Art in America

December, 1994

L.A. Rising

By Michael Duncan

With a lively crop of innovative artists and a host of new galleries, Los Angeles promises- yet again – to become a powerhouse of contemporary art-making. Below, a guide to L.A.’s grass-roots art scene.

Los Angeles is currently experiencing one of its periodic art booms, marked by the L city’s most intense outpouring of interesting work since the late 1960s. Peter Plagens, in Sunshine Muse, his 1974 account of the California art scene, attributed the on-again, off-again spurts of productivity in Los Angeles to the absence of an artists’ community large enough to regenerate art modes, to split into factions, to lend real weight to one or the other esthetic direction. For a variety of reasons, this is no longer true. Today L.A. boasts a hyperactive art scene, one swarming with young artists and as factionalized as the rest of the current art world. 

LA’s resurgence is attributable to the competitive nature of the five strong local art schools (Cal Arts. Otis. UCLA, the Art Center and Claremont) and to the fact that so many younger artists now move here rather than to New York for cheap studio space and the chance to show in alternative venues, Unlike in the old days, 

LA’s best artists all teach, including the now internationally recognized stars of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s 1992 show “Helter Skelter” [see A.i.A., Nov. 92]: Chris Burden, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Lari Pittman, Nancy Rubins and Charles Ray. That group’s success has proved the viability of L.A. for artists, despite the city’s notoriously lackluster reputation for sales. 

In retrospect, the significance of “Helter Skelter” was less in the allegedly “noir sensibility of its artists than in the accumulative, object-oriented nature of their work. Raymond Pettibon, Manuel Ocampo, Megan Williams and Jim Shaw are all generous-spirited amassers of images and objects. As eccentric iconoclasts, they have more in common with L.A. expatriates Allen Ruppersberg and Jonathan Borofsky than with such previous stylistic forces as Finish Fetish. Light and Space, Michael Asher-style conceptualism or the media-based work of John Baldessari. 

Acolytes of these earlier fashions have proved largely disappointing. The concerns of Finish Fetish and Light and Space continue to be recycled in the overly precious works of minimalist and process artists such as Fandra Chang or Maxwell Hendler. A generation of neo-conceptual followers of Baldessari – including Stephen Prina, Christopher Williams. Meg Cranston and Cindy Bernard-still shows regularly, with a new set of clones breeding at 1301 Gallery. But these artists have veered away from Baldessari’s visual play and humor into ponderous minimalism or one-line gimmickry. Very much visible on the scene (and frequently shown in Europe), this self-referential art revels in its own obscurity and conceptual hauteur. 

Irrespective of its Manson-tinged bad-boy theme, “Helter Skelter” did mark LA art’s turn away from conceptual concerns and back to the materials of the real world. With surveys of the work of both Kelley [see A.i.A., June 94] and Ray currently touring Europe, a LACMA survey scheduled for Pittman in 1995 and international commissions for Rubins and McCarthy, the group’s energy has hardly slackened. Yet there is a host of lesser known but promising L.A. artists who, like the “Helter Skelter” bunch, are exploring varied forms and mediums with willful, eccentric energy. These include the past year’s amazing set of newcomers, a strong generation of artists in their 30s, midcareer women artists left out of the MOCA show and an extraordinary group of painters. 

LA.’s New Grass-roots Scene

Now that 1980s New York art stars such as Salle, Schnabel and Halley have lost their stranglehold on the art press, the new L.A. art is much less likely to be influenced by East Coast sources than by local heroes like Burden, Rubins, Kelley or McCarthy. For example, L.A. painters such as Pittman, Roy Dowell, Linda Burnham and Nancy Evans are much more important here than New York painters like Jonathan Lasker, Mary Heilmann, Matthew Weinstein or Philip Taaffe, whose works aren’t often seen on the West Coast. 

Despite this boosterish atmosphere, economic* problems have kept the LA art world in a state of constant flux, with nearly every month witnessing another gallery closing, reconfiguration or mow to a more affordable location. The projected openings in early 1995 of L.A. branches of Pace Wildenstein and Gagosian galleries have put a bizarre spin on everyone else’s lowered market expectations. Much more relevant to the local scene is the recent opening of Bergamot Station a beautifully converted, 5 ½ – acre industrial complex in Santa Monica, where greatly lowered rents have attracted some of the city’s best galleries, including Shoshana Wayne, Patricia Faure, Burnett Miller as well as Rosamund Felsen, which has been especially involved with emerging artists.

