On the Ground: Los AngelesDecember 2007
The writing, as they say, is on the wall. This past summer I received an unexpected e-mail informing me that the days were numbered for Art Center’s master of arts program in art theory and criticism (of which, it should be mentioned in the name of full disclosure, I am an alumnus and “adviser”). Over the past decade or so, this proverbial little-program-that-could has taken various shapes and forms, all of them at or near the margins of the increasingly corporate and conservative pedagogy of the Pasadena institution, while spawning an impressive if necessarily short list of alumni, including the late, influential Giovanni Intra, critic and cofounder of China Art Objects; gallery directors Heather Harmon (Patrick Painter) and Kristina Kite (of the impressive new Overduin and Kite); and a number of Southern California’s busiest and most serious young critics, writers, and curators, such as Catherine Taft, Chris Balaschak, and Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer.
If there was any question that we are in a period that favors production—whether goods or services—over criticality and reflection, look no further than Art Center’s website, which explains in plain terms that “a decision has been made to redirect both resources and energies toward our studio graduate programs.” The program’s demise—not to mention the uncertain fate of its remarkable faculty, including Rosetta Brooks, Amy Gerstler, and Artforum contributing editor Bruce Hainley—hangs a dark cloud over a year in Los Angeles that began with a symposium organized by Frances Stark at the University of Southern California and titled, ironically enough, “On the Future of Art School.” Eschewing the usual lineup of prepared lectures that inevitably run long and thwart extended discussion and audience participation, Stark made available, prior to the symposium, an inexpensive “primer” with essays by the event’s participants (it can still be purchased or downloaded for free at Lulu.com), allowing for a long, freewheeling, three-part conversation intended, according to its organizer, “to offer artists, students, and educators a forum to seriously consider what we want our schools to be, what we want them to do; here’s an opportunity to freely imagine what should be done, unhindered by administrative worries about what can’t possibly be done”—affirming the academy, for all its shortcomings, as one of the last possible utopian spaces.
Of course, even with this privileging of dialogue, the symposium, which featured Stuart Bailey, Mai Abu ElDahab, Lane Relyea, Howard Singerman, and Jan Verwoert, among others, raised more questions than it could possibly have hoped to answer: What is the value of an art degree? Should art students be learning a transferable skill? Is the MFA still the new MBA? (Was it ever?) And if so, what does that mean? The best question may have come from the audience when Hainley asked (prophetically, it turns out) why we should assume there would even be such a thing as art school in the future. I took this provocation to mean, in part: Do we really know enough about where art is headed, or what form it might take, to begin talking about how it might or should be taught? Can we assume that art, as a discipline, will maintain its autonomy (surely a modernist conceit) in the broader, nebulous field of cultural production? And if the task of criticality is somehow subsumed into all the other productive disciplines—as the Art Center website cheerily consoles—will anyone attend to the task of being a critic anymore? In light of that born-again trade school’s ill-fated critical theory program, an unfortunate likelihood is that such questions are finally being raised only when, in a sense, they’ve already been answered.
Between these bookends of art-school futurity and finality, Los Angeles’s 2007 took shape, for a few months at least, as the Year of the Woman. While this phrase has elicited groans when I’ve used it in recent conversations, just a few months ago the F-word—uh, feminism—was on everybody’s lips, largely due to “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s sprawling exhibition of work from 1965 to 1980 by 119 women artists that was as contentious as it was absurdly overdue. That the cover of the thick, exhaustively researched catalogue—featuring Martha Rosler’s Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain: Hot House, or Harem, 1966–72, a collage of nude centerfolds snipped from men’s magazines—seemed to receive as much critical attention as the show itself suggests:
(a) The gutsy exhibition, curated by Connie Butler, was too big and unwieldy to contend with in its totality, making the catalogue itself the symbolic battleground for issues raised by the show;
(b) Sex sells, even when it’s critical sex;
(c) The (art) world has gotten far more conservative since Rosler made the collage;
(d) All of the above.
In the name of reflection, I’ll stoke one more time the dying embers of the critical fires the show caused when it opened in March. Although a number of artists were undoubtedly left out of the show (a frequently heard complaint), many of those included finally received some long-warranted attention. Indeed, the exhibition, beyond asking for a historical reconsideration of feminism, made it clear just how much more work remains to be done on this explosive period to better understand our position today (I imagine that dozens of dissertations and rehabilitative exhibitions will follow in the wake of “WACK!”). When I returned to the show after its opening, I set aside the F-word and found a really exciting, if messy and incomplete, survey of early postmodernism, before that term became automatically synonymous with poststructural theory, simulation, or appropriation: In short, “WACK!” evidenced everything that had been purged from high modernism—representation, often in all its bodily glory, but also sex, decoration, political agendas; these all returned with a vengeance. It should be no surprise that women, largely sidelined through modernism’s (well, at least Greenberg’s) single-minded, teleological drive toward “purity,” were leading the charge to reopen many of the doors (or, if you prefer, cans of worms) closed along the way. Within the show itself heterodoxy reigned, with fiber-art sculpture bumping up against Portapak videos playing alongside early photo-documentation of performance sharing wall space with sexually charged figurative painting—and nowhere more strikingly so than in the gallery juxtaposing the folksy Pop language paintings of Faith Ringgold with the confrontational porno spreads of Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey Fanni Tutti. Wack, indeed.
