A Bigger Splash

Domenick Ammirati on the Felix Art Fair

The Hotel Roosevelt’s Hockney-muraled pool. All photos by author.

AMONG THE MANY PROBLEMS the United States finds itself confronting in the summer of 2021 is a shortage of chlorine for its swimming pools. This shortage is not, as you might guess, because of ongoing hygiene theater or because you can cure Covid by injecting yourself with bleach. Rather it results from the (accidental) detonation one year ago of a chemical plant in Louisiana that produces half the US supply of chlorine tablets. Despite some workarounds, the explosion put a crimp in the sanitizing pipeline.

Los Angeles is a town smitten with swimming pools, absolutely nuts for them. During the three weeks I spent there, it seemed like every social event took place in or around one. Instagram’s location tracking made sure I started to see plenty of swimsuits in my timeline. That was fine. When I revealed to acquaintances that the place where I was staying had a pool, they immediately started trying to cadge invites. Meanwhile, the yeoman pool owner was forced to grapple with the soaring cost of keeping their concrete oasis giardia-free. Paranoia slithered through the pool-based community: It was rumored that the local pool-minders had begun shorting their weekly chlorine dumps. On July 14, both the Los Angeles Times and the local CBS affiliate ran stories on the chlorine gap. The wet center was not holding.

On July 15, Los Angeles County announced that it would reimpose its indoor mask mandate as, in another concerning development, the Delta variant surged around the country. In the week leading up to the Felix Art Fair, which opened on July 29, the county’s infection rate increased 38 percent. It appeared, then, that the fair’s timing could not have been worse. (In the New York art world, the Armory Show of February 2020 is oft-discussed, less than half-jokingly, as a superspreader event.) In a way, however, the LA fair couldn’t have come at a better moment. The local art community was in need of a morale boost; I heard it from them myself, and with the buy-in something like an eighth of what it would be for Basel or Miami, it was a low-stakes way for galleries to turn a very welcome profit. To get in the door at Felix, management insisted you present a vax card or a negative test, and masks were required indoors. So they were doing everything they could. Beyond that, we would only be hanging out with each other, right? It would be fine. We, the liberal elites, were the responsible ones, but now we wanted to relax a little. Can you not, Fate, let a bitch live?

Felix’s organizers moved hotel beds onto patios. This one is surrounded by cartons of Boxed Water, a key sponsor of the fair.

You may be unsurprised to learn that Felix took place around a swimming pool, the large, diamond-colored, palm-tree-flanked one at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, its bottom patterned with what look like blue macaroni. (No one told me the design was by David Hockney, painter laureate of natatoria.) The twenty-nine rooms qua booths of the fair located on its perimeter had dual entrances, one through a brick corridor and one through a privacy hedge. The beds had all been removed to the patios. It felt odd and a little dreamlike to glide past dozens of sunbathers into a dim, leather-and-marble-appointed room hung with scribbly abstractions, into a hallway as foreboding as a middle school’s, back into another dark-grained suite that sported a mock missile and a black velvet Daffy Duck with piano-key teeth. Then you would squeeze out through the bushes, put on your sunglasses, take off your mask, and breathe deep for a little while. Then you would start all over again.

Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers)’s Re: Bound 9 (After Kanye). A joey grows in Arnhemland. Yirrkala potions in our hand. A survey for our enemy., 2021.

Naturally some of the art on view indexed the present circumstances, for instance Jonny Negron’s painting of a purple hand clutching a vax card at Château Shatto. There were lots of aquatic themes: a vaguely Fischl-y poolscape by Jonathan Wateridge that Nino Mier Gallery boldly yet predictably hung on their patio, a Calvin Marcus fish lamp at Clearing, and so on. Blum & Poe even managed to get one of Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers)’s history-painting pastiches in on the act by ensuring that it featured a body of water. But the single most striking piece was the one we had all already seen, Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki’s 2 Lizards, 2020, at François Ghebaly. The episodic animation leavened the early days of the pandemic when we hunkered down with our sourdough starters and Tiger King and girded ourselves for death in the produce aisle, the nervous time when hygiene did not seem like theater. The Covid time-slip had turned it into something different. In the last, nihilistic days of July 2021, the talking geckos felt as current as a helmet from the trenches at Verdun.

Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki’s 2 Lizards, 2020, at François Ghebaly.

As for the socializing, Los Angeles did, to paraphrase Thom Andersen, play itself. I got to do the whole party-in-the-hills thing, where the fortunate stride through a tall gate into a wonderland with a breeze and an open bar and a spectacular view. And oh yes a swimming pool, deep enough to jump into from the top of a mansion’s double staircase. The Covid breakthrough threat stopped no one at the week’s many venues from tasting each other’s drinks and shouting into each other’s naked faces. Discussions of the Delta variant peppered my conversations before and after doing key bumps with a stranger (you know who you are; thanks!), before and after sharing a spliff with a couple of others. All this behavior was exceedingly dicey and felt so in the light of day.

Once I had learned the denominations of the local social currency, I did actually try to lure people into my host’s pool. In the end the only person who splashed through was fellow New York interloper Kaitlin Phillips, whose visit to the region seemed a kind of SoCal remake of The Swimmer, the booze-soaked, uber-’60s Technicolor freakshow, except starring a lithe Montanan publicist instead of Burt Lancaster. From the socials it appeared she was swimming her way across the hills and canyons of Los Angeles east of the 405. Her trip went well, it seemed. But in the movie things start out shimmering and end up with Lancaster banging on a locked door in the pouring rain.