LA’s economic uncertainty and the intensified competition among galleries seem to have enhanced the quality of work on display. Furthermore, while LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) underwent its protracted relocation from downtown to Hollywood, a grass-roots gallery scene sprang up that stole its “alternative” thunder. New venues like Food House, TRI, Dan Bernier Gallery, Bennett 

Roberts, Acme, Richard Telles Fine Art, Fox Gallery, Domestic Setting and Sue Spaid Fine Arts have introduced a generation of recent art- school graduates, all eager to compete with their former teachers. But these new galleries are not only showing recent MFAs. As a result of the recent closings, many established artists have begun to turn up in smaller, fresher surroundings. 

In LA, the politically engaged art of the 1998 Whitney Biennial failed to make much of an impact outside public-art commissions and art- school faculties. Furthermore, “pathetic art” has long since run its course on the West Coast, making New York “slacker” artists like Sean Landers seem yesterday’s news. To everyone’s relief, the distressed economy has purged the art world of blasé, simplistic and cynical work Any throwback to 8Os-style pomposity – to those days of “heroic” monster canvases – is out of the question for all save the diehards at Ace Gallery (which has 30,000 square feet to fill). 

The characteristic tone of the ‘9Os is reflected in the hands-on processes, improvised mediums and intensely personal themes of artists who work, for the time being, without much expectation of sales. The most successful L.A. shows are “maximal” extravaganzas, delivering wild formal experimentation with manic energy. Sculpture is the preferred medium of the moment, with installation art being channeled into increasingly discrete though still experimental forms.

Sculpture: Emerging and Expanding 

In his first full-scale L.A. solo show, Jason Rhoades filled Rosamund Felsen Gallery to the rafters with objects generated from his over-the- top ideational flow. His extravagant lime-yellow, site-specific installation, Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts, was an artfully messy parody of an IKEA store. It included such design statements as knock-off Donald Judd shelves made out of Styrofoam; area rugs made of stapled-together legal pad sheets; a cardboard and Styrofoam wagon-wheel table; and Frank Gehry-like “useless ottomans” woven from pages of the architect’s furniture catalogue. Rhoades thrives on funky, homemade versions of slick commercial design. Making den furniture out of packing crates and car parts, he domesticates industrial equipment with the garage esthetic of a suburban tinkerer. 

As he amasses his objects, Rhoades accrues ideas, piling on layer after layer of associations. The installation’s title set off the show’s chain of oddball references: Pontiac’s failed attempt to copy Japanese design; the efforts of the porno industry to market Swedish soft core; a photograph of the artist’s mother in a glamorous Marilyn Monroe-like pose; and the gallery’s former identity as the Tom Kelly Studio (the alleged site of Monroe’s famous red-velvet photo session). With a complexity recalling Mike Kelley’s projects, Rhoades’s relentless accumulations of ideas and handmade stuff stretch the notion of meaning in art. 

While Rhoades’s work provides a distant echo of scatter art, the odd computer-inspired sculptures of Chris Finley are something entirely new. In Chinese-box sets of plastic containers, Finley stores plastic figurines, tiny wooden pencils, erasers and decorative gewgaws. With their candylike plastic pieces and zip-lock containers, these funny sculptures are food-obsessed, mock- organic systems. Truly interactive, the sculpture can only be experienced by physically dismantling or reassembling the layered components. Finley invites viewers to play with his pieces – making their display in galleries and museums tricky indeed. 

Finley’s sculptures also exist as information systems that are diagrammed and labeled in computer-drawn documents that accompany the works. With its plastic birdbath serving as a conventional pedestal, Weed Wacker contains Finley’s latest extension of the “interactive element of his work: a plastic hat, armband and glove that the viewer is instructed to try on as he or she disassembles the piece. Finley twists conventional sculptural ideas with anarchic glee, using the files-within-files organization of a computer program as a model for an expanded sculptural form. 

