Doug Aitken

Doug Aitken by Katherine Satorius
Regen Projects | Los Angeles
September 12 – October 17, 2009

Originally published in ArtUS 28

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Doug Aitken’s first major hometown exhibition since 2005 consists of four interlocking parts, filling Regen Projects’ two galleries and weaving between interior and exterior space. Migration (2008), the latest in Aitken’s series of ambitious video installations (it previously screened at the 55th Carnegie International and New York’s 303 Gallery), is presented in two forms, running during business hours on a specially fabricated, scaled-down digital billboard inside Regen Projects II and playing continuously from dusk to dawn on two adjacent walls of the main gallery’s exterior. The double projection can be seen by cars driving either direction on Santa Monica Boulevard, as suits a work partly about isolation and repetitive travel. Meanwhile, a collection of recent light box pieces occupies the main gallery’s interior—seven illuminated photographs manipulated into words and geometric shapes. The glowing image of a livestock auction building fills letters that spell out “FATE” (the handle comes up, the hammer comes down, 2009); a triptych of human silhouettes have hearts represented by pictures of a cave opening filled with sunlight (Heatwave, 2009). Finally, a few miles away, in the sky above LA><ART, an actual billboard, albeit one too diminutive to deliver the proper impact, displays the “FATE” photograph, bringing the exhibition full circle.

But migration is the obvious centerpiece—a mesmerizing, melancholic 24-minute epic in which a procession of animals and birds mostly common to North America inhabits a sequence of banal rooms in the kinds of motels that populate lonely stretches of the American highway. They carry out instinctual acts, engaging with the strange surroundings as they would their normal habitats: a cougar gnaws the bed pillows and wrestles the sheets to the floor; a buffalo butts heads with the standard-issue lamps; a beaver paddles in the bathtub. Aitken’s camera follows with a reverent gaze, lingering on bristly fur, velvety antlers, dusty hoofs and glassy eyes, closing in on each protagonist’s legendary attributes—the owl’s stare, the horse’s musculature—playing up the disconnect between this cast of intricately made living creatures and their manufactured surrounds.

People have grown accustomed to understanding themselves as the foreground against nature’s backdrop. Migration inverts this convention. Interspersed shots of American landscape (the video roughly describes an east-west cross-country journey) show evidence of human activity: trains and barges advance; oil derricks peck the ground; electricity hums. But like the presence of animals concealed behind rocks and vegetation, human existence in these scenes is ghostly.

Lonesome, spectral beauty has long characterized Aitken’s work. The famous still from electric earth (2000) of a solitary red shopping cart in an empty parking lot beneath a brooding sky stands to become an iconic turn-of-the-millennium image, reflecting apocalyptic hysteria and twilight. His methods of transmission maximize the numinous tone. A film or video is already spectral, but, like Bill Viola, Aitken doesn’t just make videos; he makes immersive, monumental viewing experiences that approximate communications from the beyond. Like sleepwalkers, projected in giant scale on the outer walls of MoMA in 2007, flickering over the upturned faces of passersby like a divine vision, migration aims to hold viewers in thrall. But with Aitken, the portentous tone is cut with absurdity, irony, and self-aware wit: migration, for instance, has a horse watching grainy footage of running wild horses on the motel TV. No sooner do we pity him than we remember it’s all just a setup; we’re caught red-handed, projecting human anxieties onto another creature’s mind. In another scene, a full moon dissolves with comic conspicuity into a globe light bulb. Aitken isn’t taking an easy jab at the failure of human design to live up to nature—for all the comparisons between manmade and natural realms in his work, aesthetic judgment is never the issue. On the contrary, he elevates everything in frame to the same plane of mirage-like beauty, from the texture of fox fur to a low-lit parking lot to the acid aqua surface of a swimming pool.

Human consciousness, and its intersection with the exterior world, is Aitken’s great obsession. The pathos that seeps from his work comes less from despair over what we have wrought on ourselves and on our planet than from a kind of dissonance between how we are compelled to view the physical world, as a place that reflects and somehow listens to us, and probable reality. In the final scene of migration, owl feathers and feathers from a torn-open pillow mingle in black space—a reminder that the dichotomy between the natural and manmade, on which so much art of recent decades relies, is a made-up distinction, since from an ecological perspective there is no difference, no actual separation between foreground and background, no “environment.” “The ‘environment’ is nothing but the phenotypical expression of DNA code,” as ecological theorist Timothy Morton has put it: “A beaver’s DNA doesn’t stop at the end of its whiskers, but at the end of its dam.” Which is also to say that, though we like to believe that we have conquered wild frontiers, we have only been building habitat, carrying out our program like beavers and foxes. In this light, the frontier mentality on which the West was built seems rather ironic. Migration touches subtly and intelligently on such ironies, and its very title contains another: there’s no clear direction to migrate anymore now that the east and west have both been colonized; there is only repetition, back and forth—a restless situation that echoes the state of affairs in contemporary art.

Larry Johnson

Larry Johnson by Katherine Satorius

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles CA

June 21 – September 6, 2009

Originally published in ArtUS 27

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The Hammer Museum’s comprehensive survey of Larry Johnson’s career to date, curated by Russell Ferguson, makes a strong argument for Johnson’s inclusion in the pantheon of iconic L.A. artists. It begins with the 1984 work that brought Johnson to prominence—a series of small photographs depicting celebrities’ names floating in a fake sky (Movie Stars on Clouds)—and proceeds via casual chronology, ending more or less with a 2009 photo depicting a hasty sketch of an Emmy award in an anonymous window (Achievement: SW Corner, Glendale + Silverlake Blvds). The 50-odd works in between are tightly related in theme and identical in medium: color photographs Johnson made using techniques he gleaned from a day job producing television graphics and later crafted through digital manipulation, for an appearance as utterly handless as advertisements. All are untitled, identified by brief parenthetical descriptions.

