Driving from West Hollywood to Culver City to Chinatown last Saturday night, I couldn’t help but think of Woody Allen’s brief but miserable Los Angeles sojourn in Annie Hall. Cruising in a convertible down a preternaturally clean, palm-tree-lined street, Allen, the perpetually miserable New Yorker, jibes, “The architecture’s really consistent isn’t it? French next to Spanish, next to Tudor, next to Japanese.” His offhand derision did capture the schizophrenia of the LA art tour on this unseasonably chilly winter night, which offered up mournful sound art, whimsical abstraction, punk polemics, playful Germans, and pistol-packing Aztec warriors.
I rushed across the windswept plaza of the bleak palace that houses the MoCA Pacific Design Center in an attempt to find what I’d heard was a rare live outing by Steve Roden. Nary a performance was found (I’d heard wrong), but I was greeted instead by Dark over Light Earth, the polymath artist’s latest sound work. Roden’s project, initiated by Tim Ivison, draws inspiration from the paintings on view in “MoCA’s Marc Rothkos.” I climbed the stairs into the galleries, where the dim lighting and dour color fields made the music sound like a cyber-requiem for a suicide. The thin crowd of collectors, hipsters, and architects hovering in the gallery appeared dutifully awed by the churchy atmosphere, though they still managed to talk business. A group of collectors hemmed and hawed about their inability to secure work by this artist or that, one plaintively lamenting, “In California, the art market is worse than the real estate.”
Leaving the associated talk midway, I trotted down to Regen Projects for the opening of John Bock’s show of objects and drawings. Another rumored performance came to naught (unless his repertoire now includes quietly sipping beer). But even without one of Bock’s trademark lectures, the show secured his reputation as a mad scientist, the drawings reading like makeshift plans for world domination, with endless digressions.
Back in the car, I shot south to Culver City, where at Blum & Poe, Chris Vasell’s quiet, abstract paintings hung like wallflowers on the edge of a party that hardly seemed to acknowledge their presence. Vasell’s color washes, like Roden’s sound piece, channel the ghost of Rothko, with the rich colors fading in and out like a failed séance. Around the corner at Anna Helwing, Mario Ybarra Jr.’s show had drawn the Chicano and Latin-American community, with artist Daniel Joseph Martinez and curators Bill Kelly and Rita Gonzalez coming out to support the inveterate jester. In the drawings, Aztec warriors in blue jeans battled with hydras and cholos, giant eagles swooped down on Mexican cowboys, and teenagers sported assault rifles in front of single-family homes. Ybarra seemed happily dazed with his own good luck, cruising the gallery quietly, a mischievous gleam in his eyes.
At the newly redesigned Lizabeth Oliveria, former Dead Kennedys frontman and onetime presidential candidate Jello Biafra’s high, nasal whine and political agitation played to the packed gallery crowd. The opening brought out the reclusive Raymond Pettibon, whom I just missed, but whose darkly comic narratives hung alongside work by Chris Johanson, Manuel Ocampo, and Erlea Maneros.
Narrowly avoiding another night spent at the Mandrake, our art scene’s newest watering hole, I cut out of Culver City and hopped on the freeway to Chinatown, where the galleries were open later and a planned after-party at the Mountain Bar had been the buzz everywhere I’d visited. I started at Jack Hanley, where Matthew Higgs had curated (with Creative Growth’s assistance) a show of drawings by Aurie Ramirez. It was curious to see the reserved Higgs, a couple of dressed-down collectors in tow, motioning to iridescent and simply rendered drawings of young girls performing fellatio. Down the street at Daniel Hug, the massive black-cloth revolving sculpture by German artist Florian Morlat morphed the gallery into an impromptu dance floor as dowagers in fox furs two-stepped out of its way.
When the security gates finally clanked shut along Chung King Road, the assembled revelers moved en masse to the Mountain Bar. In the dim red light, Los Super Elegantes lounged on pillowed divans, San Francisco–based curators Kate Fowle and Dominic Willsdon tipped pints of lager, and, on the dance floor, half the students from the Mountain School of Art gyrated onstage to Higgs’s DJ set. Although I still overheard comments perfectly resembling Woody Allen’s depictions of a culturally vacuous LA (“Right now it’s a notion, but I think I can get money to make it into a concept and later turn it into an idea”), I can’t remember going to a better party, and many commented on how it felt like the old Chinatown—before the economic boom made everyone suspicious, rapacious, and mean. The mixture I experienced all night supported Allen’s comment, though LA’s schizophrenia is as much a charm as a detriment. As I was leaving the Mountain, I caught up with publisher Benedikt Taschen, stuck in line behind a group of twentysomethings at the bar’s door. I asked him if he’d seen any good art, “Yes, I saw some good art,” he enunciated in his clean German accent. “But I had better Chinese food.”