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.

Ryan Gander

Ryan Gander by Katherine Satorius
Marc Foxx, Los Angeles CA
November 18 – December 23, 2006

Originally published in ArtUS 17

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There was no clear point of entry into British artist Ryan Gander’s “Enough to Start Over,” his second solo show in the U.S. and his first in Los Angeles. Encountering it was like coming upon an inscrutable, impassive building whose interior emitted a seductive, maddening hum. Among the objects in the gallery were corkboards pinned with various papers; photographs of same; a passport photograph of Gander’s mother wearing earrings created by artist Jonathon Monk as part of Monk’s 2006 edition “To Tears”; colored tape affixed to the floor in a 1:1 scale rendering of Sherlock Holmes’s fictional living room; and an engraved Tiffany necklace placed in the corner as though discarded. Finally, there was “Cork room for the realization of a twelve-part TV series entitled ‘Appendix Appendix’ (A work in Progress) (2006)”—a small cork-paneled room in which Gander (who, at age 29, was included in this year’s Tate Triennial) sat busily collaborating with designer/writer Stuart Bailey on a script “firmly intended to be made and screened.” Perhaps 100 sheets of letter-size paper, each filled with text and/or small grayscale images, were tacked to the wall. One showed an imagined dialogue between Milan Kundera, Jane Austen, Günter Grass, Kazuo Ishiguro, and about twenty other writers, each of whom got exactly one line. Another featured a cameo by Nabokov scholar Alfred Appel, Jr. Still others had Gander and Bailey hashing out the production process itself.

The “appendix” belonging to the television project is Gander’s book of that title (Artimo, 2003), a work that seems central to his practice and on which he also collaborated with Bailey. A good part of the book is concerned with establishing unexpected links between real-life occurrences, people, and objects—a concept Gander also developed into an ongoing series of performative lectures titled “(Loose) Associations.” The version he performed at Culver City’s Mandrake Bar on November 21 was witty and engaging: in digressive, anti-Sherlockian fashion, he guided his audience on a meandering journey from point A—a discussion of “desire paths” in urban planning—to point B—“trauma lines” meant to direct traffic flow in hospitals—to point Z, a scene from Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” (2003) in which Cillian Murphy wanders a deserted London (while just off-screen, Gander pointed out, thousands of real-life drivers are furiously honking). Along the way he connected to everything from invented languages (Elvish and Klingon), the British TV show “Inspector Morse” and its star John Thaw, a historical tidbit concerning British longbows, and a lawsuit artist Gillian Wearing brought against Volkswagen.

If there was a central theme to this presentation, it had to do with the question of the separation between performance and reality, an idea that in Gander’s work has broad implications and applications. The distinction between the un-staged and staged can be extrapolated to include the distinction (or lack thereof) between the unconscious and conscious, and also between life and art. The passport photograph of Gander’s mother wearing Monk’s earrings (“Enough to start over,” 2006), for instance, can be seen as an effort to toe this line. In Monk’s original work the silver earrings—on their own, just jewelry—are attached to a small black-and-white photo of a boy, piercing his eyes so they read as tears. Gander acquired the piece and then had his mother wear the earrings as earrings while sitting for a pedestrian passport photo, later pinning it to the gallery wall. By snaking back and forth between what’s not considered art and what is, Gander also probes what it means to be an artist: Is it all a matter of knowing if and when to forge connections? Is the ideal artist essentially passive or active? If the secret to making good art lies in calibrating unconscious and conscious minds, what is the optimal balance? Only one thing seems clear: the mystery rests in how, and to what degree, relationships between ideas are constructed. Gander’s work may appear removed, but it’s really driving at the heart of the matter. Only this heart, unlike that of a Sherlock Holmes case, remains elusive.