Martin Kersels, previously known as a performance artist with the group The Shrimps, has emerged with a set of outrageous kinetic and sound sculptures which take technological ideas in new directions. In Speaker Slam/Lancer 44’s, a hanging console stereo speaker dragging a live microphone is attached to pulleys which cause it to crash against a smaller speaker connected to the mike, thus broadcasting the melee. The motorized speakers of Monkey Pod shuttle along the floor, amplifying the sounds of their journey until they unplug themselves from the wall. Twist is a prosthetic leg hanging on a slowly winding cluster of rubber bands; when enough tension mounts, the leg flops around, kicking and scuffing the wall.

Although indebted to Chris Burden’s recreations of machines, Kersels sticks close to theatrical sound and physical-motion experiments appropriate to his performance background. His technology is kept simple, avoiding the slickness of Dennis Oppenheim and Alan Rath. Kersels will soon be showing an installation at Dan Bernier that features a grand piano shuttling on pulleys and cables (shades of Bunuel and Dali’s Andalusian Dog) and a Brown Sound Machine, a special low-frequency sound generator that will supposedly (according to Army research) provoke human defecation.

Jennifer Pastor’s large sculptures are poetically conceived, Surrealist-Pop assemblages. A recent untitled 14-foot installation shown at Richard Telles consists of a simulated waterfall that seems to flush downstream five baroquely decorated Christmas trees. The piece has the glitzy appeal of a Bergdorf’s window display, especially in the crisp craftsmanship of its clear plastic sheets of simulated water and the gorgeous detail of its oversized decorations. A cleverly hidden armature splays the trees outward, organizing the visual chaos into a kind of narrative flow. Although the trees appear ready to swirl into oblivion, they manage to keep their dignity, hanging onto their metallic ornaments with aplomb. 

Funky wire-and-glitter sculptures are being produced by both Sally Elesby and Terri Friedman. Elesby, a recent MFA who is in her early 50s, produces work that displays a mix of freshness and maturity. Using wire to make what she calls “drawings” in three-dimensional space, Elesby decorates these pieces with ribbon, glitter and tinsel. Adapting the tattered-finery look of Richard Tuttle’s early-8Os sculpture, Elesby uses decoration to distort her objects’ forms. Written language is also added to the sculptures as another kind of line drawing: gussied-up wire renderings of words like “beauty,” “ready,” or “start” perch on or extend from her flexible, quivery pieces, suggesting the fragility of their meanings. By equipping some works with built-in pedestals and installing others directly on the wall, Elesby has quickly discovered a wide range of sculptural possibilities. 

Hoping, she says, to “oxygenate the art world,” Friedman uses an odd mix of plastic tubes, glitter, shaggy tinsel and colored wire in sculptures that play with organic references. In Co-Mingling Without Ever Exchanging, a motor pumps a bucket of orange liquid through six clear IV tubes laced with glitter and colored beads and spread out on the floor. The shared fluid runs through each of the “participants,” creating a sexy social microcosm. Using forms familiar from the sculptural concoctions of Eva Hesse, Friedman’s pseudo-organic system pulses with fantastical life. 

Friedman’s loosely sketched wire sculpture Sunny von Bulow Is Alive is inspired by the fact that nurses allegedly still apply daily make-up to the long-time coma patient. This Sunny, a freestanding figure with a fire-engine-red smear of a mouth and insoucient velvet shawl, carries out the artist’s announced intention of “animating the living dead.” More precisely formed and composed than the similarly fantastical works by Daniel Weiner, Friedman’s sculptures are indicative of the eccentric spirit behind much of the new L.A. work.

The Guest Room Generation 

Besides these newcomers, the L.A. scene has been enlivened by a number of artists in their early 3Os who have had strong second and third shows. Many of these artists, including Carter Potter, Adam Ross, Kathy Chenoweth, Erik Otsea, Steve Hurd and Kevin Sullivan, showed in The Guest Room, an alternative space organized in a spare room in the midtown apartment of artists Russell Crotty and Laura Gruenther. This noncommercial venue, active from January 1991 to April 1992, was the prototype for other “home galleries” such as Domestic Setting and Bliss, which have offered the kind of simple, single-artist exhibitions that institutions like LACE or MOCA still can t seem to manage.

