California Dreaming

Los Angeles

Left: Artist Wolfgang Tillmans with dealer Shaun Caley Regen. Right: Dennis Szakacs, director of the Orange County Museum of Art, with patron Moira Kamgar. (All photos: Andrew Berardini)

THOUGH THE REST OF THE WORLD is in turmoil, Los Angeles still features the shimmering, if smog-tainted, veneer of implacability. Hollywood is depression proof; the sun never stops shining, entertainment endures. Or so I thought last Thursday as I walked into Wolfgang Tillmans’s opening at Regen Projects. There was genuine cheer, but also genuine pressure.

Tillmans’s latest series looks like much of his more recent materialist investigations into photography: Grainy snaps of intimate moments with friends are juxtaposed with Plexiglas and plywood tables displaying artifacts—like sketches of the artist’s imagination. Three quiet videos are also on display, one featuring a monumental Mercedes Benz sign revolving along to sentimental music, another depicting the gently quivering hair in a man’s armpit, like a soft-core version of a Fassbinder film. A boyish-looking Bret Easton Ellis passed by wearing a self-confident smile. I couldn’t help but feel the ghost of Ellis’s creation Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, the patron saint of the last Wall Street decade of decadence.

Aside from Los Angeles characters like Ellis and a grim John Taylor of Duran Duran (who broke into an easy smile at a crack about one local critic’s mustache), the crowd and the subsequent dinner eventually separated into several identifiable cliques: jet-set artists (Richard Hawkins, James Welling, Walead Beshty, and Tillmans), a curator’s cabal (jolly Russell Ferguson, dean of UCLA’s fine-arts program, and LACMA’s dashing Charlotte Cotton), and, of course, collectors, still looking bold and carefree.

Left: Artist Walead Beshty with dealer Erica Redling. Right: California Biennial curator Lauri Firstenberg with artist Tony Labat.

The chilled white wine and baked Alaskan salmon were delicious at Il Piccolino, and stealing glances at the handsome boys with bold, straight, white smiles and the glitter of diamonds on a dowager’s neck and listening to the guffaws of publishing magnate Benedikt Taschen at the center table, one could be convinced that everything might turn out all right after all. As I was leaving, I asked the unflappable Tillmans how he liked Los Angeles. “Such a Western city. It’s a thrill to be here.” He smiled down at me. “The throbbing traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard—it’s like people wanting to be alive.”

Would that traffic evoked such romantic feelings in all of us. I felt anything but sentimental the next afternoon, torpidly slugging down the freeway into Orange County, the heart of the housing bust, a grid of cinder-block walls obscuring an ocean of tract houses filled with armies of ardent Republicans. The local foreclosure rate is up 46 percent from last year, it’s ninety degrees, and the hills are on fire. But the show—in this case the 2008 California Biennial—must go on.

I arrived an hour late; thankfully, so did everyone else. At least I was in time for the opening speeches delivered by perpetually laid-back OCMA director Dennis Szakacs, very pregnant curator Lauri Firstenberg, and OCMA board member (and Deutsche Bank rep) Craig Wells. Wells’s was the usual boilerplate, though he did elicit a snicker or two when he characterized the biennial as a good place for the bank to add to its collection. The dinner was formally introduced by unshaven but otherwise dapper San Francisco–based artist Julio César Morales. He announced that the meal was not just a meal but a performance, which I instantly took to mean the food would be terrible. It was, though at least the concept was compelling, based as it was on Mexican general Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s final meal before he lost California to the United States.

Left: Artists Edgar Arceneaux and Shannon Ebner. Right: Artist Richard Hawkins.

The biennial is (quite literally) all over the place. A large swath of the fifty-three exhibiting artists and groups, including Margaret Honda, Aaron Sandnes, and Brenna Youngblood, don’t actually have work at or near the museum. Instead, their projects are spread across the state (and even beyond, dipping a toe into Tijuana). The show was organized according to a complex structure—students exhibit alongside their former teachers; the exhibition begins as a general portrait of California but then refocuses to feature younger artists who spread out across the state. It all left me a little flummoxed.

As soon as the clock struck 10 PM, the museum guards forcefully ushered us out, at which point a gaggle of artists headed over to a pool party at their hotel in Irvine. When I arrived, Los Angeles–based artist Jedediah Caesar handed me a lukewarm Modelo. Caesar’s work in the biennial unites the disparate elements of California in a single gesture. For the piece, he drove his truck throughout the state, collecting detritus along the highway to create a layer cake of garbage—stratum upon stratum of California pinecones, cigarette butts, and busted paper cups—inside the truck’s bed and cab. I asked Caesar whether he had come to any grand conclusions about California during his thirty-five-hundred-mile adventure. “Many,” he said, after a long pause. “California’s a much bigger place than you think.”

Left: Artist Dario Robleto, artist Shana Lutker, dealer Lucien Terras, and art historian Kris Paulsen. Right: Artists Andy and Ed Moses.

Left: Artists Jedediah Caesar and Kate Costello. Right: John Taylor of Duran Duran.

Left: Dealer David Quadrini. Right: Artists Justin Beal, Ruben Ochoa, and Patrick Hebert.

Left: Artists Zoe Crosher and Alex Klein. Right: Wolfgang Tillmans, UCLA dean of fine arts Russell Ferguson, and filmmaker Jane Weinstock.