Central to many works is the concept of packaging—at times literally, as in The Perfect Mensa Man and Why Say High School? (both 1994), which borrow the multicolor stripe motif designer Paul Rand (1914-96) created for the boxes housing IBM’s first personal computers—but more often figuratively, drawing on the slick, cunning packages of language and design engineered, in the era of mass communications, to slide straight into a consumer’s unconscious. Invoking the names of famous people, who function as universal shorthand for various character traits and fragments of cultural narrative, provides a similarly direct route to mass numbers of minds. Johnson’s images constantly exhort us to focus not just on content but on its wrappings: the lettering in many works changes colors randomly, at times nearly blending into the background. Even as we read, our attention gets forced back continually to the surface of the words.

Johnson was born in the postwar “instant city” of Lakewood and has lived in L.A.’s Koreatown for over two decades. In his images, the city—particularly gay Hollywood of the 1980s and ’90s and specifically the hustler turf of Santa Monica Boulevard—is omnipresent. Hustler figures, with their seductive, solicitous, insinuating language, are objects of fascination for Johnson: “I honestly believe my work is different for gay men of my generation than it is for other people,” he has said. Indeed, camp figures like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, the Kennedys, certain restaurants, bars and intersections, and gay porn stars Leo Ford and John Sex all make appearances in his photographs. Many of his appropriated and invented narratives dating from the last two decades have an undercurrent of death.

The show’s centerpiece is a large gallery hung with ten of Johnson’s “winter landscape” works (1990-92). Whereas earlier photographs displayed text on solid backgrounds, here panels are stuck into desolate snow scenes as if waiting for wanderers to stumble across them. In contrast to previous blurbs lifted out of media sources like TV Guide and celebrity bios, these texts—snippets of confessions, testimonials and rants—are largely Johnson’s fictions. The surrounding cartoon winters seem colored by pathetic fallacies: double mountain peaks rise behind a story about twins; spiky branches converge around musings on the Manson Family killings—the world as viewed through warped first-person lenses. Behind the photographs, the gallery wall acts like a field of snow, ringing the viewer into this echo chamber of needy, disembodied voices. Despite the affected coziness of their phrasing, greased with easy-to-swallow clichés, and the warm colors of the placards bearing their messages, the texts often betray a vacuity that matches the barren scenery. At once tragic and affectless, these thorny images might also be read as metaphors for Los Angeles and its culture of fame, which tends toward a strange mixture of exhibitionism and isolation.

Given his habit of “exposing” the machinery of language and aesthetics, it may seem that Johnson has cast himself in the role of benevolent unmasker of truth, but the reality is more complicated. Johnson uses the devices he critiques to his own benefit: we’re drawn to his candy-colored images as surely as we’re reeled in by advertisements and are easily hooked by his fast-talking, hedging, wheedling narrators. Most of his designs, which, like advertising, liberally co-opt ideas from past art, are crafted to captivate our eyes. Land w/o Bread (1999-2000), which borrows the characters of a donkey and goat from the Luis Buñuel film of the same title, is a four-part work in which two panels are partially obscured by the artist’s fingers interfering with the camera lens. What seems like a revelatory gesture—the hand behind these handless photographs brought into plain sight—is also a demonstration of the artist’s power to meddle and hide things from view. Similarly, in a series of photos from 2007 in which Johnson’s pencil penetrates various orifices of pencil-drawn cartoon creatures—a kangaroo, an ass, a giraffe—an outward display of puncturing illusion serves also to heighten it, by endowing the cartoons with an even more illusory interior dimension. And far from vilifying the master genius behind some of the most powerful commercial design of the twentieth century, Johnson reveres Paul Rand; the exhibition even opens, fittingly, with a short video piece paying homage to Rand’s typographical work, Paul Rand’s Women, 1948 (1984). The dynamic between hustler and john, like that between advertiser and consumer, salesman and sap, even artist and viewer, in Johnson’s work is nothing if not mutually parasitic. The donkey in Ass (2007) grins helplessly, lifting his tail for the eraser that threatens to undo him: obviously, despite the prospect of negation, the creature likes it.

Jedediah Caesar

Jedediah Caesar
“Holding Pattern” at Susanne Vielmetter Projects
April 11 – May 23, 2009

Originally published in Artweek 40.5

On its face, Jedediah Caesar’s work seems engaged in revelation—cutting up objects to show us the parts we never see, gathering forgotten junk and rearranging it as sculpture, impelling us to re-examine cast-off matter. Following in the tradition of Process Art, in which the story of the work’s creation theoretically can be reconstructed by a thoughtful viewer, Caesar presents as artwork not only the end results of his by-now trademark procedure (pouring resin into a cardboard box or other container filled with various objects, then slicing the resin form with a band saw into different shapes), but also the intermediary steps. Two works in “Holding Station,” Caesar’s second solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Projects, consist of the resin-filled cardboard boxes themselves (2009, all works untitled). Then there are the sculptures of collected materials, everything from trellis pieces to piping, window frames to twigs, jutting up from their rectangular bases in rowdy spikes and angles. An unprocessed version of the embedded resin sculptures, these Constructivist-style structures have been spared a trip through the feed-tube of Minimalism, showing off their unruly uniqueness in the face of so many compressed, rearrangeable units.

But while Caesar’s practice borrows heavily from Process Art, attempt to fully reconstitute the origins behind Caesar’s resin sculptures and you will soon hit a wall. Sliced into cross-sections, the objects trapped in resin are rendered unrecognizable: In obsessively revealing their interiors, Caesar obscures their former identities to the point where they become abstractions. Indeed, cut into thin tiles and arrayed on the wall in diamond formations, in vertical towers, in checkerboard rectangles, the sculptures impersonate abstract paintings, and often lovely ones at that. One untitled 2008 work consisting of 30 roughly 1-foot square tiles seduces with shards of bright yellow, coral, and royal blue material punctuating marbled areas of black and grey, the yellow form existing at various points as a full circle and half circle, like a moon progressing through phases. And yet even at a time when painting encompasses so many diverse methods, these wall pieces are emphatically not paintings, not images, but things—conglomerations of matter.