Perhaps the best known of the extended Guest Room crowd is Carter Potter, who, in his two ongoing bodies of work, bridges the gap between sculpture and painting. In a kind of parody of a sexual pick-up, Potter collects couches from the L.A. streets. In performances and installations he then works them over: branding them with the word “FAG,” stripping them to make minimalist sculptures from their frames or pouring buckets of house paint through them to create gallery- floor spills- In addition to this work, Potter has won attention with his “film paintings,” in which discarded strips of 35mm and 70mm film stock are wrapped or woven over stretcher frames to make abstract grids, stripes or allover patterns. 

With the eye of a minimalist esthete, Potter has generated a surprisingly wide variety of effects from this unusual medium, taking advantage of its associations with cinema as a conveyor of fantasy and narrative. 

Russell Crotty epitomizes the obsessive side of recent L.A. art. Known for his huge wall-grids filled with masterfully scribbled ink images of surfers on breaking waves, he explores the sky in his new work, with grid drawings on both paper and canvas of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn, all based on the artist’s own backyard telescope observations. Unlike Vija Celmins’s renderings of the night sky, Crotty’s drawings particularize each planetary portrait, including multiple perspectives that indicate the passage of time and the movements of the heavens. Within this metaphysical arena, Crotty chronicles the movements of forces on a scale beyond human comprehension, pursuing the impossible task of drawing the infinite. 

For his sumptuous abstract paintings on canvas and metal, Adam Ross has developed a complex process including heat-transfer, layering and wet-sanding to create loosely manipulated color effects that suggest biological and topological imagery. With their affinity to the 1940s
”Flux” paintings of the underrated L.A. modernist Knud Merrild, Ross’s geodelike forms and psychedelic colors evoke paradoxical natural/ unnatural phenomena.

MOCA’s 1993 exhibition “Hand-Painted Pop” [see A.i.A., July ‘93] has inspired new interest in Pop, yielding works which prove that ideas can still be milked from that movement. Not quite Pop – but not quite like anything else – are Richard Hawkins’s collages made from glossy men’s fashion magazine layouts, gay porn and Julian Schnabel catalogues. Hawkins sticks yellow Post-It notes with short captions such as “Regret” or “Suffering” over formal compositions of opulent clothes, bodies and art works. His terse literary utterances don’t so much skewer the lust for beauty as seek a way to indulge it, ultimately infusing the work with the air of the decadent late 19th century. 

Joining the appropriations of mass-market detritus by Steve Hurd [reviewed in A.i.A., Jan. ‘94] and Kevin Sullivan [reviewed in A.i.A., June ‘94] are the meticulous paintings of fast-food wrappers and paper towels by L.A. newcomer George Stoll [reviewed in A.i.A., Nov. ‘94]. Working in series, Stoll has also made delicately hued, sculptural re-creations in wax of Tupperware cups and containers. Although keeping their critical eyes open, these artists are Pop esthetes, reanimating trash culture via hands-on processes. 

Many of the sculptors of this Guest Room generation employ abstract forms for narrative or art-historically based work. Laura Cooper uses simple linen sheets and discarded children’s clothes to make evocative sculptures about flight and fantasy that are minimalist in form and Pre-Raphaelite in feeling. John Souza has created eerie new sculptures that are decorated portals which survey a range of architectural styles, from Egyptian to Neo-Classical to Heavy Metal Gothic. Recalling mausoleum entryways, these portals combine surprising emotional intensity and a brilliant selection of esthetic detail. Sparked by historical Asian art, Laura Whipple’s sculptures and assemblages are simply constructed and comically rich visual puns. Homage to Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, for example, is a parody of the “organic” brushstroke in Chinese landscape painting, here rendered in the delicate medium of insect parts on flypaper. 