This unity-in-diversity became a defining sensibility for the city, which experienced an eager rollout of satellite exhibitions orbiting around “WACK!,” including Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery’s disjointed “Multiple Vantage Points: Southern California Women Artists, 1980–2006,” curated by Dextra Frankel, a sort of simultaneous “sequel” to LA MoCA’s show; “Shared Women,” Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions’ raucous if uneven exhibition of art by youngish lesbian artists, organized by A. L. Steiner, Eve Fowler, and Emily Roysdon; “The Performing Archive: Restricted Access,” in which a dozen emerging artists excavated the archival material of Leslie Labowitz and Suzanne Lacy, at the 18th Street Arts Center; and “Identity Theft: Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, Suzy Lake, 1972– 1978,” organized by Jori Finkel at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Whether coincidentally timed with “WACK!” or not, the significant solo retrospectives of Vija Celmins at the Hammer Museum and Mary Heilmann at the Orange County Museum of Art—both billed as a sort of “homecoming” for artists who spent considerable time on the West Coast—added to the sense of belated rediscovery, even if Celmins and Heilmann are relatively well known.
Whatever lessons might be drawn from “WACK!” and these affiliated exhibitions, there was no shortage of noteworthy shows by young, local women artists—despite the statistics showing their underrepresentation in contemporary galleries—in sum, echoing the critical interrogations of a quarter century ago. Among the best and brightest: Stephanie Taylor conjoined smart and funny, language-driven sculpture with a hallucinatory video, A Leash for Fritz & Kale for Stray Bunny (made in collaboration with Alice Könitz), 2006, at Daniel Hug Gallery; Eve Fowler casually installed an intimate group of (unstaged?) photographs of lesbian individuals and couples in domestic settings at Thomas Solomon; Kim Fisher, Allison Miller, and Rebecca Morris subtly altered the edges of abstract painting (at China Art Objects, ACME, and Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, respectively); Lesley Vance quietly dazzled with some modest and labor-intensive little still-life paintings with a debt to Chardin at David Kordansky Gallery; Jennifer West’s gorgeous materialist films, marinated in a variety of food items or treated in hot spring water with pot and Jack Daniel’s while the artist was skinny-dipping, unfolded as effortlessly and addictively as pop classics at Marc Foxx Gallery; and Amanda Ross-Ho inventively interlaced image and objecthood at Cherry & Martin with an affecting series of works that were structurally sophisticated and deeply encoded with personal history. Fittingly, Ross-Ho, along with Evan Holloway and Frances Stark (among others), was featured in the exhibition “For Ree” at Marc Foxx, one of two concurrent October shows dedicated to the late artist Ree Morton (1936–1977), who was included in “WACK!” but has been largely overlooked since her posthumous 1980 survey at the New Museum in New York. The other Morton show, at Overduin and Kite, focused on several works from 1973 to ’74; Kite has been researching the artist since we were classmates at Art Center.
The dual Morton shows seemed to underline LA’s 2007 as the Year of the Woman, but the late artist’s work—in which personal and literary references (motherhood, the ups and downs of the visiting-artist lecture circuit, Raymond Roussel’s language games, and so on) mingle with formalist concerns (leaping rather intuitively from the expansive spatiality and the thrifty material economy of post-Minimalism to define a complex, individual notion of place)—also unexpectedly prompted a thought about the way art collectively gathered by the imaginary of “Los Angeles” is, at this moment, engaged in a quiet tug-ofwar between the personal or provincial and the spectacular or global. (A related question emerged from the symposium “On the Future of Art School,” even if it was not clearly articulated: How does the LA art world—the international epicenter of art schools, as we’ve all heard, and therefore a highly mechanized producer of new artists—see itself in relation to a global art market?)
In some ways, Michael Govan’s arrival last year as director at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art would appear to emblematize this struggle for civic cultural identity, at once seeming a positive move for a museum in serious need of the kind of leadership and credibility he provided during his tenure at the monastic Dia Art Foundation in New York, and at the same time reminding us of his earlier tutelage under the brand of corporate-minded expansionist Thomas Krens at the Guggenheim. One of Govan’s first moves in Los Angeles was to inject the exhibition “Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images” with a bit of eleventh-hour spectacle by inviting local legend John Baldessari to design the installation well after the show was planned. While foregrounding Govan’s much-touted synergy with artists, the result of Baldessari’s intervention, a sort of fun-house homage to the Belgian Surrealist complete with guards dressed in bowler hats, ultimately pushed the work (by Magritte and a who’s who of contemporary artists from Mike Kelley to Jasper Johns) toward the margins in favor of a silly, CityWalk-like “scripted” experience, but I’m sure it improved box office.