The push-pull between showing and hiding in Caesar’s work sheds light on a gesture made by the artist in one of the gallery’s back spaces. Coming to the end of the exhibition, you encounter two plywood-backed resin panels, one propped against the wall, facing forward, the other lying facedown on the floor at an angle, as if it’s just fallen over. It seems like an accident, since it’s an anomaly in the show—but the arrangement is Caesar’s intention; the facedown work is actually face-up. On one hand it’s an act of exposure, granting the plain wooden support the same status as the material comprising the more detailed flip-side—and why not, since it’s all material. On the other hand, the effect on the viewer is that the “real” surface is being concealed. That both circumstances are true make this simple gambit unexpectedly odd and clever.

In fact, a similar shifty, unpindownable quality suffuses the entire exhibition, which seems at first glance like a mere straightforward progression of Caesar’s practice, offering up further iterations of resin and found-object sculptures. On one level it is that, but as the title, “Holding Station,” hints, it is also more, or maybe less. One wouldn’t know it without being tipped off or reading the press release, but it turns out that Caesar, who was included in the 2008 California Biennial and the 2008 Whitney Biennial, conceived the show as a sort of connector node branching out to his other works, with some of the sculptures in the exhibition created from “shells” of previous works or made of “remnants” of other sculptures also contained in “Holding Station.” Even with this knowledge, though, it’s difficult to deduce specific connections; the extent of the links, the big picture, must be known only to the artist. As with the obscured objects embedded in resin, here again Caesar provides all the pieces, but the prospect of reconstitution lies just beyond reach.

Mark Dutcher

Mark Dutcher at Steve Turner Contemporary
February 14 to March 21, 2009

Originally published in Artweek 40.4

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“Havilah,” as Mark Dutcher titles his first solo exhibition at Steve Turner Contemporary, is the name of an unincorporated community in Kern County, California, a former mining center now a virtual ghost town, itself named after a Biblical land known for its gold deposits. Dutcher, who grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles, packs the show with such references to California’s social and cultural history, with four paintings and a sculpture taking titles from similarly collapsed Central Valley boom towns: Lost Hills, Arvin, Boron, Shafter. Containing fat squeezes of brilliantly colored paint, horizontal squiggles that refer loosely to the region’s desolate, bumpy landscape, the town-titled painting exude the rich, mineral scent of still-wet oil paint, as if offering a ghostly whiff of underground treasure. In contrast to the locations themselves, which most would see as lonely and barren, the paintings are vibrant, dense, gleaming and vivid. Perhaps they are inversions, or perhaps they faithfully represent the energy Dutcher finds in these out-of-the-way places, which, if poor in present population, are rich in past lives and narratives.

Other works in “Havilah” recall more recent aspects of the state’s past. “Sylvester (Do You Wanna Funk?)” (all works 2008), a giant X-shape decked with a rainbow of paint and a thicket of colored feathers, refers to the drag queen known as “the Queen of Disco,” a Los Angeles native who once said, “My life started when I moved to San Francisco..” “The Raiders,” a large silver-encrusted painting with a saw-toothed edge coated in glossy black, borrows colors from the Oakland football team—but of course, in light of Dutcher’s myriad references to California history, the title also calls to mind the act of mining, as well as skirmishes between settlers and Native Americans. Feathers, that automatic symbol for Native Americans, figure in other works, too, including “Three Men,” a sculpture that reads like a three-dimensional version of a Philip Guston painting, with twin pink balloon forms resembling feet, and a blocky “body.”

Considering how Dutcher delights in symbolism, how he traverses the edges of abstraction and representation, it’s no surprise to learn that Guston has been a formative influence on his practice. For while Dutcher’s paintings and sculptures possess surprising compositions and electric color combinations, and can work as pure abstractions, they are above all symbolic, suffused with signifiers that range from cryptic to obvious. His earlier work frequently contained floating images of everyday objects, often depicted with a deliberate naiveté, a paucity of definition, just enough for the brain to make the connection with reality. One memorable motif was the rag rug, which, because it is woven from discarded clothing of people who might no longer be living, Dutcher envisioned as a portal to the afterlife. This type of metaphor, poignant, strange, and magical, abounds in Dutcher’s work, and helps explain why he’s one of the most interesting painters working today in California.

“Havilah” finds Dutcher’s symbols coalescing into the X-shape, a kind of uber-symbol that works as a gesture of both discovery and erasure. “X” is a crossed-out idea, but it’s also a trope of treasure maps, as in “X” marks the spot. The large, gold, glitter-encrusted “X” forming the centerpiece of “Total Eclipse,” for example, calls to mind a prospector shouting eureka. “X” is also the shape of a disco dancer, legs spread and arms in the air—a fitting form for an homage to Sylvester. And, of course, “X” is shorthand for expiration, for death, “X”s in the eyes being cartoon language for a corpse. Dutcher’s work, in fact, for all its exuberance and unrestrained delight in texture, color, and form, quite often meditates on loss and grief: he has made paintings of cabinets containing objects that memorialize lost friends, and his 2006 show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, “Gone,” was centered around imagery inspired by The Chapel of Chimes, a columbarium in Oakland. “Havilah” is no exception. Sylvester died a victim of the AIDS epidemic, and the Kern County towns, while not wiped from the map, are after all ghost towns, husks of the places they were at the height of the Gold Rush. What disco queens and boom towns have in common is an especially bright-burning period of life, which death only throws into relief. Life as a flame contained, but also intensified, by surrounding darkness; the cycle of creation and destruction; the interdependence of beauty and mortality—this might be well-traveled territory in art, but Dutcher’s work explores it brilliantly, with a sensibility that is unexpected, original, and poetic.