Jacci Den Hartog, whose previous sculptures have been made from poured rubber and pigment, has begun a series of works also inspired by classical Chinese landscapes. In pieces like Journey among Rivers and Mountains, she pours her gloppy medium over molded plaster bases to emulate the craggy, fluid lines of waterfalls and mountain ranges. Known for his wall constructions made from screen metal, Patrick Nickell is now creating patterns with clear plastic loops set in cardboard frames that are often draped with string. The loops and string yield an effect suggestive of a line drawing, making these small abstract works resemble scrambled-up Brice Maidens in 3-d. Nickell’s elegant new pencil drawings of coiling ribbons and flowerlike tendrils have the feel of biomorphic Surrealism, conjuring up the ominous plant forms of Kurt Seligmann and Hans Bellmer. 

The maverick in this generation of mavericks is Tim Hawkinson, whose endlessly inventive 1993 show at Ace [reviewed in A.i.A., Jan. ‘94] filled the gallery with funny conceptual coups. These included self-portrait rubbings of the skinny artist’s own bones; synesthetic “portrait” drawings of music, improvised on paper disks as they spun on a turntable; and overinflated rubber-balloon casts of the artist’s body. One of Hawkinson’s funky machines, made out of a wooden school desk and scroungy scrap metal, redefines the idea of automatic writing by continually reproducing his signature in scratchy Bic pen. Blindspots is a new kind of self-portrait: a group of photographs pieced together à la Hockney that depicts all the parts of Hawkinson’s body he cannot see, from the nape of the neck to the asshole. 

Many of Hawkinson’s works are poetically evocafive conceits. A recent piece, Das Tannenboot, is a Christmas tree with branches stripped of their needles and decorated with miniature sails and rigging. Set on its side, the sculpture becomes a flotilla in the round, a strung-together system of fantasy transport. The funky, homespun element of Hawkinson’s work complements its earnest ambitiousness; setting no limits for his play, Hawkinson demonstrates the inexhaustability of art in an age which keeps pleading exhaustion. 

Pattern & Decoration Redux

With the waning of neo-conceptual art and a return to the handmade object, painting no longer bears a stigma, and L.A.’s best abstract painters have now reemerged in force. In a field where craft matters so much, midcareer artists such as Jim Isermann [reviewed in A.i.A., Oct. ‘94] have the skills to deliver on again-hot topics like pattern and decoration. Current attempts to push the limits of patterning violate formalist taboos with all the bad-boy fervor of the “Helter Skelter” artists.

Although Lari Pittman is renowned for his incorporation of decorative motifs into grand allegorical narratives, he is by no means the only L.A. painter dealing with complex patterning. Carole Caroompas, in her similarly bold canvases, also juxtaposes figurative images with abstract designs. In her latest works she has tempered her hard-edged graphic style to find a less didactic and more painterly means of communication. Overlaid onto boldly patterned cartoon backgrounds, her central images are themselves overlaid with color fields and simply textured patterns. The layering increases the illusion of depth, thereby enhancing the narrative complexity of her upfront feminism. 

In Linda Burnham’s most recent abstract works [reviewed in A.i.A., Dec. ‘93], personal history is added to her densely layered mix of photocopied, blown-up images and fragments of wallpaper patterns. Burnham starts with canvases that had been discarded by her recently deceased husband, artist Robert Overby, keeping intact the few painted vestiges of Overby’s hand and building her compositions around them. She has created an eerie yet poignant tribute to him: a series of works where both their marks live on. These odd collaborations-after-the-fact are her most sensuous and intellectual works. 

In a recent installation at Rosamund Felsen, Renee Petropoulos painted large-scale and wildly juxtaposed patterns directly on the walls to genuinely vertiginous effect. Pushing these clashing allover patterns into the realm of architecture, Petropoulos dwarfed the viewer with giant arabesques, byzantine latticework and decorative fragments appropriated from U.S. currency. Roy Dowell’s collaged paintings are similarly busy, with hand-drawn passages in acrylic extending out of the decorative motifs found on collaged fragments. Powell possesses an amazing eye for color; he combines with insoucient mastery the sweet and sour, the dank and the perky. His last show included funky sculptural assemblages inspired by his freewheeling collage technique; a soccer ball, packing material and a giant store-display acorn came together in the mix, painted in sections to suit the overall abstract design. 

