one another in unexpected ways. In Window-Stills (2005), for example, bits of smooth, irregularly trimmed card stock have been literally sewn onto the paper. Machined seams of dingy thread occasionally wander in and out of their margins; in the center of the image, these lines become contours, actually denoting brickwork. Thread, text, inelegant ink and graphite scribblings—none of this can be described as material richness. Copeland comes across like some nervous nesting bird, scrounging on a day-to-day basis for disused bits with which to build a world.

But surprisingly, it works: With his ersatz graphic bits and pieces, Copeland has found an effective expression for the down-at-the-heels cityscape. Of course, little in the actual look of individual buildings matters to him. In Window-Stills, there’s a bit of hatching to provide some minimal idea of structural solidity, but much has been eradicated by dry-brushed white paint. Peeking out from time to time from inside these shaded passages are words, scribbled as if to camouflage them. “Dirt and weeds between cracks,” one phrase reads—a description of the urban environment, yes, but one more likely applying to the sidewalk than to the building it adorns.

Not that it matters. Despite what architects might tell you, the actual life of a city is not communicated by its design but by its various points of use (and neglect). As if to make this hum of human activity even more evident, Copeland sometimes puts bits of human anatomy into his pieces. Fingers appear in some places; elsewhere, a knot of wires becomes an extended hand. The suggestion is clear: The city is imbued with significance only where it’s commingled with human life. It’s not any particular vista that matters; it’s the strange, entirely conceptual place somewhere in between inert heaps of masonry and quickened flesh that counts.

Mind you, Copeland’s fragmented mode of cognition doesn’t always make for successful art. (It falters, for instance, in 2005’s Maybe, which depicts another flock of birds—this time spelling the title word a little too inspirationally against a cloudy sky.) But it’s consistently fascinating. Viewing these pieces is like overhearing someone thinking about where he fits into the order of things. At their best, they make us do the same.

If López has a similar awareness, it’s not obvious. As with Copeland’s work, it’s certainly possible to see parts of her drawings as surrogates for the human body—clumps of smokestacks, pipelines, and radio towers could be standing in for intestines and organs, spurting ominous fluids as they’re altered by the modern age and its chemicals. In To the Last Drop (2005), giant furnaces are dotted with blood-red exhaust; growths of impossible masonry unspool from inside giant cooling towers. Dripping drain pipes, satellite dishes, and nonsense arrays of wires and conduits create a knotted, allover field of industrial entrails.

But unlike Copeland, López appears not to pause but rather to rush headlong from piece to piece. Her lines are perfunctorily rendered in rapid black and blue ink and often resemble complex notebook doodles. She seemingly never questions her marks or her compositional decisions. Hers is an act of gee-whiz imaginative indulgence, but without the level of realization needed to truly pull the trick off.

Unsurprisingly, her best piece in the show isn’t on paper; it’s the sole installation, the site-specific Fallen Giants (2005). The work is an assemblage of overlapping wood-block prints on Mylar extending across a corner of the gallery, from ceiling to floor. Crumpled radio towers, satellite dishes, and television sets are all printed in shades of maroon and green; each is painstakingly cut out and pinned to the wall like a chain of giant, plasticized paper dolls. The wood-block technique softens López’s hard-edged inclinations, and, interestingly, makes her imagery look as if it’s wandered in from the early 20th century. It’s almost as if the extra layers of process have made the work both more materially satisfying and more timeless: Rather than the apocalyptic Nowheres offered by her drawings, this piece presents a commentary on how the utopian visions of the Machine Age are faring in a world ruled by mass communication.

This sort of installation work is actually what López is best known for. A Promising Tomorrow is a similar piece (albeit in ink and acrylic paint) installed in the “Greater New York” show at P.S. 1 through September. Much has been made of the overarching themes of anxiety and political discontent in that show, and López’s fanciful urban disasters dovetail nicely with them—perhaps a little too nicely. Other than the idea that the military-industrial-consumerist complex is, um, bad, they contain little of significance.

In another piece currently at Irvine, Bitter Clouds (2005), interlocking geometric patterns zoom dramatically from the extreme foreground into the indeterminate middle distance. The uppermost portion of the design is a weirdly stretched radio tower; the bottom looks more like a reductive city-grid schematic. It frames dramatic explosions of black and blue smoke in the center of the picture; in the lower right, Simpsons-esque cartoon cooling towers erupt oily clouds. But there’s no real tension here, compositional or otherwise. All of the graphic languages employed are treated as equivalent, and all are handled in the same perfunctory way.

The approach is a schtick, and the fact that López often combines it with an environmentalist message doesn’t make it any more interesting. In the upper half of Just a Little Spill (2005), for example, an upside-down sidewalk is married to a sideways lamppost; both are wrapped in a tangle of phone and power lines. Disconnected knots of plumbing in the lower left and power lines slicing diagonally through the piece provide competing forces, pulling the viewer’s eye at different speeds and in different directions. But if the aim is simply to absorb ugliness into a sort of ironic prettiness, this work can’t succeed. Its irony makes it fail as a political statement; its political pretensions make it fail as a mere decorative object.

Sure, Copeland’s stylistic tics—his sewn seams; his nervously written, half-concealed texts—could read as schtick, too. But they ultimately extend the viewer’s engagement with the work, setting up occasional roadblocks to clear understanding. López offers no such obstacles; closer examination of any one of her drawings reveals only a multitude of details rendered with irritating sameness. Graphic art is designed for clear communication to large audiences—the main question for artists who want to imitate its look is whether there’s something worth communicating. And in this regard, Copeland and López don’t live in the same place at all. CP