Oranges and Sardines

Oranges and Sardines: Conversations on Abstract Painting
UCLA Hammer Museum, November 9, 2008 – February 8, 2009

Originally published in ArtUS 26

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The idiosyncratic title of “Oranges and Sardines,” one of Gary Garrels’s parting exhibitions as Hammer chief curator, is derived from Frank O’Hara’s 1956 poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” in which O’Hara, who counted numerous abstract painters among his friends and was a curator at MoMA from 1960-66, muses on the mysterious black-box nature of the creative process. Inspiration goes in; work comes out; but the result often bears little resemblance to the initial idea. The similarly opaque relationship that can exist between artists and their influences provides “Oranges and Sardines” with its structure. Garrels offered individual galleries to six contemporary abstract painters—Mark Grotjahn, Wade Guyton, Mary Heilmann, Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl, and Christopher Wool—inviting each to install, alongside one or two of their own recent paintings, a handful of works by other artists having some formative influence on their practice. But the O’Hara poem provides a still more appropriate point of entry when you consider its context, the fact that it was penned at a time and place when abstract painting ruled the entire conversation. Where that conversation now stands, having been shushed to a near-whisper in the late 60s and early 70s and later crescendoing back to join the present cacophony, is the subject of Garrels’s intelligently unorthodox exhibition.

Most museum shows avoid the personal like quicksand. Curatorial predilection can never help entering the picture, but it’s played down to the public in favor of arguments for objective worth and academic importance. “Oranges and Sardines” embraces the personal, nodding back to an era when supporting an exhibition with a lot of theoretical scaffolding was largely unnecessary, before the curatorial studies discipline sprouted up in response to unruly, hard-to-categorize art, and when a poet with no official art historical training could rise to the upper ranks of MoMA. It’s impossible now to return to that climate, and there are many reasons why we wouldn’t want to, but its echo of reprise here makes for a refreshing departure.

Garrels chooses his six artists as if engineering a high-stakes dinner party—others could have been invited, but, aside from his partiality to these artists’ work and thought processes, he aims for meaningful conversation at the table by stretching the range of generations and approaches. Half, notably, are women. Five live in New York, but three of those spent formative time elsewhere that’s strongly reflected in their practice (Heilmann, California; von Heyl, Germany; Sillman, Chicago)—and New York, while not the only hub for abstract painting, remains the largest. At one end of the spectrum you have Sillman, a mid-career die-hard painter who harbors no apparent anxiety about the status or importance of her medium, who exhibits total commitment to color, gesture, and the physical properties of paint, who works with what one imagines as tempestuous intensity, swirling fragments of narrative and crooked body parts into her canvases. At the other you have Wade Guyton, the youngest artist at 36, who’s only marginally a painter and then almost by accident; he just happens to work on panels of linen run through an ink-jet printer, and the printouts happen to hang on the wall. Guyton’s work is important for the purposes of this exhibition because, rather than deconstruct painting as at first glance it appears to do (and would be doing, if this were the 70s or even the 90s), it moves, if anything, in the opposite direction, as if attempting to reassemble painting from the scrapheap of conceptual art. Educated on a steady diet of post-studio conceptualism, Guyton arrives at painting via a back route, like a thief or just a wanderer. In between, you have Heilmann, a painter who started out as a West Coast ceramicist and sculptor and still dabbles in craft, and who, as a young artist in the late 60s, gleefully put herself through the wringer in New York, provoking anti-painters like Robert Smithson into arguments. Wool, who’s migrated from his conceptual, text-based paintings of the 1980s and 90s toward something approaching gestural abstraction; Grotjahn, an LA artist whose images of shifting, wheeling vanishing points shows there’s still new ground to be broken in abstraction; and von Heyl, who works in the bold, heated, intellectually rigorous tradition of German abstraction—her “Big Nobodaddy” 2008, wants to grip you with tentacles, and does—round out the list.

Governed as they are by personal taste and life events, the contents of the self-curated galleries are eclectic, though Garrels worked with each artist to refine and narrow selections. Painting and drawing dominate, followed by sculpture; there is no purely conceptual work, no film or video, and only one photograph—a quirky, funny Warhol in Guyton’s room, “Hammer and Sickle” (c. 1976-77), a still life with hammer, sickle and slice of pizza. In fact, the only painting Guyton includes is a minimal, airy work by Martin Barré, “67-Z-16-86 X 70” (1977), consisting of a few stripes of black spraypaint on white canvas. Sillman’s gallery focuses, characteristically, on more painterly affinities: paintings by Howard Hodgkin, Lee Krasner, and Forrest Bess key in to her palette, which tends toward offbeat fleshtones and phosphorescent oranges, pinks, and greens. As in her painting “U.S. of Alice the Goon” (2008), crumpled, broken forms proliferate and shapes seem to tussle—an irregularly cut painting by Juan Mele, “Irregular Frame No. 2” (1946), kicks at its contours like a feisty animal. Her room also contains the most examples of figurative painting, including “Sleeping” (1977), a late work by Philip Guston, the only artist to show up in two different galleries. An earlier painting, “North” (1961-62), occupying a shadow realm between figuration and abstraction, its black forms largely ghosted out with white paint but still projecting a vague anthropomorphism, is chosen by Wool. This double-bill could hardly be more apt, not only because Guston spanned the divide between representation and abstraction, but because he did so when moving from abstract to figurative work was backward, significant and dangerous—whereas now the perceived chasm between the two is all but closed up, and artists routinely shuttle back and forth across it.

In overall effect, Grotjahn’s gallery is probably the least appealing; with eleven works, it feels crowded, and might have breathed better and felt more cohesive had he cut one of the two Paul Klee paintings and the Clyfford Still. But then, as the only example of hardcore New York school abstraction in the show other than Ad Reinhardt, maybe Still’s clunky, crotchety presence is necessary. On the other hand, Grotjahn’s room houses some of the exhibition’s most sublime individual works: a Josef Albers, “Homage to the Square: Confident” (1954), in puckering hues of orange, blue, and yellow; the Reinhardt, “Red Painting” (1953), a patchwork of silky apple reds; and, pièce de resistance, a Yayoi Kusama net painting, “No. T.W.3.” (1961), a dense web of white lines painted over a dark background, giving the appearance of thousands of overlapping snow owl feathers—three paintings that illuminate something about Grotjahn’s sensibility for color and texture. Meanwhile, the rooms curated by von Heyl and Heilmann yield a few surprises: we learn that the only work by another artist von Heyl keeps in her studio is a tiny, weird Paul Thek, an anti-monumental painting in shaggy turquoise acrylic containing the grandiose but numbing statement “God Is” (1998). Heilmann serves up a Francis Bacon, “Figure with Two Owls, Study for Velazquez” (1963), a seemingly left-field choice that makes some sense when she reveals that the influence lies in the structure rather than the content of Bacon’s images. There’s also a Joseph Beuys suit, “Filzanzug (Felt Suit)” (1970), which nobody ever would have associated with her, but which seems meant to point at some darkness in her work that her audience tends to overlook.