It also seemed a perfectly fitting context for a public conversation between Govan and Jeff Koons, who was represented in the show by three pieces. During the event, Koons unveiled plans for a massive, 161-foot-high sculpture of a functioning, 1940s-era steam train dangling from a crane. A million dollars’ worth of feasibility studies will determine whether the train can realistically hang over the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (situated, en abyme, on the LACMA campus) as a monument—to childhood wonder and . . . fund-raising?—visible from downtown to the 10 Freeway to Sunset Boulevard. Koons’s train would also dangle as a fitting symbol of LA’s paralytic response to its crisis in public transportation—namely, the lack thereof—which grows more perilous with the construction of every new New York–style loft building in Hollywood, Downtown, Venice, and, well, everywhere in sight. With Koons’s monstrous folly, one gets the sense that the Los Angeles art world might finally desire to bask in the spotlight of Hollywood rather than lurk in its shadows. Do we get the Los Angeles we want or the one we deserve—the Los Angeles we imagineer for ourselves?
Just two miles from LACMA, but at the opposite end of spectacular (in the Debordian sense), was a September solo show at Richard Telles Fine Art by Richard Hawkins, whose reputation grows with every unexpected twist and turn. This show combined collage—his métier regardless of his medium—and a pair of painted, decorated, and distressed “haunted” dollhouses (one situated on a tabletop, one situated below), recalling the artist’s flimsy card table and Cup o’ Noodles sculptures of the late 1990s. Hawkins managed to squeeze most of his career—a dialectical relation of stage and underworld—into those two Munsters-ish sculptures, along with some lovely little handmade chinoiserie pots, but his actual midcareer retrospective is on view now at de Appel in Amsterdam instead of in his hometown: Frankly, every LA museum missed the boat on this one. This fact became painfully obvious as Hawkins’s influence was visible everywhere in LA this year. His role was nowhere more evident than in Brian Kennon’s recent repackaging and restaging of his former teacher’s disembodied heads executed in primitive Photoshop a decade ago. (Kennon’s solo show at Daniel Hug may have seemed a slight gesture to some—Hawkins willingly handed over the original digital files, adding to the slightness—though, of course, it’s worth remembering that similar charges were leveled at the elder artist’s work in the late ’90s.)
The show reminded me that I first encountered one of Hawkins’s cool (meaning chilly), zombified male heads in 1998, in a two-person, two-work show with Jorge Pardo at the Brent Peterson Gallery. One of the first lessors at the well-known 6150 Wilshire gallery complex, artist-cum-gallerist Peterson was among the fabled crop of UCLA MFAs featured in Dennis Cooper’s infamous 1997 Spin magazine article “Too Cool for School.” (That article, which centered on the considerable talent and debauchery of UCLA’s MFA crop from the period and aimed a spotlight on LA as an incubator for young artists, surely inaugurated an uncomfortable awareness of the local academy’s relationship to market forces.) Though Peterson’s gallery was short-lived, he hosted important, even daring early shows of Mark Grotjahn, Paul Sietsema, and Tim Rogeberg. Tragically, Peterson took his life this year, after a long battle with depression. His influence, while quiet and—yes—provincial, will resonate for those who knew him.
It is perhaps a fitting tribute to Peterson that artist-run spaces bloomed all over the sprawling LA art map this year—resulting from the vitality of the market (so I hear) or just the sheer number of unsigned artists emerging from schools—representing a continuum of business plans ranging from venture capitalist to utopian cooperative or some unlikely combination of these approaches. In short, it became clear that more artists are taking matters of exhibition (or distribution) into their own hands—at least until something more enticing comes along. The best of these spaces, Pauline, an occasional apartment gallery operated by current UCLA MFA student Mateo Tannatt, was the site of two smart, energetic shows—the first was a collaborative installation with work made jointly by Tannatt and USC graduate Justin Beal; the second was a group show, rather maddeningly titled “Where Was I? All About the Edges, Bag of Pockets, the Art of Semi-Autonomy,” organized by Joshua Nathanson. The latter show, with more than a dozen artists, including Will Benedict, Billy Al Bengston, Henning Bohl, Heather Cook, Nathan Hylden, and Paulina Olowska, dropped thematic coherence—whether gendered, regional, or generational—in favor of sly formal play and associative proximity. Somehow ballsy and modest at the same time, Nathanson proposed a generous new dynamic.
Or, dare I say, he intimated a new way forward, between global and provincial, by bringing together an expansive, international group of artists in the confines of a shabby Hollywood apartment.