Openings: Alice KönitzJuly 2008
The Glendale Freeway, a short section of California State Route 2, is relatively underused by Los Angeles standards and terminates abruptly at the threshold between the neighborhoods of Echo Park and Silver Lake. Originally built in the 1950s as part of the anticipated “Beverly Hills Freeway”—which was conceived to provide a direct and more efficient connection for drivers between the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains at the northern extremity of the city to its western edge at Santa Monica Beach—the structure was left unfinished in 1975, when the highway plans were finally nixed after vocal protests by the local citizenry, who preferred not to have a freeway named in their honor, or carved through their rarefied inland municipality. Today, the terminus of the freeway is literally a “bridge to nowhere” above Glendale Boulevard, a figure of limbo all but invisible from the street or the off-ramp adjacent to it, yet, seen from Google satellite images, surprisingly vast and featureless—a blank, concrete parallelogram awaiting a future abandoned long ago.
This monolithic dead end is, however, only a sculptural starting point for Alice Könitz, who, since graduating from CalArts in 1999 (after arriving from Germany), has gradually and rather quietly emerged as one of the most important Los Angeles–based artists of her generation. Often, she encodes the diverse urban ecology of the city into her sculpture, video, and occasional performances, at the same time that she pushes her own practice outside the gallery context. These twin aspects of Könitz’s work were particularly evident in this past spring’s Whitney Biennial, where, according to a poster hung alongside three of her sculptures, visitors to the exhibition could purchase a $4 raffle ticket in the museum’s lobby for an opportunity to
WIN A THREE DAY TRIP TO LOS ANGELES
VISIT THE OVERPASS ON GLENDALE BLVD
STAY AT THE TRIANGLE MOTEL
Strange as it may be in suggesting a visit to a failed highway project, this modest travel advertisement—actually itself a work, titled Poster (all works here 2008)—inevitably asks viewers to consider as well how Könitz’s work emphasizes potential over perfection, offering models for artmaking that are generously open-ended and circuitous in their deferral. Indeed, if the destination the raffle’s winner will visit seems placeless, or even a little “empty” (and just wait until you see the Triangle Motel), the trio of sculptures that surrounded the sign at the Whitney—looking like leftover, makeshift props from a game show or department store giveaway—were hardly less so in the setting they created. For instance, Raffle Sculpture is a geometric, tablelike composition of intersecting planes and circles covered in metallic gold paper and dark synthetic leather—cheap materials that look good and signify elegance until you look more closely—supporting a large Plexiglass tube outfitted with an electric fan. (The last part, when working properly, blew the raffle tickets into a controlled swirl of democratic opportunity.) Another object, Magazine Table, a gold-papered circle supported by two silver-papered planes, displays a travel prospectus customized by the artist with collaged and spray-painted images. And Ghost comprises a strangely shaped, organic white plaster object situated in a translucent and rigidly orthogonal structure of corrugated polycarbonate.
Constructed from lightweight, inexpensive materials, Könitz’s sculptures have a provisional and propositional quality. (In fact, taking into account her recent works such as the 2003 video Untitled [Owl Society]—where four actors wear sculptural masks created by Könitz, and a partition of interlocking circles is used structurally as a transitional device from one shot to the next—one might reasonably suspect that the absurdist narrative is merely a pretext for the objects.) Further, since these particular sculptures are oriented toward an event yet to happen (or, if all goes according to plan after the Whitney installation, just passed), it is not clear whether they are intended as self-sufficient objects or as placeholders for other ones that—as in the case of the Beverly Hills Freeway—might never be realized. The elegant planar structure of Ghost, for example, suggests a maquette for the modernist architecture of earlier Los Angeles transplants Richard Neutra and R. M. Schindler. Yet the pretzel-like plaster form sitting within it seems a model for some structure operating on another scale, either real or hypothetical—for the freeway system, perhaps, or for a much larger “abstract” sculpture to be plopped in a public park; or, adding a reflexive twist on the objects’ ambiguous status, for time, with the past and future diagrammed here as intertwining in space.
Regardless of such conundrums or their quasi-functional appearance, it is significant that Könitz’s pieces employ a strategy similar to Robert Smithson’s non-sites, in which material samples from distant sites in New Jersey or Oberhausen, Germany, were collected, more or less tidily contained as sculptures, and installed in a gallery or museum setting. Like Smithson’s non-sites, which were often accompanied by maps or texts, Könitz’s raffle sculptures and poster point outward, beyond the containment of the gallery’s architecture, and necessarily disrupt any presumed autonomy of the art object. The site pointed to is, in the case of both artists, surely intended as more of a fluid experience than a quantifiable thing—an experience that is frequently left to the imagination and not always easily identifiable or quarantined as “art.” (Könitz provides few specific details about what the trip to the freeway overpass will entail or her exact role in the eventual fulfillment of the prize.)
Yet one could also connect Könitz’s freeway project to Tony Smith’s well-known account of his road trip on an unfinished stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, held up in Michael Fried’s 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” as an indictment of art’s shift to “theatricality”—from object to “experience” itself, from “presentness” to endlessness. (And, in this vein, one should note that Smith’s monolithic black sculptures were often painted plywood placeholders for more refined projects that were never executed.) In 2001, Könitz made a small maquette of the Glendale overpass, titled Diamanten Autobahn, which proposed an elevator that shuttled from the concrete platform to the sidewalk below. Such a plan, of course, is even less likely to become reality than the ill-fated Beverly Hills Freeway; in this sense, the raffle for the Biennial, seven years later, is a pragmatic solution to draw an audience to the platform (even if it does require trespassing). Together, the three platformlike sculptures and the travel poster refer to a real, semipublic space one can visit, regardless of whether one wins the raffle, but also act as a kind of framing device with which one projects from interior to exterior, from imaginary to real, from object to experience. Inevitably, most visitors to the Biennial will have experienced the trip as a mental journey rather than as a physical one.