If “Oranges and Sardines” sets out to explore the question of where abstract painting stands today, it doesn’t arrive at a pat answer. With its cyclorama of diverse, viable approaches, it essentially reaffirms what we knew already: abstract painting, like other modes, stands in many places simultaneously, and the distinction between abstract and figurative painting matters far less than it did historically. Wade Guyton may come at abstract painting obliquely, but many other young artists engage it straightforwardly. Painting—representational, abstract, and hybrid—continues to flow from artists right out of school. Still, as a well-worn field, abstract painting benefits from occasional exhibitions like this one that insist on its relevancy. “Oranges and Sardines” is also significant for its curatorial model: such out-of-the-box exhibitions often put art in the service of illustrating a theme, in a manner that rarely enlightens either the theme or the art. As an innovative curatorial endeavor that doesn’t compromise the integrity of artworks, delves into the personal without indulging in cheap psychology, treats autobiographies as winding narratives rather than as stories to be neatly packaged, provides rich context around the exhibition in the form of actual conversations (a roundtable and printed interviews), and encourages viewers to look closely in ways that may be unfamiliar, it echoes the aim of good art: to challenge its audience as a matter of mutual respect.

Martin Kippenberger

Martin Kippenberger: “The Problem Perspective”
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles CA
September 21, 2008 – January 5, 2009

Originally published in ArtUS 24

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In 1997, shortly after Martin Kippenberger’s early death at age 44, Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times: “Kippenberger’s refusal to settle, his determination to keep on moving regardless of the odds, may cost him a permanent place in history, and I say this thinking that he is one of the three or four best German artists of the postwar period.” While his historical importance has since seemed to solidify, it has taken more than a decade for Kippenberger to get a large-scale U.S. retrospective. Organized by MOCA’s Ann Goldstein, “Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective” comprises 250 works covering the entire 20-year span of his practice, which ranged from painting, sculpture, performance art, installation, and photography, to music, curatorial work, books, and even a stake in an L.A. restaurant. For Kippenberger, self is art and art is self, so the idea of editing down one’s work, of showing the world only one’s most successful efforts, was as wrongheaded as refusing to go outside unless one was in the best possible mood. In principle, he believed in acting on every idea and leaving it to others to sort out the value of the results, keenly aware that the worth of art, in a critical sense as well as a monetary one, is always relative.

The amount of work in the MOCA exhibition is sufficiently overwhelming, representing lesser-known works as well as all of Kippenberger’s major series, from the 1980s Peter sculptures to the Die I.N.P. Bilder (The Is-Not-Embarrassing Paintings, 1984); to the Lieber Maler, male mir (Dear Painter, Paint for Me, 1981) series in which Kippenberger commissioned a commercial sign painter to render images in a slick, realistic style; to dozens of drawings made on the hotel stationery Kippenberger collected during his frequent, extensive travels; to the renowned self-portraits depicting the artist in hiked-up underwear resembling those worn by Picasso in a studio photograph; to the late series Das Floss der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa, 1996), which riffs on the well-known 1819 Géricault painting; to the sprawling, hyper-detailed installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” (1994). Housed at the Geffen Contemporary, the latter is a veritable masterpiece comprising dozens of “interview” stations, inspired by a scene in Kafka’s unfinished 1927 novel. Laid out on a floor painted like a soccer field, it includes repurposed Peter sculptures among its bizarrely mismatched examples of furniture—a big plastic egg yolk on a pedestal, a high chair, a wicker swing, industrial desks, café chairs. It exudes a haunted, sinisterly playful, and somehow tragic aura that exactly captures Kafka’s dark, absurd scenarios and fascination with labyrinthine rules.

Kippenberger was almost pathologically social as an artist, a quality that is responsible for much of his work’s intrigue, even if it has a downside. Predictably, works that consist mainly of a web of references, many of them obscure or based on anecdotes known chiefly to Kippenberger and his inner circle of assistants, friends, and colleagues, are difficult to parse and don’t make much impact beyond their aesthetic strangeness—though that strangeness can sometimes be delightful. A number of the Peter sculptures, for example, fall into this category. From a contemporary standpoint, they seem less like realized artworks and more like artifacts of Kippenberger’s collaborative, spontaneous, discursive method of working.

By contrast, pieces that incorporate some universal element, notably pathos—the hotel stationary drawings, The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika,” the painted and sculptural self-portraits, the Dear Painter, Paint for Me and 1980s No Problem series, among others—provide an opening and are more readable, and thus usually more likable, though it should be noted that with Kippenberger, pathos is often at least part phony, or, more accurately, simultaneously insincere and sincere. Lying at the opposite end of the spectrum from the more abstruse “Peter” sculptures and conceptual paintings are his Raft of the Medusa series and the unappealing, pointed Zuerst die Füsse (First the Feet, 1990) sculpture, depicting the artist as a frog on a cross—which are steeped in pathos in whatever dubious form.

Kippenberger’s range of tone is striking. Few artists can be said to swing between conceptual and expressionist, even Romantic poles to such a degree. Of the many boundary crossings Kippenberger made in his life, this is among the most peculiar and daring. It makes more sense, however, when you consider that at his core, Kippenberger was concerned with what it meant to be an artist in the real world, with reconciling to the fact that art making is, on the one hand, an embarrassing, humiliating enterprise demanding self-exposure, and on the other, a lofty, honorable one concerned with exposing large-scale truths.