Nancy Evans is perhaps the most relentless of these patterners, layering stenciled images in dense clusters and combinations and then burring through sections of acrylic to reveal the colors beneath. Her complex process involves painstaking experimentation, with each canvas undergoing countless reworkings and relayerings. In her most recent pieces Evans’s acrid, queasy palette has begun to soften, with pastels to suit her built-up curls of hardened acrylic that simulate plant fronds or petals. 

Coming to nature from another direction is Robin Mitchell, who uses a repertoire of swirls, rings and drips to evoke organic change. She organizes her latest paintings around a spinal- column-like row of colored dots that acts as a structural anchor over densely applied smears of color. lllusionistic depth has also added a new complexity to her multilayered works. Other nature-driven abstract painters include Marian Estes, known for a series of 100 small variations on organic forms, and Maura Bendett, who incorporates dried herbs and pollen in her autumnally hued organic abstractions. 

Some mention must be made of L.A.’s group of figurative painters, who continue to refine Renaissance-inspired styles in their eccentric oil paintings. Tom Knechtel [reviewed in A.i.A, Oct. 93], Tom Wudl, Judie Bamber [reviewed in A.i.A., Nov. 94] and newcomer Monica Majoli create meticulous, sensuous, allegorical works. Knechtel’s new multipanel painting The Flood, which will be exhibited for the first time this winter at Rosamund Felsen, delivers a swirling maelstrom of bodies with an intensity worthy of Uccello or Correggio. Bamber’s small, detailed paintings of vulvae are extraordinarily loaded images with the jewellike perfection of Flemish miniatures. 

Working in a more expressionistic mode – and in reclusive isolation – is John Sonsini, whose heavily impastoed acrylic portraits of men are intense, mannerist works that seem determined to break down the barrier between artist and subject. Other solid figurative artists include Kim Dingle, known for her funny, offhand portraits of tussling schoolgirls and pugilistic babies, and Keith Mayerson, who creates complex narrative collages à la Jim Shaw, parodying the styles of William Blake, Peter Max, Odilon Redon and Archie comics.

Ironically, “Helter Skelter” also seems to have sparked another group of artists: the midcareer women who were excluded by virtue of the show’s bullheaded, macho esthetic. Reenergized by the successes of their peers and the emerging small-gallery scene, many of these artists have gone on to make their strongest work to date. Karen Carson [reviewed in A.i.A, Nov. 94), known for her abstract, symbol-laden paintings, has recently begun to experiment with charged social content, adapting the vernacular graphics of Las Vegas signage. Composer/artist Joyce Lightbody [reviewed in A.i.A, Nov. 94] has recently exhibited small collaged “scores” for fragments of poetry; these works are remarkable for their barely suppressed sexual energy. 

Ann Preston’s recent sculptures of otherworldly wax babies are genuinely uncanny figurative works that are her most psychologically charged. With their subtle freakishness, her infant-size sculptures tap into an asexual “other” that represents the darkest side of body art: the primal fear of the physical. These wax mutants are tantalizingly fragile, encouraging touches or squeezes that would mean their own destruction. Preston is exploring the psychological ramifications of figurative art with a rigor that matches that of Kelley or McCarthy. No longer can it be said that there is a dearth of successful female role models for younger L.A. artists. 

With the quality of its last four generations of artists, L.A. art finally can be said to have a complex history of its own, yet one desperately in need of sorting out. Local history-even of the past 30 years-remains fuzzy. Works by artists who seem ripe for reappraisal, such as John Altoon, Ron Davis and Craig Kauffman, are rarely seen in the museums or galleries and little known by younger artists. Although the pluralistic ‘90s might welcome a museum survey of postwar 20th-century art in Southern California, such an exhibition is unlikely to occur. For the past decade, the fear of regionalism and the stigma of provinciality have impeded L.A.’s major museums from devoting much attention to local art history. 

Despite L.A.’s current art resurgence, the city’s cultural self-image remains oddly unformed. While local architectural masterpieces by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler fall into shabby disrepair, Malibu’s Getty Museum fights tooth, nail and dollar to wrest works like Canova’s Three Graces away from the U.K Until Southern California’s cultural institutions begin to show more than token interest in supporting and promoting a sense of their own region’s art history, L.A. artists must continue to look to New York for approval and a historical sense of self-worth.

Author: Michael Duncan is a freelance critic living in Los Angeles.