Könitz not only accepts Fried’s notion of theatricality as a strategy but literalizes it by implicating her work and the viewer in a potential drama—for example, her 2006 solo show of decidedly domestic-scaled sculptures at New York’s Hudson Franklin Gallery was allusively titled “Two Proud Society Spouses Are Reclining on Contemporary Brazilian Furniture as a Golden-Eyed Ghost Lady Looks over the Coffee Tables”—even if the narrative in question is as provisional or “unfinished” as the objects she makes. If Smith’s turnpike story and Smithson’s non-sites challenged the modernist notion of the self-sufficient work of art, the raffle not only exploits the theatrical potential of Könitz’s sculptural pieces but, going beyond Smith and Smithson—whose lessons Könitz has undoubtedly assimilated—adds a significant layer of fantasy, from which questions of social circumstance and class identification (as well as the artist’s dry sense of humor) subtly emerge. A raffle (or lottery) is surely a working- or middle-class escapist fantasy, encountered at school or church or on television; the opportunity to win something, whether a trip or an appliance, offers a small thrill for the imagination—a brief respite from a daily routine—for a few dollars. Presumably, someone always wins the raffle, but it’s unlikely that anyone really expects to—even with a good-luck charm. (To that end, Könitz has referred to the white object in Ghost as a talisman.) The fantasy of winning is often enough, at least for an ephemeral flight of the imagination.
Her designated destination is specific to Los Angeles, and the sculptures Könitz makes are often directly related to architectural and urban sites in her adopted hometown. She has approximated both vernacular and pedigreed examples, sometimes willfully confusing these categories. For “Public Sculpture,” her third solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, she presented “four works that could be read as proposals for public works” informed by Century City—a compact, highly polished urban zone adjacent to Fox Studios, largely developed in the 1960s and ’70s, which somewhat resembles a set for a science-fiction film that starts in utopia before spiraling toward totalitarianism. The centerpiece of the show was Mall Sculpture, 2006, a large but spare modular structure comprising four thin, hexagonal melamine frames covered in brown felt and supported by five triangular columns wrapped in sheets of reflective gold-colored paper—the columns presumably inspired by the twin triangular Century Plaza Towers (which hover over an upscale outdoor shopping mall nearby) designed by Minoru Yamasaki in 1975, a few years after he realized New York’s World Trade Center. Mall Sculpture is a paradoxical object, a disruptive barricade that is visually open; its function in social space would be difficult to imagine. Mimicking the refined appearance of architectural forms of Century City, while exposing its thrifty materiality and heavily glued joints up close—as if it could have been found on an abandoned set for a movie at Fox Studios—the sculpture subtly communicates its inability to signify luxury and power, performing as a monument to the contingencies of social space that is more carefully constructed for the flow of capital than for ambulatory bodies.
In addition to the works exhibited in the gallery, Könitz presented a short-lived intervention at a twenty-four-hour doughnut shop located in a strip mall in an ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhood between Koreatown and Silver Lake—miles across town from both Century City and the Culver City gallery. (Originally planned as a full-day event, Könitz’s rather benign occupation ended without explanation when the owners decided to pull the proverbial plug.) Without fanfare, the artist assembled a vertical tower of three triangular columns interspersed with horizontal, circular gold-papered platforms near the counter outside the shop; inside she mounted two gold-papered hexagons on the wall, partially obscuring a doughnut poster. The unlikely transposition of Century City architecture to the eclectic neighborhood elicited little interest from locals, though the event succeeded in drawing a small audience to a district off the usual art-world itinerary—and at least one woman readily accepted the cardboard sculpture as part of the mise-en-scène by setting her Styrofoam coffee cup on its shelf. Of course, this transposition would not have worked so well in reverse: The diverse neighborhood and strip mall are inherently open to and largely defined by such bricolage, whereas the cardboard sculpture—not to mention a doughnut shop—would look completely out of place in the heavily scripted, totalized spaces of Century City. Such propositional objects mark difference from, if they don’t exactly resist, the seamless spectacle of the corporate imaginary. The seemingly straightforward title of the show—“Public Sculpture”—was revealed, during this intervention, as a complex negotiation between public space and private interest, and perhaps as an anachronistic notion, as public space as we know it rapidly disappears.
Since arriving in Los Angeles, Könitz has gradually emerged as an influential (if, until recently, overlooked) artist. Her thrifty, low-tech approach is more readily accepted by viewers (and, well, collectors) now than it was when she began exhibiting nearly a decade ago—at which time, believe it or not, the “unfinished” quality of the work was puzzling to many in a city perhaps better known for an array of slick, obsessively fabricated sculptures. While maintaining their modest economy and displaying a resistance to finality, her objects have accumulated layers of significance by opening circuits outside their formal operations within the gallery in order to implicate the wider, more complex social terrain of Könitz’s adopted city. The unfinished section of the Glendale Freeway might, in fact, be emblematic of this approach, with the works in the Whitney Biennial pointing to it from afar. From the limbo of that concrete slab over Glendale Boulevard—one of the last open-ended spaces in an increasingly dense and overbuilt urban zone—Könitz proposes potential itself as a kind of generosity toward the viewer (whether the viewer is aware of the work in question or not). Her sculptures are formally compelling, but their fluid connection to social, economic, architectural, and geographic realities—all keenly observed and assimilated by the artist—represent a risky critical proposition that she manages to advance with characteristic diffidence, humor, and a willingness to fail. Of course, the terms for success or failure of these ventures are not neatly scripted, but that too makes Könitz’s work distinct from the winner-takes-all stakes of contemporary culture, as the winner of her raffle is likely to soon discover.