It’s a question that has always plagued artists: Are you being serious, or not? The answer, Kippenberger knew, changes constantly, and depends almost entirely on one’s perspective.

Allan Kaprow

Allan Kaprow by Katherine Satorius
MOCA, Los Angeles CA
March 23 – June 30, 2008

Originally published in ArtUS 23

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“Art as Life,” a retrospective of Allan Kaprow’s work, which debuted in a different iteration at Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, originated in 2004, two years before Kaprow’s death, when curators Stephanie Rosenthal (Munich) and Eva Meyer-Hermann (Eindhoven) visited the artist in hopes of collaborating with him on the project. As Rosenthal relates in her catalogue essay, “His eyes gleaming like diamonds, Kaprow [said]: ‘Here’s the problem: I don’t want a show!’ This statement was wholly at odds with the fact that he had invited us to visit him and had already expressed his interest, in principle, in an exhibition of his work. […] At one point he said, ‘I don’t know what I want.’ And when we asked, ‘Do you want the public to understand?’ he responded, flatly, ‘No.’” The next day, Kaprow let on that he had confused them on purpose: “[He] wanted to sustain a state of confusion—a situation in which everything is still completely open—for as long as possible.”

The resulting retrospective, on which Kaprow did collaborate, has two faces: “Museum as Mediation” and “Agency for Action.” MOCA installed the museum leg in the Geffen Contemporary’s side gallery, in which the absence of white walls and open plan nicely suits the exhibition—or “presentation,” as Kaprow insisted it be called. Kaprow’s early assemblage paintings hang on the back wall, firmly in the traditional art camp: precursors to the 3-D environments that begat happenings (and later, “activities”), their value is mostly historical. Running down the installation’s center aisle are a series of environments reinterpreted by other artists, including “Apple Shrine” (1960) via John Baldessari and Skylar Haskard; “Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hoffmann” (1963) via Barbara T. Smith; and “Words” (1962) via Allen Ruppersberg. While these homages don’t do much to illuminate the original Kaprow works, they serve other important functions, lending the installation a needed playful streak, engaging visitors’ senses, and riding the line between non-art and art—that borderland central to Kaprow’s practice. Video footage of original happenings and activities plays along the opposite wall while, in another interactive gesture, a row of overhead projectors can be loaded with documentary photo transparencies chosen by visitors. Finally, a long row of glass-topped tables containing Kaprow’s notes, diagrams, letters, sketches, scores for happenings, and other ephemera runs down the gallery. It forms the installation’s real artery.

Kaprow was a gifted writer, and writing played a crucial role in his practice even beyond his influential theoretical essays. Many of his scores—particularly those for more elaborate happenings of the 1960s and early ’70s such as “Sweeping” (1962), “Service for the Dead II” (1962), “Orange” (1964), and “Calling” (1965)—have a literary quality. However, the scores cannot be understood as literature, or even as conceptual artworks. While Kaprow’s lucid descriptions allow a partial realization of his happenings in a reader’s imagination, their critical element is time, coupled with participants’ actions, reactions, and reflections. Reading the scores alone, it’s difficult to appreciate the tonal shifts of Kaprow’s work, from moments of exuberance, to plateaus of boredom, to episodes approaching torture. Melting an ice cube between your forehead and another person’s forehead–to take an example from “Warm-Ups” (1975), an activity from Kaprow’s later, more intimate period–sounds romantic on the page, but in life (I tried it) it’s excruciating and leaves a welt. The happenings also have a musical quality reflecting the influence of John Cage, with whom Kaprow had studied, and which only reveals itself through performance. Hence the need for the other exhibition leg, “Agency for Action,” in which reinventions (not “reenactments,” as Kaprow was careful to stipulate), occur around the city, organized by MOCA and a range of participating institutions.

As Rosenthal tells it, Kaprow struggled with the prospect of relinquishing control over his work in this way because it forced him to confront his mortality. Along with this, he must have wrestled with the idea that reinvented happenings might only be watered-down versions of artworks, if they would be artworks in their own right at all, and—since this type of slippage was central to his work—whether that possibility didn’t represent a desirable outcome. “Art as Life” doesn’t resolve any of this. As was Kaprow’s wish, the confusion whipped up by his “art which can’t be art” (as he titled a 1986 essay) remains intact, which if nothing else should ensure its survival. After all, Kaprow’s strongest legacy is found not in an art world that rejects objecthood and its trappings—today’s doesn’t—but in the revision and expansion of the curatorial discipline, which relies on rising to the challenges posed by exhibition-resistant work just as Kaprow’s work depended largely on a resistance to institutionalized art. If the very act of presenting his art as he wished means the museum has been defanged, which in turn has something of the same effect on his work, then that illustrates another of the many paradoxes that were vital to his practice.

Ari Marcopoulos

Ari Marcopoulos at MC Kunst
“The Chance is Higher”
November 3, 2007-January 12, 2008

Originally published in Artweek 39.1

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In the decades since he worked as an assistant at Warhol’s Factory, Ari Marcopoulos has developed a prolific photography practice that blends personal, artistic and commercial pursuits. He has shot Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Beastie Boys, and hip-hop artists like Run D.M.C.; snowboarders and skateboarders; fashion spreads for magazines; and ad campaigns for high-end clients like Hugo Boss. He has also turned his lens on his personal surroundings, especially on his family members—his wife, Jennifer Goode, and his sons Ethan and Cairo—in the tradition of photographers like Lee Friedlander and Sally Mann (though Marcopoulos’s intimate images, unlike Mann’s, tend not to be sexualized).

Most of the twelve works included in The Chance is Higher—ten large-scale black-and-white photocopies of photographs as well as two short videos—depict what might be called unvarnished slices of life: In “Ethan” (2007), the artist’s just-born son, his umbilical cord still attached, opens his mouth to cry. “Thomas” (2007) shows a man spray-painting jagged lines on a wall. In “Untitled (Cairo)” (2007), a lone child’s leg dangles into the frame, the shin marked with small scabs, while spatters of blood and a used band-aid collect at the bottom of a sink in “Drain” (2007). “Dressage” (2007), a video, shows a teenage boy (Cairo) walking into what is presumably his dad’s studio, sitting to face the camera, and ranting about injustice like only a teenager can; a horned papier-mâché head situated behind the chair turns him into a little devil. The other video, “Eero Loop” (2004), zooms slowly in on a younger boy’s black eye. And in “Diary” (2007), an open journal contains vitriolic poetry (“While you sleep / I snuck in your bed / Hacked off your head”) penned in a rounded, youthful-looking script. Other images are less gritty: “Jennifer” (2007) is a nude paused in a doorway, her face mostly hidden by a crown of huge hibiscus blossoms. “Hokkaido” (2007) shows a wave crashing against a rock off the Japanese coast.

But all of the works in the exhibition are shot through with a similar strand of beauty—an effect of the often gorgeous quality of light (in “Cairo” (2007), for instance, a close portrait, the boy’s pensive face practically glows white)—but mainly of something in the captured moments themselves. The scrapes and bruises depicted in several of the images are minor; they document injury, but mostly they’re evidence of a young person’s profound engagement with the world. In “Angel” (2007), a young man with a nasty bruise on his back stands (or maybe lies) with his arms over his head in a pose that looks almost worshipful, his white baseball cap blending into the bright white background. You don’t pity him for his wound—you admire, or envy, his air of sublime transcendence.

By presenting large photocopies of his photographs rather than glossy prints, Marcopoulos keys up their beauty still higher, even as he makes them grittier and grainier. Borrowing the aesthetic of punk-show fliers and other DIY printed matter, the resulting works have a certain underground aura, even an urgency. The high contrast of Xerox ink intensifies the effects of light at work in each image, so that most areas are either utterly luminous or heavily shadowed. The texture of the surfaces, meanwhile, is soft, nearly velvety. It’s a case of form ideally suited to content: life’s unvarnished moments treated with an equally pedestrian—but also, in its way, edgy—medium. There’s nothing new about locating beauty in the mundane, or the unpleasant, or the dirty, or the raw, but as The Chance is Higher demonstrates, Marcopoulos has a particular genius for it.

Tom Sachs

Tom Sachs by Katherine Satorius
Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills CA
September 8 – October 13, 2007

Originally published in ArtUS 21

Declaring the moon landing “the art project of the twentieth century,” Tom Sachs assembles for his first Gagosian show a handmade, re-imagined version of the Apollo 11 mission using foam core, wood, flatscreen TVs, a nitrogen tank, a scissor lift, a refrigerator, fans, ladders, vodka, propane canisters, lab coats, and countless other materials—an itemized list would fill pages. Included in “Space Program” are a full-scale lunar module complete with toilet, sleeping nook, reading material, stereo system, and a Jack Daniels-stocked bar; a three-layer spacesuit brilliantly crafted out of Tyvek, long underwear, tubing, a snowsuit, and yellow rubber boot inserts produced by Nike; several scaled-down, functioning dioramas depicting various stages in the sequence of historical events; and a mission control station represented by a metal desk beneath a grid of thirty-odd monitors, each linked to a camera trained on a different point of the installation. All of these elements are both prop and sculpture: prior to the show’s public opening, Sachs and team performed a rendition of the landing from start to finish, beginning with liftoff and culminating in the collection of “moon rock” samples (actually, chunks of concrete mined from a hole drilled in Gagosian’s floor) as the scenes unfolded on the control room’s bank of screens. Most of these props were deactivated during the actual exhibition period, but the incredible level of detail, the sheer technical genius of the assemblage, the surprises and moments of humor that seem to crop up at every turn—the earth image displayed on the control room monitors that is really a beach ball hanging from the ceiling of the LEM, the L.L. Bean tag visible on the spacesuit’s underlayer—made exploring the installation an enthralling, immersive experience all the same.

“Space Program” is nothing less than a dazzling spectacle, a virtuoso display of bricollage. But is it anything more? While much contemporary art is spun around ideas, carefully defining and preserving reservoirs of conceptual space for viewers to tap, Sachs’s work lacks this porous quality: it begins and ends with matter. This makes the work hard to connect with in the usual way—you can marvel at its construction, admire its intricate surfaces, but it resists contemplation. To be sure, the installation links up to a world of associations—the idea of a “faked” moon landing; man’s quest to extend the boundaries of knowledge; the alchemical power of branding (a favorite theme of Sachs’s, which here assumes the form of a handmade, wall-filling NASA logo). But all of this ultimately seems collateral. More than anything else, the whole moon landing conceit serves as a handy armature around which to assemble materials. The artistry of NASA, which values function infinitely more than visual elegance–and recently even enlisted America’s basement tinkers to redesign a problematic space glove—is a natural fit for Sachs’s DIY aesthetic, which flaunts seams, wires, and other evidence of construction. A replica or model on a monumental scale, “Space Program” is on one level a vastly more elaborate version of Warhol’s 1964 “Brillo Box”—but, of course, coming four decades later, it lacks that work’s philosophical force.

In his work, Sachs makes a rather impassioned case for the concrete, reasserting the primacy, in art, of physical form over abstract ideas. In fact, the entire installation can be read as an ode to matter, such that the stand-in moon rocks enshrined in a glass case at the far corner of the second-floor gallery, where the exhibition culminates, represent little more than the artist’s fantasy about actually laying his hands on one of the most otherworldly materials humankind has ever found. But brilliant form and brilliant content aren’t mutually exclusive: great art has both, even when the form is intentionally formless. You might consider his active eschewing of a navigable conceptual loop—in effect, a challenge to the currently accepted model of art—as a radical concept, if you wanted to tie yourself in knots. But that might be attributing too much to Sachs, and missing the point for an artist who adores the act of collecting, manipulating, and repurposing matter for its own sake.

Eden’s Edge

“Eden’s Edge” by Katherine Satorius
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles CA
May 13 – September 2, 2007

Originally published in ArtUS 20

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Moving through “Eden’s Edge: Fifteen L.A. Artists,” Gary Garrels’s meticulously composed, densely layered curatorial debut at the Hammer, feels very much like winding through an artfully overgrown garden, with vegetation deliberately selected and planted but finally allowed to proliferate and intertwine at will. Each of the 15 L.A.-area artists, represented by a modest but round sampling of work, occupies a separate plot, a mini-gallery large enough to host a self-contained ecosystem but not so large that it obscures the broader landscape—which, in general, is characterized by organic, figurative, beautiful, physical, warm, hedonistic, and snarled affects, to near-total exclusion of hard-edged, unadorned, removed, cool, solemn, or clean ones. While “Eden’s Edge” is meant to be a snapshot of the current L.A. art climate, it’s not intended as a definitive one—Garrels could have pointed his lens in any number of other directions and presented us with entirely different results, so diverse are the practices of the city’s many artists (though it would be hard to come up with an equally convincing opposite impression—it’s not as if the L.A. scene is perfectly diffuse). The art isn’t forced to converge or to serve as broader arguments: Garrels’s claim is simply that of all possible shots he could have framed at the time he set out to curate the show in 2005, this is the one he found most compelling.

“Eden’s Edge” progresses from the longest-practicing artists (Ken Price, Jim Shaw, Lari Pittman) to more recent arrivals on the scene (Anna Sew Hoy, Matt Greene, Elliot Hundley)—an elegant organizing principle that gives structure to the show in the absence of a rigid curatorial framework. Leading off with Ken Price’s lascivious yet childlike ceramic sculptures is an inspired move. There are many artists on whom Garrels might have chosen to stake an L.A.-themed exhibition—patriarchs like Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, or Ed Ruscha. But Price makes an unexpectedly ideal point of departure: the trajectory of his nearly 50-year-old practice exists largely outside the realm of art world trends—he doesn’t come trailing a pre-established lineage. His work, with its currents of shape-shifting, of sex, of near-decadent beauty, puts him on wavelength with most of the other artists in “Eden’s Edge,” while the throbbing colors of his sculptures set the stage for the saturated, vibrant palette that will pervade much of the exhibition.

One of the most delightful qualities of “Eden’s Edge” is the way its strands of recurring themes and motifs run through it like a network of veins. As you move through the show, echoes keep building—by the end, the 15 artists seem elaborately layered and intertwined. Tapping into the vein of sex, for example, are, in addition to Price’s sculptures, Monica Majoli’s eerie, transcendent watercolors of S&M submissives in rubber suits, which supply the show’s most tranquil moment; Matt Greene’s fairly trendy panoramic orgies featuring lingerie-clad women dwarfed by mushrooms; and the gorgeous tangle of neon words—“office,” “factotum,” “honeysuckle”—suspended from Jason Rhoades’s “Twelve-Wheel Waggon Wheel Chandelier” (2004), united by their undercover identities as slang for female genitalia. The exhibition is punctuated by other such moments of blinding beauty: Ginny Bishton’s collages, made from thousands of tiny color photograph bits, look like aerial views of spectacular, otherworldly flowerbeds; the hallucinogenic SoCal landscapes of Sharon Ellis are streaked with fluorescent clouds and pulse with stars; Rebecca Morales’s lavishly textured drawings on translucent calf vellum are as seductive as mossy grottos; Elliot Hundley’s ornate assemblages of cut photographs, fake flowers, string, and myriad other materials are like playgrounds for the eyes; and Larry Pittman’s relentlessly layered paintings, seeming to compress slices of space and time, are beautifully filigreed with fine, graphic lines as if to keep the incredible mass of painted matter (toilets, keys, plastic lawn chairs, cell phones, human figures, blueprints) from crashing out of the picture plane. The thread of lucid visions and dream narratives, introduced by the work of Jim Shaw (his ongoing “Dream Object (Paperback Cover)” series depicts scenes so thrillingly weird that for a short while afterward, everything else seems leaden in comparison) gets picked up again with Liz Craft’s “Death Rider (Virgo)” (2002), a tour-de-force bronze of a grinning skeleton astride a motorcycle made of plant matter. A bronze “Ballad of the Hippie” (2003) sits cross-legged nearby, as if experiencing the vision. Surreal narrative permeates the video work of Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, as Kahn, outfitted in a slapdash Viking costume, wanders the no-man’s-lands of L.A. casually recounting gruesome tales of death and hell to her anonymous videographer (“Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out,” 2006).

Just as in a real Eden, plant and animal life abound in the galleries: mushrooms, spider webs, flora, and vines are all recurring motifs. Intensive craft is likewise prevalent, from Hundley’s constructions to the (partially) ceramic sculptures of Anna Sew Hoy, which, while hearkening back to Price’s ceramic works, are reminiscent of objects associated with backwoods hippie outposts (dream catchers, Scholars’ Rocks, wind chimes) and bounce cleverly between decoration and functionality. Aside from Mark Bradford’s paintings, which incorporate actual street advertisements and provide one of the exhibition’s only instances of geometry and urban grit (his trademark patches of colored paper can resemble clusters of cars or buildings viewed from overhead), this is not the L.A. of concrete and freeways and shabby strip malls. It’s the one that exists underneath the pavement and creeps around it, that springs from unkempt backyards and spreads up the hills. It’s a primordial world, or maybe a post-human one: a work by Larry Bell or Robert Irwin in this context would seem startling, at once futuristic and ancient. Beautiful and fecund as the work in “Eden’s Edge” may be, it does suffer at times from a slight twinge of self-satisfaction that isn’t entirely savory—symptomatic of a lack of urgency, perhaps, that might go hand-in-hand with the general absence here of anything like doubt or despair. But even those who are liable to resist the work in “Eden’s Edge,” and deride it as magic forest art, should find something to admire in the nearly impeccable craftsmanship of Garrels’s exhibition, which itself is a tightly conceived, intricately laced conceptual feat.